Not all cooking oils are created equal. Some taste better, some heat quicker, and indeed, some are healthier than others. Determining which oils are healthy and which are not can be difficult though. If you were to Google search “most healthy cooking oils” and “least healthy cooking oils”, there would be a lot of overlap.
To determine which are the healthiest cooking oils for vegetables, look for the ones which contain no trans fats like olive oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, avocado oil, and canola oil. Trans fats are artificially made fatty acids that have a negative effect on the heart and skin. Avoid those. Healthy cooking oils are derived naturally from plants and seeds, such as olives.
Many cooking oils can be perfectly healthy if made naturally, but will become unhealthy if made artificially with trans fats. Sunflower oil, for instance, is healthy when made from heat and pressure applied to sunflower seeds. But if the same kind of oil produced artificially will not be as healthy.
What Makes an Oil Healthy?
Healthy oils are healthy because they contain what are called “polyunsaturated fatty acids”. This a very fancy sounding word, but strangely enough it refers to the most common type of fat found in plants and animals. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are the fats that organisms can burn for energy.
Therefore, oils which contain polyunsaturated fatty acids are not going to have the negative health effects caused by those dreaded trans fats. In fact, they will give you something your body might desperately need.
So many foods contain fats and other components that make it difficult for your body to build the kind of fat that it needs. Some people can eat plenty of red meat and vegetables and still lack the kind of fat their body can easily burn. Our bodies can burn nearly any kind of fat, but polyunsaturated fatty acids burn most efficiently.
Which Oils Are The Healthiest?
But you are not here for a lesson in chemistry. You are here for a list. So, here is a list of some of the healthiest vegetable oils, and what you can use them for.
1. Olive Oil
This is the most popular oil used in cooking, so it is worth mentioning early and often that it is also plenty healthy. Olive oil is useful because there are different kinds of olive oil. Some are flavorful, and therefore useful for spicing things up. But others are deliberately flavorless, and just used to heat things.
Basically, you cannot go wrong with olive oil. Just be sure to get the right kind.
2. Peanut Oil
Peanut oil is used in many Asian dishes, though the mix of the peanut flavor with other flavors usually makes it hard to tell it is there. This is an important practice to learn, because while peanut oil is good and useful, it can have a strong flavor if you do not cover it up or mix it with other flavors.
3. Sunflower Oil
This is always a surprising one, as sunflowers are not usually grown for their agricultural value. But sunflower oil is actually surprisingly high in vitamins E and K. For branding reasons, you are also unlikely to find a sunflower oil that is made with trans fats.
Simply put, it is hard to sell sunflower oils outside health food stores, as they oftentimes look like skincare oils on the shelf. Because of this, sunflower oil has to be free of trans fats in order to sell in health food stores. In short, due to reasons completely unrelated to the oil itself, sunflower oil is usually trans-fat free.
4. Avocado Oil
Avocados are one of the most popular health foods right now, and for pretty good reason. They contain tons of vitamins, fiber, and iron. This does not translate completely when it is made into oil, but it does retain enough of its nutritional value to be healthier than basically every other oil on this list.
5. Canola Oil
Canola oil is useful for its high “smoke point”– that is, the temperature at which it begins to turn into smoke. A high smoke point is valuable for oils used in high heat cooking, like stir fry. This means that you do not need to worry about the oil setting off your smoke detector every time you make something exciting.
There is one downside to canola oil though, and that is the fact that it is often processed to death. This removes much of its nutritional value, along with its scent and flavor, but it is still useful for cooking.
Is “Vegetable Oil” Healthy?
All this talk about sunflower oil, canola oil, olive oil, and the varieties of fats in the universe make it seem like there is one big thing missing: Vegetable oil. Is it not also healthy?
The short answer is that vegetable oil is healthy, much in the same way all the previously mentioned oils are. It contains the fatty acids your body needs to produce easily burnable fats.
But why is it called vegetable oil? Olives are vegetables. Is olive oil also vegetable oil?
This is not a problem with the oil itself, but a problem with branding. You see, vegetable oil is identified as such due to being a combination of several different vegetables’ oil. It can be olive oil, mixed with sunflower oil, mixed with canola oil. As long as it does not contain trans fats, it should be fine.
As stated before, many oils are interchangeable, and the existence of vegetable oil serves to prove that point.
What Are The Limitations Of Healthy Oil?
For all this talk about how important it is to avoid trans fats, it can be easy to ignore the fact that they exist for a reason. But even the most seemingly unhealthy foods serve a purpose. All cooking is a tradeoff; sometimes you trade ease of cooking or cheapness of components for health.
Oil that uses trans fats heats and burns differently, making it better for deep-frying food. Fried and deep-fried food is not very healthy, but it gives you more energy up front. A food supplying you more energy immediately means that you can use that energy, and as a result, negate the negative effects with some kind of activity.
Healthy oils like olive oil are healthy because they keep your body in a state of stable equilibrium. They will never give you energy that you do not already have. Unhealthy oils will give you energy, but if you do not use all of that energy, it will turn into fat and cholesterol. This is highly unstable, but life is not always stable.
If you only have access to oils with trans fats, you do not need to live in fear for your health, nor do you have to feel guilty. There is a culture around nutrition that treats it as the key to unlocking human potential. But healthy oils will not give you super powers. They will just make your vegetables less fattening.
What Oils Should Be Avoided?
There are no particular oils that are especially unhealthy. Whether an oil is made from olives, peanuts, or flaxseed, it does not matter. What is more material to the health benefits of the oil is the process by which it is made. This is why “vegetable oil” as a product is a mild red flag.
Vegetable oil is made from a combination of vegetables. This does not make it unhealthy—quite the opposite actually. An oil with the favor of peanut oil but the health benefits of avocado oil could be tremendous. But vegetable oil is not usually made with the intent to make the best oil possible.
Vegetable oil is made rather than any particular kind of oil in order to cut the cost of production, and since that is the objective, you can imagine what kind of other corners are being cut. Again, check the ingredients for trans fats and preservatives.
Vegetable oils have been used in the culinary arts for thousands of years, but only relatively recently have they become an expansive industry. This industry, like any other industry in the world, is concerned with their bottom line above all else. This means they will not hesitate to sell unhealthy oil if it turns a profit.
It is absolutely worth it to scrutinize the oil that you use. The health benefits are huge, even if they are of only secondary importance to you. Whether you are an experienced chef or a an absolute noob, look after your oil, and it will look after you.