Take a stroll through the cooking oil aisle at the store, and you’ll be greeted by plenty of options for sautéing, baking and drizzling. Should you go for your standard extra-virgin olive oil, or switch it up with avocado oil? Does it matter if you use canola oil instead of vegetable oil? Choosing an oil can be confusing, to say the least. While your choice will largely come down to what you’re making, nutrition can also come into play.
How to choose a cooking oil:
- Consider the smoke point. The smoke point is the maximum temperature at which you can cook with an oil before it burns and starts to smoke. This most obviously affects the taste, but it also degrades the nutrients in the oil and releases harmful compounds called free radicals.
- Choose unrefined oils whenever possible. When it comes to cooking oil, the less processed, the better. Refined oils are often treated with chemicals that can turn the oil rancid or even create trans fats in the process, says Harvard University professor of nutrition Guy Crosby.
- Read the label. According to the American Heart Association, you should choose a cooking oil with less than 4 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, and no partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats.
- Don’t forget flavor. All oils taste different, and you’ll want to keep the flavor in mind based on the dish you’re cooking. In general, neutral oils are better for heating and strongly flavored oils are better for drizzles, dressings and cold applications.
To make your selection a little easier, here are the seven healthiest cooking oils you can buy (plus three you should avoid).
*All nutrition information obtained from the USDA.
1. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
- Nutrition at a glance: 119 calories, 1.9 grams saturated fat, 9.8 grams monounsaturated fat, 1.4 grams polyunsaturated fat (per 1 tablespoon)
- Smoke point: 350°F
- What to look for: For the most health benefits, choose unrefined, cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil
- What it tastes like: Ranges from mild to peppery and grassy in taste, depending on the type
- When to use it: Low to medium heat cooking (like sautéing), baking and salad dressings
Olive oil has been the gold standard when it comes to healthy cooking fat—for good reason. It’s high in heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E, which is an antioxidant and protects your cells from free radicals. When buying extra-virgin olive oil, choose a bottle that says “unrefined” and “cold-pressed” whenever possible. This means the oil was produced without heat, which degrades the product. (Our favorite brand is California Olive Ranch.)
2. Avocado Oil
- Nutrition at a glance: 124 calories, 1.6 grams saturated fat, 9.8 grams monounsaturated fat, 1.9 grams polyunsaturated fat (per 1 tablespoon)
- Smoke point: 520°F
- What to look for: Cold-pressed and unrefined avocado oil has the most nutritional value
- What it tastes like: Mild and vegetal like an avocado
- When to use it: Medium heat cooking (e.g., sautéing and roasting) and salad dressings
Avocado oil is like olive oil’s hip younger cousin. It’s almost identical in terms of nutrition benefits, with vitamin E and heart-healthy fatty acids in abundance. You can use it similarly to olive oil, too. Again, look for minimally processed varieties when buying.
3. Flaxseed Oil
- Nutrition at a glance: 120 calories, 1.2 grams saturated fat, 9 grams polyunsaturated fat, 2.5 grams monounsaturated fat (per tablespoon)
- Smoke point: 225°F
- What to look for: Look for the classification “virgin” for the most unrefined flaxseed oil.
- What it tastes like: Slightly nutty
- When to use it: Cold applications like drizzling and salad dressing
According to the Mayo Clinic, flaxseed oil, pressed from flaxseeds, is high in vitamin E and is a rich source of alpha-linolenic acid, a heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid. But since it has a very low smoke point, it’s not as versatile as other cooking oils, and should be limited to cold applications (like salad dressing). It’s also advisable to store it in the fridge for a longer shelf life.
4. Sesame Oil
- Nutrition at a glance: 120 calories, 1.9 grams saturated fat, 6 grams polyunsaturated fat, 5 grams monounsaturated fat (per tablespoon)
- Smoke point: 410°F
- What to look for: Look for the words “unrefined” and “cold-pressed,” and don’t confuse it with toasted sesame oil.
- What it tastes like: Relatively neutral with mild nutty notes
- When to use it: Sautés, roasts and general-purpose cooking
According to studies, sesame oil is high in both sesamol and sesaminol, two antioxidants that might protect against heart cell damage. It’s also extremely versatile and can be used anywhere you would cook with canola oil. Just don’t confuse it with toasted sesame oil, which is strongly flavored and best used as a garnish.
5. Canola Oil
- Nutrition at a glance: 120 calories, 1.1 grams saturated fat, 2.6 grams polyunsaturated fat, 8 grams monounsaturated fat
- Smoke point: 400°F
- What to look for: Organic, expeller-pressed canola oil is best since it doesn’t require the chemical hexane for extraction
- What it tastes like: Neutral in flavor
- When to use it: Medium to medium-high heat cooking, baking
Because it has such a high smoke point and neutral flavor, canola oil (which comes from rapeseed) is super versatile for medium-heat cooking methods. It gets a bad rap for being poorly made, but it’s low in saturated fat and contains a lot of omega-3s. Per Dr. Crosby, it’s a healthy choice when included in a varied diet of many healthy cooking oils. While unrefined, cold-pressed canola oil is available, it’s hard to find and can be expensive.
6. Grapeseed Oil
- Nutrition at a glance: 120 calories, 1.3 grams saturated fat, 10 grams polyunsaturated fat, 2.2 grams monounsaturated fat (per one tablespoon)
- Smoke point: 420°F
- What to look for: Look for “expeller-pressed” when buying grapeseed oil and avoid any that mention the use of hexane
- What it tastes like: Neutral in flavor
- When to use it: Use grapeseed oil like canola oil
A neutral flavor and high smoke point make this oil a versatile player in your kitchen. It's also packed with vitamin E and omegas 3, 6 and 9, as well as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, but can be pricy compared to other options (it’s made from the tiny seeds of grapes, after all).
- Nutrition at a glance: 112 calories, 8 grams saturated fat, 0.5 grams polyunsaturated fat, 4 grams monounsaturated fat (per one tablespoon)
- Smoke point: 485°F
- What to look for: Freshness is key, so check the sell-by date. Look for a golden yellow color. Organic and grass-fed are good keywords, too.
- What it tastes like: Butter, baby
- When to use it: At high temperatures and in baking applications
OK, ghee isn’t an oil per se (it’s actually a highly clarified form of butter), but it’s too tasty to leave off this list. It’s a good source of vitamin E, vitamin A and antioxidants, and since it doesn’t contain the milk solids found in butter, it can be easier for lactose-sensitive stomachs to digest. But since it’s higher in saturated fat than other oils on this list, most health experts advise consuming ghee in moderation.
3 Cooking Oils to Avoid
Proceed with Caution: Coconut Oil
- Nutrition at a glance: 117 calories, 12 grams saturated fat, 0.2 grams polyunsaturated fat, 0.8 grams monounsaturated fat
- Smoke point: 350°F
- What to look for: Unrefined, virgin coconut oil
- What it tastes like: Sweet and tropical, like a coconut
- When to use it: In moderation, for baking and high-heat cooking (like deep-frying)
Because it contains mostly saturated fat, coconut oil isn’t the healthiest option according to most experts. But per Ohio State registered dietitian Mara Weber, MS, RD, LD, virgin coconut oil is high in lauric acid, which raises both good and bad cholesterol levels. To make things even more divisive, studies show that unrefined coconut oil contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds that outweigh its downsides. All in all, it’s best used in small amounts (and always look for unrefined varieties).
Avoid: Refined Palm Oil
- Nutrition at a glance: 120 calories, 7 grams saturated fat, 1.3 grams polyunsaturated fat, 5 grams monounsaturated fat (per one tablespoon)
- Smoke point: 450°F
- What it tastes like: Neutral flavor
It’s not that palm oil is actually that bad for you health-wise—according to Harvard Medical School, it’s lower in saturated fat than butter (and remember, everything in moderation). But as PureWow senior editor Sarah Stiefvater says, palm oil is “partially responsible for rapid deforestation in areas in Indonesia and Malaysia, and also has negative effects on carbon emissions and climate change.” Recipe developer Yewande Komolafe explains further that the ingredient—which is native to West Africa and in its unrefined state, packed with nutrients—has been exploited by corporations to be produced at a low quality and mass scale for processed foods and other products. If you want to cook with it, buy unrefined red palm oil (preferably fair trade) that has a green “RSPO” sticker or a “Green Palm” label, which means it was produced in a socially and environmentally responsible way.
Proceed with Caution: Anything in a Spray Can
According to the Cleveland Clinic, even though many cooking sprays claim to have no trans fat, manufacturers can make this claim this because they’re allowed to round down to zero if a serving size is less than half a gram. The serving size is usually listed as a ¼-second spray, or 0.25 grams. That’s not to say that all spray oils are bad, but you should definitely scrutinize the ingredient lists. Instead, try wiping the excess oil from your skillet with paper towel for a similar result.