Avocado, coconut, olive, canola, grapeseed, corn, the list goes on and on. There are a plethora of oils available on the market, but not all oils are treated equally for various reasons. The structural makeup of different oils means that some are more suitable for cooking at high temperatures, and the taste of some oils means they are more suitable for baking or eating raw.

For a full in-depth review of oils, their smoke points and how to store them, I found bon appetit’s article very helpful. If you’re a novice chef or are on a tight budget and want to know which one oil you should invest your money in, here’s a summary of the findings:

What is an oil smoke point?

According to the Michelin guide, the smoke point is the temperature at which a specific oil begins to smoke and oxidize, thus breaking down into free fatty acids. When an oil has reached (and surpassed) its spoke point, it will have a burnt and bitter flavour. As a by-product of oil breakdown, harmful compounds within the oil can be released. These compounds have been linked to the cellular damage associated with health issues such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, and more.1 In general, the more refined an oil, the higher its smoke point. Although some oils have a higher smoke point, the longer an oil is exposed to heat, the lower its smoke point. Therefore, repeatedly using the same oil should be avoided in cooking (i.e. reusing the same oil for frying multiple times).3

The smoke point of the most commonly used oils2:

avocado oil520 oF
canola oil400 oF
coconut oil350 oF
corn oil450 oF
extra virgin olive oil325 oF
grapeseed oil420 oF
light olive oil465-470oF
palm oil450 oF
peanut oil450 oF
sesame oil410 oF
sunflower seed oil440-450 oF

The Processing of Oils

Many of the oils listed above are categorized as vegetable oils because they are obtained from plants. Vegetable oils are the main source of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids in our diet. Most vegetable oils are refined to remove undesirable contents such as free acids and oxidized materials and colour. The refinement process improves the taste, smell, appearance and shelf life of vegetable oils, but also alters the fatty acid composition of them. For example, vegetables that are “cold-pressed” contain beta-carotene, while refined vegetable oils do not.3

As mentioned in my Back to Basics: Fat blog post, some oils are also hydrogenated to produce semisolid or solid fats, such as margarine. The hydrogenation process produces trans-fatty acids in vegetable oils, which have been linked to adverse health effects.

The Nutritional Profile of Oils

Just like different foods contain different nutrients, different oils contain different nutrients, in particular different ratios of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats, along with linoleic (LA) and alpha-linolenic acids (ALA), aka omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.3

Here’s how the most commonly oils compare according to their fatty acid profiles (in g/100g of oil)3:

 Total Saturated FatTotal Monounsaturated FatTotal Polyunsaturated FatLAALA
avocado oil11.670.613.512.50
canola oil7.463.328.119.09.1
coconut oil86.55.81.81.80
grapeseed oil9.616.169.969.60.1
olive oil13.873.010.59.80.8
palm oil49.337.09.39.10.2
peanut oil16.946.232.032.00.0
sesame oil14.239.741.741.30.3
sunflower seed oil9.9 – 10.145.4 – 83.73.8 – 40.13.6 – 39.80.2

Olive oil is high in unsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants, which can help reduce serum LDL cholesterol and preserve HDL cholesterol levels. The Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to have multiple positive effects on health, recommends olive oil as the main source of dietary fat.3

Canola oil is lower in saturated fatty acids and has been shown to decrease total serum cholesterol and LDL cholesterol.

Coconut oil has increased in popularity in recent years, however from the information published about saturated fatty acids, the high content of these fatty acids in coconut oil can seem alarming. However, countries with high intake of coconut oil showed some of the lowest rates of cardiovascular disease. The saturated fatty acids in coconut oil can actually increase serum HDL cholesterol.3

As you can see, all oils have different amounts of the “healthy fats” Health Canada recommends for everyone. With all of this information, which oil should you use to cook with?

In conclusion…

Multiple factors should be considered when choosing which fats to consume. In the end, all oils have nutritional benefits, and they all have a place in our diets. When cooking and heating oils, it’s important to take smoke point into consideration. Personally, I like to bake with coconut oil, cook with avocado or canola oil, and use olive oil for raw foods such as salads. If you’re tight on a budget, I think a light olive oil is the best choice, because it has a relatively higher smoke point, is high in unsaturated fatty acids, and has a light taste that compliments most foods well. The goal of this blog post is to make you more informed about the oils available to purchase so that you choose the appropriate oil for your cooking needs. Remember that oils are high in fat and are calorically dense, therefore you should be mindful of how much oil is being used in your cooking to maintain a balanced diet.

References

  1. Cording, J. (2019, November 26). All You Need to Know About Oil Smoke Point. Retrieved from https://guide.michelin.com/us/en/california/article/features/oil-smoke-point-cooking-quality-safety
  2. Bilow, R. (2017, July 21). The Best Oils for Cooking, and Which to Avoid. Retrieved from https://www.bonappetit.com/test-kitchen/ingredients/article/types-of-cooking-oil
  3. Elsevier Ltd. (2016). Vegetable Oils: Dietary Importance. In Encyclopedia of Food and Health (pp. 365-372). Academic Press.

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