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A Beginner’s Guide: Which Oil is Healthiest?

If you’ve ever wondered which oil is healthiest for your roast, salad dressing or stir fry, here’s your complete guide to deciding on which one to choose – and when to use it. Here’s what you need to know.

From heart-healthy olive oil to controversial corn oil, there is an overwhelming amount of options on the market, with varying and misleading information muddying the waters. We’ll be unpacking which oils are the healthiest, along with their best uses. Things like temperature, processing and brands can all affect the quality of your oil – so let’s get into it.

The nutritional lowdown on oils and fats

First, let’s get into the nutritional profiles of some of the more common oils on the market.

Sunflower oil: This oil is entirely made of fat, but don’t be deterred. Oleic-rich sunflower oil provides monounsaturated fats which help manage cholesterol levels and keep you feeling fuller for longer. One study found those who consumed sunflower oil for 10 weeks saw a dramatic reduction in their LDL cholesterol levels – and LDL is the bad kind of cholesterol that can lead to heart disease. But be sure to opt for high-oleic options as some sunflower oil variations can be inflammatory depending on their processing.

Hemp oil: Hemp is known for its omega 3s and protein content – and hemp seed oil measures up well on the nutritional profile. It’s high in linoleic acid, along with having an impressive omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of 3:1. This is ideal for our bodies to reap the benefits of those essential fatty acids, as some plant-based sources of omegas tend to be overwhelmed by omega 6s, which can cause inflammation. This ideal ratio can improve skin and hair, along with reducing blood pressure and assisting with weight loss.

Coconut oil: Coconut oil is high in fat – some of which provide a hair, skin and nail health-boost, along with improving the metabolism. Their medium chain triglycerides – these have been found to decrease appetite and curb sugar cravings. Keep in mind it does have a fair amount of saturated fat, so, as always, consume it in moderation.  

Avocado oil: This oil has a number of vitamins and minerals, along with a good dose of fatty acids. This means it helps reduce inflammation, improve skin health and maintain brain health. It’s also high in an antioxidant known as lutein, which improves our eye health and fights free radicals in the body.

Corn oil: This oil is made of 100% fat, providing just over 120 calories per tablespoon. Unfortunately, it has an undesirable balance of fats – it’s low in the heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, but high in polyunsaturated fats which may cause an inflammatory response.

Olive oil: This classic Mediterranean favourite is known for its omega 3 fatty acids and anti-inflammatory properties – it’s especially high in oleic acid, which studies have found to prevent insulin resistance and reduce the risk for heart disease. These healthy fats also keep us satiated and reduce our urge to snack. Plus, the antioxidants reduce inflammation and improve gut health, along with reducing cholesterol levels.

Sesame oil: This oil is popular in Chinese and Japanese cooking, and it happens to have a fairly impressive nutritional profile. It’s high in skin, hair and nail-boosting vitamin E, along with packing a sizeable amount of phytosterols and sesamol and sesaminol – these compounds contain antioxidising properties, meaning they help fight those free radicals in our body that can cause premature aging, inflammation and disease. Its antioxidants may also help with UV protection, along with providing of dose of mood-boosting amino acids.

Ghee: While not an oil, it serves a similar purpose and as such, it’s worth weighing up its nutritional profile in comparison to the other options – and it comes up pretty strong. It’s high in linoleic acid, which researchers say may help with weight loss. It’s also got a good dose of butyric acid, which fights inflammation and improves digestive health, according to research. Ghee provides 13% of our daily vitamin A needs in just one serve, which essential for our eye, skin and heart health.

Butter: Butter has a number of vitamins, including A, K and E, along with providing a dose of the sunshine vitamin, which is essential for bone health. But it has a hefty saturated fat content, so don’t go overboard with this stuff – but you don’t have to avoid it either. It has some omega 3s – but far fewer than its nutritionally superior cousin, ghee.

Smoke point

When choosing an oil to cook with, it’s important to consider the smoke point of that oil – unfortunately some products can degrade and oxidise when exposed to high levels of heat. This means that they may cause your food to take on a bitter taste – but it’s the health consequences that are more alarming. Some oils may release free radicals when heated which can cause inflammation and gut issues – the opposite effect we’re going for! So, take a look at some of the big offenders when it comes to oxidising fast; meaning they have a low smoke point:

  • Olive oil: (extra virgin) 177 degrees (Celsius)
  • Sesame oil: 177 degrees
  • Coconut oil: (unrefined) 177 degrees
  • Hemp oil: 165 degrees
  • Butter: 150 degrees

Let’s take a look at the oils with a high smoke point: (These are best for baking and frying!)

  • Avocado: (refined) 271 degrees
  • Ghee: 232 degrees
  • Sunflower oil: 232 degrees
  • Coconut oil: (refined) 232 degrees
  • Avocado oil: (unrefined) 190 degrees

You’ll find that refined versions of oils have a higher smoke point – but these are lacking in the nutrients of their unrefined counterparts; olive oil and coconut oil are major examples of foods that lose out nutritionally when undergoing excess processing, so it’s best to keep the refined versions to a minimum. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still enjoy the low smoke-point oils, just don’t whip out the deep fryer when you’re using olive oil!

The takeaway

For cooking: Avocado oil, ghee and sunflower oil are all healthful options that are less likely to oxidise when you ramp up the heat. Plus, they all add a rich flavour, perfect for roasts, bakes and stir fries.

For eating cold: Hemp oil, olive oil and sesame oil are better at lower temperatures – you can still cook with them, but their nutritional properties are at their best when you consume them as they are. Olive oil goes well drizzled over a salad or soup, sesame oil is great for making a vinaigrette or in the late-stage, low-heat cooking process, and then you’ve got hemp oil which adds a nutty flavour to everything from dressings to smoothies.

Steer clear: Corn oil tends to be highly refined and lower in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats than some of the other oils. Corn oil in particular releases inflammatory chemicals when heated, so you might want to leave this oil on the shelf.

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