What Are Safe & Healthy Cooking Oils?
If you’re using cooking oils in your kitchen, you need to learn what are the safe and healthy cooking oils and which ones you should avoid using.
Note: this post is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your healthcare provider for recommendations related to your individual situation.
What are cooking oils?
Cooking oils are, very simply, oils that you can use in cooking or baking. Cooking oil is most popularly used when roasting, sauteing, or pan-frying foods. It’s also often used in baking as a butter substitute. Cooking oils come in many different varieties and all are extracted from nuts/seeds, fruits or vegetables, or rendered from animals.
We’ve been eating fats in the form of animal organs/tissue and some fruits/vegetables and nuts/seeds since the advent of humanity. Oil made for cooking and consumption has been around for the past 8,000 years or so, with the introduction of olive oil. Along with olive oil, palm and coconut oil (first seen around 6,000 years ago) were highly prized in trading. Soybean oil was first introduced only around 1,000 years ago in parts of Japan and China and was not widely traded due to its fragility.
Cooking oils underwent a change in manufacturing in the late 1800s with the creation of hexane extraction. This made oils less likely to go rancid and allowed for increased manufacturing and trading, but also increased their processing and refinement. In recent history, industrial oils have become increasingly refined, bleached, and deodorized.
Cooking oils are a great way to add flavor and fat to food. However, be selective about the oils you choose to consume. It’s important to know how the oil was made. So, quality matters, as does the type of oil you use.
What makes an oil safe?
One of the most important factors when choosing a cooking oil is its smoking point, otherwise known as at what temperature the oil will begin to smoke. Due to their chemical make-up and refinement, different oils will have different thresholds for surviving heat. At an oil’s smoking point, free fatty-acid production increases dangerously.
Be sure to choose your cooking oil based upon the temperature you’ll be using in cooking. You can find a reference guide for oil smoking temperatures, but keep in mind that opinions differ on smoke points. Use discretion when cooking to determine if your oil has crossed the threshold. If your oil is smoking excessively, smells bad, and tastes burnt, dispose of it and start again with a lower heat or a different oil.
Saturated Fats Versus Unsaturated Fats
Saturated fats are generally the safest to cook with due to their stability. The hydrocarbon tail of saturated fat is simple and fully bonded, which makes them solid at room temperature and more stable. Most saturated fats have a smoke point of 250-450 degrees Fahrenheit, making them suitable for sauteing, baking, and roasting.
There are also plenty of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils suitable for cooking. When choosing an unsaturated fat for cooking, consider the refinement and extraction process. Cold-pressed and unrefined oils retain more nutrients and polyphenols, but are more fragile than their refined and expeller-pressed counterparts. In general, choose refined oils for high-heat cooking (425-575 degrees Fahrenheit) and leave unrefined and cold-pressed oils for lower-heat baking, cooking, and sauteing (200-400 degrees Fahrenheit).
When choosing a cooking oil, you also want to consider the nutritional benefits of the oil. It’s a good idea to vary your cooking oils so you increase and diversify your nutrient intake. Cook with a variety of saturated and unsaturated fats, and try to include more oils with an optimal omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio. Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and are consumed far less than omega-6 fatty acids in our modern American diets. As a rule of thumb, polyunsaturated cooking oils offer far more omega-6 fatty acids than saturated cooking oils from pasture-raised animals.
The Safest Oils to Use for Cooking
1. Avocado Oil
2. Coconut Oil
Refined coconut oil is a neutral-tasting oil that can be used in high-heat cooking while still offering beneficial lauric acid and other medium-chain triglycerides. You can also use virgin coconut oil, but keep in mind that it has a lower smoking point and a coconut flavor (which makes it excellent for baked goods!). You can find coconut oil everywhere these days. This is a coconut oil I like.
3. Animal Fats
Rendered animal fats such as beef tallow, chicken schmaltz, duck fat, and lard are saturated fats that are heat stable. They lend a wonderful flavor to food and are safe for high-heat cooking. Epic makes a great duck fat.
4. Ghee and Butter
If you tolerate dairy, consider using butter and ghee as cooking oils. Even if you’re lactose-intolerant, you may want to try ghee, which contains almost no lactose. Both butter and ghee impart a rich flavor to foods. Because the milk solids are removed, ghee can be used for higher heat cooking than butter, which is best used for stovetop cooking. I use Ancient Organics brand of ghee. Grass-fed ghee is also a nice source of nutrition.
5. Palm Shortening
Palm shortening is very heat stable and has a neutral flavor. It is a favorite for baked goods and deep frying. Be sure to choose a sustainably-harvested option like this red palm oil from Nutiva that has the added benefit of being a nice source of vitamin E.
6. Olive Oil
Contrary to popular belief, olive oil withstands heat quite well. Even extra virgin olive oil can be used in cooking with little degradation or loss of nutrients. Olive oil is high in heart-healthy, antioxidant-rich oleic acid and polyphenols. I like a good organic olive oil for most of my cooking.
Other oils, such as some cold-pressed seed oils, are nutrient-rich and offer a unique flavor to foods; they don’t withstand heat well, unfortunately, so reserve them for dressing salads.
Is vegetable oil safe to cook with?
Vegetable oil has been the choice of home chefs and restaurants for decades. Vegetable oil usually contains canola oil, soybean oil, or other seed oils. Vegetable oil has been available since the advent of hydrogenation in the late 1800s. The issue with vegetable oils is that they are highly refined and chemically produced, retaining little to no nutritional value.
Seed oils are also fragile and highly susceptible to oxidation; they must be cold-pressed and stored in cool, dark environments in glass bottles. You won’t find these safety measures with industrial vegetable oils. Mass produced vegetable oils are chemically extracted in mass quantities and stored in plastic bottles, undergoing the brightness and hot temperatures of shipping and grocery store shelves. Be wary as they are often rancid before they reach the shelves, much less your pantry.
Canola oil, the star of many vegetable oil blends, is derived from genetically-modified rapeseed, which contains erucic acid which is poisonous in large quantities. The other seeds present in vegetable oil are most often derived from genetically-modified crops, as well. In addition, these oils are very high in polyunsaturated fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids, which must be carefully consumed in moderation with omega-3 fatty acids for the optimal ratio.
Is olive oil safe to cook with?
Yes, olive oil is safe to cook with! It is more fragile than some oils, though so olive oil shouldn’t be used for deep frying or excessively high heat. It is also prudent to be sure you’re getting real olive oil in a dark glass bottle, from a reputable brand. Keep the heat below 400 degrees to be safe, but don’t fear cooking with olive oil.
Is peanut oil healthy?
Unrefined, cold-pressed peanut oil is less offensive than its other vegetable oil counterparts such as canola or soybean oil. It’s not as fragile, but be careful to only consume unrefined peanut oil stored in glass bottles–preferably non-GMO peanut oil. One thing to keep in mind is that peanuts are prone to mold and also contain high levels of lectins. For those with a mold allergy or those on an anti-inflammatory diet, consider avoiding peanut oil as you would avoid peanuts.
What are the benefits of sunflower oil?
Sunflower oil, high in Vitamin E and oleic acid, is another oil that’s okay in moderation if you’re consuming high-quality oil. Go for high-oleic, cold-pressed sunflower oil stored in a dark glass bottle. Sunflower oil, like other seed oils, is highly susceptible to oxidation. It’s also high in omega-6 fatty acids. Thus, it’s best to use a quality sunflower oil in moderation.
What is the correct way to dispose of cooking oil?
Take care when disposing of your cooking oils! They should never be poured down the sink or garbage disposal, as they will eventually solidify and clog your drain or pipes. If you’re throwing out used oil (which you shouldn’t reuse, as each heating increases the oxidation of oil), follow these tips to avoid messy garbage and rodents:
Saturated fats: for saturated fats such as coconut oil and animal fats, allow them to harden again before disposing. Then you can toss them directly in the trash or compost, or place inside a disposable container.
Unsaturated fats/refined liquid oils: for oils that are liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil or refined liquid coconut oil, pour into a closed container and throw in the trash or compost.
It’s important to be cautious about which oils you use for cooking and eating. The best oils include avocado oil, coconut oil, olive oil, palm oil, ghee or butter, or other animal fats. Avoid using canola and vegetable oils.