Ask the Expert: Cooking oils

Refining Our Oils


You want to know: From olive to avocado, the health-food industry is saturated with “good-for-you” cooking oil options, but how much of this is simply slick marketing? Which of these liquid fats actually fit into a heart-healthy diet, and which are better left in the bottle?

To talk about oils, we have to talk about fat, an essential compound used by the body to carry out daily functions. This calorie-dense macronutrient is necessary for brain health, organ protection and vitamin absorption, but not every type of fat is beneficial. Unsaturated fats can improve blood cholesterol levels. Saturated and trans fats, on the other hand, can negatively impact cholesterol levels and raise heart disease risk. With this in mind, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends we include beneficial unsaturated fats, limit saturated fats to less than 10 percent of daily calories and avoid trans fats altogether. The common oils below each contain a similar calorie makeup and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon, but take a closer look at the types of fat represented.

Olive: A main staple of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, olive oil has been linked to improvements in insulin resistance when used in place of high-saturated fat alternatives. Extra virgin olive oil, which is minimally processed and uses only cold-pressed olives, retains its natural antioxidants and vitamins. Per tablespoon: 2g saturated fat.

Canola: From ground and pressed canola seeds, this oil has a neutral flavor ideal for baking. While highly refined, canola oil has less saturated fat than most popular oils and plenty of healthy unsaturated fats. Per tablespoon: 1g saturated fat.

Coconut: Made from pressed coconut meat, coconut oil is often used for sautéing and baking. Though spotlighted in recent years for its antioxidant properties and potentially helpful medium-chain triglycerides, the benefits of these fatty acids are still debated. Coconut oil’s high levels of saturated fat also prove troublesome. Per tablespoon: 13g saturated fat (a whopping 65 percent of the daily recommendation).

Avocado: From pressed avocado pulp, this natural cooking oil is high in the antioxidant lutein and rich in heart-healthy oleic acid. Its very high smoke point is ideal for sautéing and roasting. Per tablespoon: 2g saturated fat.

The Takeaway: For cooking, baking and dressing food, choose an oil with less than four grams of saturated fat and no partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats, as recommended by the American Heart Association. Opt for olive, avocado or canola oils over tropical oils like coconut or palm, which are higher in saturated fats. When comparing oils that are nutritionally similar, let flavor, smoke point, cost, availability, sustainability and processing guide your selection.

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