A Guide To Healthy Cooking Oils

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 - 1:23pm

By Marissa Lippert, RD

Often touted as one of the pillars of a "healthy" kitchen, olive oil is the most widely used beneficial cooking oil. However, there are a wealth of other wholesome options that shouldn’t be overlooked. Say farewell to trans-fats, hydrogenated shortenings, and heavily saturated fats like palm oil…and make some room for some flavorful, unsaturated options in your pantry.

However, before we tackle the list of alternative oils from plant sources, let’s examine the benefits of healthy oils, which are characterized by monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Benefits of unsaturated fats

Healthful sources of fat contribute to our energy stores and act as excellent lubricants, lubing up our digestive track and providing protective insulation to our organs as well as allowing for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K. Fats also maintain healthy skin and shiny hair. Indeed, a little fat does go along way.

1.   Monounsaturated fats

At the top of the heap, monounsaturated fats boast heart-healthy properties and are abundant in disease-preventing antioxidants. Examples include olive, canola and almond oils. They can help raise "good" HDL cholesterol levels, while lowering "bad" LDL levels and decreasing inflammation.

2.   Polyunsaturated fats

Polyunsaturated fats can also improve your cholesterol profile and are high in omega-6 essential fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are among the healthiest of fats and are major "multi-taskers"-fighting heart disease, decreasing inflammation, strengthening immunity, supporting brain function and (according to the American Psychiatric Association) potentially lowering the risk of depression.

Healthy, alternative cooking oils

Here are some of the most nourishing, lesser-known sources of fat! Remember to store oils properly in dark, cool areas to prolong shelf-life and flavor, and prevent rancidity.

1.   Exotic and unusual oils

The following oils are excellent additions to ethnic dishes, and can bring them to life! Their strong flavors require minimal use to achieve maximum flavor.

Description & Flavor
Cooking Suggestions
Avocado High in mono-unsaturated fats and antioxidants (vitamin E) Mild and slightly nutty Great for salad dressings or marinades
Peanut High in monounsaturated fats Subtle yet flavorful Great for Asian dishes & stir-frying; has a high smoke point and long shelf life
Sesame High in polyunsaturated fats Pungent, strong and nutty Perfect for Asian cooking; dark oil is more pungent (a small amount provides big flavor!)

2.   Rich, flavorful oils

These oils are extracted from nuts and seeds. Because they are very distinctive, they are a wonderful way to add rich flavors to light dishes.

Oil Nutrition Description & Flavor Cooking Suggestions
Almond, Hazelnut, Macadamia Nut High in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants (vitamin E) Mild and slightly nutty Use for salad dressings or marinades
Pumpkin Seed High in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats Robust, slightly smoky and nutty Use for salad dressings
Walnut Helps lower triglyceride levels; USDA finds it may reduce coronary heart disease; high in omega-3 fatty acids Rich, strong and nutty Great for salad dressings, baking and drizzling

3.   Neutral oils with a mild flavor

These more neutral oils boast powerful health-benefits and are excellent additions to any pantry.



Description & Flavor

Cooking Suggestions

Canola High in monounsaturated fats Mild and slightly nutty Use for general cooking purposes, sautéing, baking
Grapeseed High in monounsaturated fats; helps reduce cholesterol levels Neutral flavor, mild taste, light fruit Use for salad dressings or light sautéing
Flaxseed High in omega-3 fatty acids; aids digestion, helps lower cholesterol levels Neutral, mild, slightly nutty flavor Great for salad dressings; keep refrigerated; heat can destroy omega-3 properties
Olive High in monounsaturated fats; heart-healthy, reduces cholesterol Depends on variety & presssmooth or bold, fruity, spicy, sharp Great for all-purpose cooking (use extra-virgin for salad dressings and drizzling)
Sunflower High in vitamin E and monounsaturated fats; associated with decreased risk of heart disease and cancer Neutral and mild Good for basic cooking