Step into the cooking oil section of any supermarket and you are bound to be confused. There are hundreds of different options, so how do you know which oil to use and which oil is the healthiest for you and your family? Today, we’re going to break down three of the most popular “healthy” oils discussed in the healthy cooking atmosphere—olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil.
Is oil “healthy”?
Before we dig in though, let’s talk about whether any oils are healthy. The bottom line: All oils should be used sparingly in your diet. We all know by now that good fat in your diet is important, but make sure you don’t use that philosophy as an excuse to start using more oil in your kitchen. It’s always better to get your healthy fat from whole food sources—like nuts, seeds, or avocados—instead of adding more oil to your diet. Are there healthier oils out there? Yes, but you should still use them sparingly to add flavor where needed, and instead focus on getting your healthy fats elsewhere (guacamole, anyone?).
Alright, let’s demystify that oil section!
Olive Oil Explained
Chances are, at least half of the cooking oil aisle in your local supermarket is made up of olive oils. Olive oil has been around for thousands of years, but in modern culture, it became the darling of the cooking world after a series of studies were published in the late-1990s and early-2000s promoting the health benefits of a diet that uses olive oil.
- What Does It Taste Like? The darker the color of the olive oil, the more pronounced the taste. It doesn’t usually taste like the olives you might get in a martini, but high-quality olive oil might have a slightly brine-y flavor. Lighter olive oils are usually almost entirely neutral in flavor.
- What’s Good About It: Olive oil has long be lauded as a healthier cooking oil because of its antioxidant profile. Olive oil also is a good source of monounsaturated fats, which, if they replace saturated fats or trans fats in your diet, is a great choice. It’s also readily available and very affordable.
- What’s Not So Good About It: The Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acid profile of olive oil sways to the unhealthy side of things. Olive oil also has a relatively low smoke point of around 350°F (depending on the grade of oil), meaning you’ll probably smoke up your kitchen if you try to use it in a screaming hot oven or to sear food.
- Recommended Use: The flavor of good extra virgin olive oil is excellent in uncooked applications like salad dressings.
Avocado Oil 101
Just a year ago, you’d have to hit up a health food store to find avocado oil, but now, you can grab it at most supermarkets and wholesale club stores. Avocado oil is a great option for all kinds of cooking and baking because of its mild flavor (just like avocado itself).
- What Does It Taste Like? Pretty much nothing! It’s a very mild-flavored cooking oil.
- What’s Good About It: Since it is so mild and has a very high smoke point of 500°, it’s a great option for almost everywhere in the kitchen—try it in your baked goods or pizza crusts! Like olive oil, if you are going to replace not-so-healthy fats like trans fats, avocado oil is a good option because it’s rich in monounsaturated fats.
- What’s Not So Good About It: Just like with olive oil, avocado oil suffers an Omega-3 to Omega-6 imbalance, so you’re better off getting your healthy fats from more whole food sources.
- Recommended Use: It’s great any time you need a cooking oil—including baked goods, sautéing, and eggs. Skip it for salad dressings or other uncooked applications, because it won’t add much taste.
The Coconut Oil Craze
You can’t spend 10 seconds on the internet without someone talking about their love of coconut oil! The coconut oil fan club goes way beyond the kitchen; folks use it as a moisturizer, a hair treatment, and even to clean their teeth (talk to your dentist before you do any major changes to your dental care). We’re going to focus on the cooking aspects of coconut oil here.
- What Does It Taste Like? Coconut. There’s no getting around it, coconut oil is very, well, coconutty! If you love coconut, you’re in for a treat. If you don’t like coconut, you might want to look elsewhere.
- What’s Good About It: If you like coconut, it adds a wonderful coconut flavor to dishes! From a health standpoint, the benefits of coconut oil are fraught with controversy. Load one article, and it’ll tell you to eat coconut oil by the spoonful. Load the next, and it’ll tell you to never eat coconut oil again. We need more research to prove who is correct! Proponents of coconut oil say that it can help reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s Disease, reduce your risk of heart disease, and help balance your hormones. Studies have proven that coconut oil can help boost HDL (“good”) cholesterol, but more research is needed to determine if that boost is beneficial long-term.
- What’s Not So Good About It: Many healthcare professionals point to the high saturated fat content (about 90%, compared to 63% for butter) as a reason to stay away from coconut oil in large amounts. Lovers of coconut oil say that it is a different kind of saturated fat that is actually beneficial for your body—and that the vast array of other benefits outweigh any negatives. Again, there haven’t been definitive studies to prove either way.
- Recommended Use: Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, but easily melts at 76°F. Coconut oil can be used in place of almost any other fat or oil in baking or cooking. If you aren’t a big fan of coconut flavor (or it wouldn’t be appropriate for the dish), skip coconut oil or half it with another more mild-flavored oil.