Cooking oils

Nuts, seeds, olives and other plants yield oils with health benefits.

If you sometimes feel confused about what kind of oil to use in order to cook and finish dishes in the healthiest way possible, you’re not alone.

Should you choose olive or canola?

What kind of fat in cooking oils is best for you?

What’s the latest buzz about coconut oil and avocado oil?

And how does the smoke point of an oil affect its value in cooking?

We see and read so much information about the latest health trends that it’s sometimes hard to keep it all straight when you’re reaching for a plant-based cooking or finishing oil from your pantry.

We recently asked some area nutritionists to offer their advice, based on the latest research, about which plant-based oils will give you the most healthy-yet-tasty result — whether you’re using them for cooking, salad dressings or as a finishing drizzle for a dish.

“When it comes to oils, I like to think of it in fairly simple terms,” says Janelle Glick, wellness dietitian at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health. “You don’t have to have a whole pantry full of lots of different oils in order to have benefits for your health and also have what you need for cooking.”

“The recommendations, when we look at fat overall, are to be avoiding those trans fats, which we find in things like baked goods ... and fried food, then limiting saturated fats, which we find in a lot of animal products,” says Kilene Knitter, a registered dietitian who is a regional nutrition specialist for Giant Food Stores.

“And so, we really want to replace those with the healthier mono- and polyunsaturated fats,” she says, “which are shown to lower cholesterol and reduce our risk for cardiovascular disease.

“I always recommend the extra-virgin olive oil, because it does contain the most heart-healthy monounsaturated fats,” Knitter says. “But with that, it does have a lower smoke point, which is about 320 degrees.”

“There are different smoke points for different oils, which affect how they’re going to be used in the cooking process,” says Fran Hadley, registered dietitian with WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital. “It reaches that smoke point when it starts to burn, under higher heat, so high-heat cooking requires an oil that has a high smoke point.”

Extra-virgin olive oil “would be something for our cold dishes, salad dressings, dips, sauces, and then the low-heat cooking, whereas things like a regular olive oil, such as an extra light, has a higher smoke point, normally around 400 (degrees),” Knitter says.

“This can be used for roasting, grilling, baking, sauteing,” she says.

“I like to recommend, first and foremost, extra-virgin olive oil as your main oil of choice” for finishing dishes or drizzling on a salad, Glick says.

“I always recommend olive oil or soybean oil as the healthiest oils to use for cooking,” Meg Orr, registered dietitian with UPMC Pinnacle Lititz, writes in an email.

“Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fats, especially oleic acid ... which helps to decrease inflammation,” she adds.

“Olive oil contains the antioxidant vitamins E and K,” Orr writes. “These both help decrease inflammation, decrease your risk of chronic diseases (specifically heart disease), and helps cholesterol.

“Be sure to buy the appropriate type,” she adds.

Avocado oil and more

“My main recommendation for high-heat cooking,” Glick adds, “if you’re making a stir-fry, if you’re sauteing something, if you’re pan-frying some fish, things like that, I would recommend using avocado oil, preferably cold-pressed avocado oil.

“It has a very high smoke point, really higher than most any other fat,” Glick says, “but it’s also the healthiest in the sense of the percentage of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated fats that are within the oil itself.”

Safflower oil contains monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, “which is a healthy type of fat to use,” Hadley says, adding it has a higher smoke point and a neutral flavor.

“You can use it in baking, stir-fries, sauteing and deep-fat frying,” she says.

Peanut and sesame oil also contain monounsaturated fats, Hadley says.

“The refined peanut oil has a high smoke point, and it’s really good for stir-frying and frying,” she says.

“Sesame oil is more like a mid-range smoke point ... and is high in antioxidants,” Hadley adds.

“And, in terms of the high smoke-point oils, canola oil, which tends to have a more neutral flavor that you can use, is pretty versatile,” Hadley says. “You can use it in a lot of different recipes.

“Grapeseed oil is another one that’s out there that would also be a good one for cooking and frying,” Hadley says.

“It’s made from the grape seeds that are left over from wine-making.”

“They usually do say you should refrigerate that so it doesn’t go rancid,” Hadley says.

Other oils should be stored in a cabinet “away from light and heat,” she adds.

Glick cautions that many of us already get a lot of safflower, sunflower, corn and soybean oils in our diets because they’re in the processed food we eat.

She’s also not a fan of canola oil that is heated rather than cold-pressed.

Though the ratio of healthy fats isn’t changed by the heating, she says, because of the way it’s processed, “you need more chemicals to clean it up and make it tasteless and odorless.

“That’s not good for the oil,” Glick says. “And that’s not good for us.”

Coconut oil

“Coconut oil ... is in the media a lot, for a variety of health reasons,” Knitter says. “But research is inconclusive about it. It does contain about 91 percent saturated fat. And when we look back at our guidelines, (it’s recommended) we limit our intake of saturated fat.”

“Coconut oil ... contains a ‘secret component’ — medium-chain triglycerides,” Orr writes. “These fats are used as a ‘quick source’ of energy in the liver. ... The fats in coconut oil can uniquely raise HDL cholesterol or the ‘good cholesterol.’

“Typically, fats high in saturated fat tend to increase LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol, as well as increases serum triglyceride levels,” Orr says.

However, Orr cautions, “many doctors and researchers are still conflicted about the recommendations of intake” and say coconut oil isn’t a good choice, “especially if you are looking to lower your risk of heart disease.”

“Coconut oil has gone on a seesaw,” Glick says. “First it was all bad; now it’s all good, in certain circles, and I think we really need to use it judiciously, like any other oil.

“We don’t want to be drinking oil like it’s the answer to all of our health conditions,” Glick says. “We need to use (it) carefully.

“I do think there’s a place for coconut oil in our cooking,” Glick says.

“I love roasting sweet potatoes in coconut oil. It brings out the sweetness, and makes them extra-tasty. But I don’t use coconut oil every day in my cooking. I know it’s saturated.”

“I always recommend variety in cooking style and flavor,” Knitter says. “So, incorporating coconut oil, since it does have a slightly nutty and sweet flavor, unlike some of the other oils that we have available, can be something to try and incorporate — in moderation.”

“I focus on encouraging people to get their healthy fats from whole foods, rather than from the oil,” Glick adds.

Glick offers this “go-to” salad dressing recipe, using the nutritionists’ favorite — extra-virgin olive oil.



• 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

• 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar (a flavored variety makes it even better)

• 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

• 1 teaspoon honey or maple syrup

• 1 teaspoon each: dried oregano, dried basil and garlic powder


Combine ingredients and shake ingredients together in a screw-top container. Leave on your counter for up to 1 month.