Savvy Swaps: The Best Healthy Cooking Oils + Fats
Most cooking oils, like vegetable and canola oil, are horrible for your health. We’ve got healthy cooking oil substitutes, full of heart-healthy fats and nutritional benefits, whether you’re cooking, frying or baking.
This is it, y’all. For nearly two years, I’ve been trying to write this post. It’s one of the MOST IMPORTANT tenets of healthy eating and could be the single best thing you do for your health.
So why has it taken me so long to write? Well, for starters the topic is incredibly dense and the sheer amount of research I’ve been doing for months has taken me longer than I care to admit.
But it’s here, it’s finally here, and I can’t wait to share with you my definitive guide for healthy cooking oils!
6 Reasons Why Vegetable + Canola Oil is Bad For You
Yes, cooking oil is really the subject of this post and truly one of the most impactful foods we eat. Think about it–there are very few foods made without some kind of oil or fat, from processed foods and snacks to healthy vegetables you roast at home. So it’s in EVERYTHING!
And it turns out, most of the cooking oils we’re using are actually horrible for us. Let me explain.
Look on almost any food label and you’ll likely see canola oil or vegetable oil (including corn oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, grapeseed oil, “pure” vegetable oil, sunflower oil and safflower oil) as one of the ingredients. Here’s why this is bad:
- Vegetable oils are highly processed. How is cooking oil made? Trust me, you don’t even want to know. The sheer amount of processing these cooking oils go through make them about the farthest thing from real food as possible. These oils are processed with chemical solvents (most commonly the neurotoxin hexane, a cheap byproduct from gasoline production that’s an occupational hazard and toxic air pollutant, the residue of which can remain in the oil), before being mixed with metal particles and treated with hydrogen gas. Emulsifiers are then added to the mixture, which is then steam-cleaned to remove rancid odors. The “oil” is then bleached and artificial dyes and flavorings are added. Gross! (source)
- Vegetable oils are already rancid before you even open them. Processed oils are extracted by high heat and pressure and are exposed to light and air, which oxidizes the fat and turns them rancid. So before you’ve even opened the oil at home, it’s already gone bad.
- Vegetable oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids. While our bodies do need omega-6 fats, modern eating provides us with WAY TOO MUCH (up to 20 times more than required, according to some estimates). And too much omega-6 fatty acids increases the risk of inflammation, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune diseases. We need more omega-3s in our diet and less omega-6s.
- Vegetable oils are low in nutrients. Not only does the high heat turn these oils rancid, but heat also destroys beneficial plant components and antioxidants and alters the chemical nature of the fat, creating dangerous free radicals, which can trigger a host of diseases from liver damage to cancer. Dangerous preservatives, like BHA and BHT, are then often added to the oil to extend the shelf life. Not only that, but the standard deodorization process these refined oils must go through to hide the fact that they’ve gone rancid removes a large portion of the omega-3 fatty acids by turning them into trans fats. Which brings us to…
- Vegetable oils contain trans fats. When these oils are refined at high temperatures from the crude oil into a bland, odorless, colorless oil, they become either partially or fully hydrogenated, both of which can contain small amounts of unhealthy artificial trans fats and potentially up to 60 percent trans fats (source). You want to avoid trans fats as much as possible since they’re scientifically known to increase LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol, clogging our arteries, causing insulin resistance and/or type 2 diabetes, among other health problems. Top nutritionists at Harvard have concluded that trans fat could be responsible for as many as 30,000 premature coronary deaths per year.
- Vegetable oils are GMOs. Soybean oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil and corn oil (which make up most generic “vegetable oils”) made in the U.S. come from crops that are almost entirely genetically modified. (source) Not sure what all the fuss is about GMOs? They have been artificially manipulated in a lab, resulting in unstable combinations that do not exist in nature. They’re banned in more than 60 countries, but not in the U.S. They’ve increased the use of herbicides and toxic poisons used in agriculture and have been linked to toxic and allergic reactions, sick, sterile, and dead livestock, and damage to virtually every organ studied in lab animals. The effects on humans have not been studied, but I’m not taking my chances.
So what’s a girl (or guy!) to do? Fear not! There are a handful of delicious, healthy cooking oils that you can and should use on a regular basis, whether you’re cooking, frying or baking. Take a look:
The Best Healthy Cooking Oils
Below you’ll find a list of healthy cooking oils and fats that I recommend cooking with, including brand recommendations and cooking tips related to heat and smoke point, which is incredibly important.
Even the healthiest oils become unhealthy when they reach their smoke point, as the structure of the oil breaks down, nutrients are lost, flavor is changed and compounds can be created that are damaging to your health (source). So be sure you use the right oil for the temperature you’re cooking with. Let’s get into it:
- Organic, Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: I think most people have been turned on to the amazing flavor and health benefits of olive oil by now, but just in case… olive oil, a staple of the Mediterranean diet, is full of monounsaturated fat, which is great for your heart, and antioxidants, which protect your cells from damage, boosts memory and cognitive function, and is incredibly anti-inflammatory (source). However, olive oil shouldn’t be used for all types of cooking because it’s smoke point is around 350°F. So only use olive oil when you’re cooking something over low heat, or not heating the oil at all, like in a salad dressing. I recommend Costco’s Kirkland brand, which you can even order on Amazon without being a Costco member.
- Organic Unrefined Coconut Oil: What can’t this superfood do? Great for skincare and around the house, coconut oil is also an amazingly healthy cooking oil thanks to the medium-chain fatty acids that support fat loss and your nervous system, brain and memory function. And thanks to the high amount of saturated fat, coconut oil increases good cholesterol and promotes heart health, while the antioxidants make it super anti-inflammatory. And coconut oil has a high smoke point (between 350°F-450°F), so you can use it in baking and roasting. It’s a great substitute for butter if you’re dairy-free.
- I recommend Nutiva’s coconut oil.
- Organic Grass-Fed Butter or Ghee: Both butter and ghee (clarified butter; the lactose is removed) are chockfull of alpha lipoic acid and conjugated linoleic acid, which can promote weight loss, and healthy short chainomega-3 fatty acids, which help your brain function properly and improve skin health. With tons of fat-soluble vitamins, trace minerals and powerful antioxidants, butter and ghee are great healthy cooking fats for baking and cooking up to 350°F (ghee can go up to 450°F, so it’s another great choice for frying and high-heat cooking).
- Organic Avocado Oil: Avocado oil is pressed from the fleshy pulp surrounding the avocado pit, rather than the seed. The oil is full of healthy fats, including naturally occurring oleic acid and essential fatty acids, which can help prevent diabetes, high cholesterol, high triglyceride levels, and obesity. Avocado oil has even received prescription drug status in France because of its proven anti-inflammatory ability to counter the negative effects of arthritis (source)! When it comes to cooking with avocado oil, unrefined avocado oil has a medium smoke point, so it’s better suited for lower-heat cooking or unheated recipes, but refined avocado oil is a great choice for high-heat cooking because its high smoke point can go up to 500ºF.
- Organic, Pastured Animal Fats: Lard, tallow, and animal fat, etc. are also healthy cooking fats, contrary to popular belief. In fact, animal fats are saturated fats, which contain many disease-fighting nutrients and phytonutrients, a concentrated source of energy, the building blocks for cell membranes and a variety of hormones. Not only that but saturated fats slow down absorption so that we can go longer without feeling hungry, AND fat is needed to absorb nutrients, like important fat- soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. (source) They’ve got a medium-high smoke point between 375°F and 400°F, so they’re great for cooking, roasting and shallow-frying. Note: animals store their toxins in their fat, so it’s very important to buy organic meats and fats to avoid antibiotic, GMO and hormone exposure.
- I recommend Epic’s animal fats.
- Organic Red Palm Oil: This one might surprise you, as well, as there’s a lot of misinformation out there about red palm oil, which is rich in ten different anti-aging antioxidant carotenoids, as well as numerous phytonutrients, vitamin E and CoQ10, which can reduce your risk for a variety of diseases, including Alzheimer’s, cancer, and heart disease (source). Made from the palm fruit (one of the few fatty fruits in existence), rather than the kernel, it has a rich, buttery flavor and is stable under high heat (smoke point is 450°F) and great for cooking, baking and even frying. (source). Note: Red Palm Oil is not to be confused with palm kernel oil, which is incredibly unsustainable and contributes to deforestation and habitat destruction.
- I recommend Nutiva’s red palm oil, which is sustainably grown in Ecuador.
Some other great healthy cooking oils to use include flax oil, hemp oil, pumpkin seed oil and walnut oil, though these all have low smoke points and should never be exposed to heat. Use in salad dressings or in a dipping sauce. On the flipside, unrefined or naturally refined sesame oil (which is high in vitamin E (an antioxidant), vitamin B-6, zinc, magnesium, calcium, copper and iron) is a great addition in Asian marinades and high-heat stir frys (its smoke point is 410°F).
The Bad Cooking Oils You Should Never Use Again
If you weren’t already convinced to throw away all of the hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated and refined vegetable oils in your pantry, let’s dig a bit deeper into this topic.
All vegetable oils (including canola, soybean, corn, cottonseed, sunflower, safflower) are highly processed, full of unstable and inflammatory omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids and typically extracted from GMOs.
In fact, 94% of U.S. soybean crops are genetically modified. And cottonseed oil may just be the worst–it’s a byproduct of the cotton crop that’s packed with pesticides and chemicals (cotton is known as the dirtiest crop in the world!) because it’s regulated as a textile crop, not food! (source)
Don’t think your canola oil, which is just a kind of vegetable oil, is safe either–despite what those deceptive marketing campaigns tell you. Canola oil, also known as rapeseed oil, is “completely toxic, contains “the infamous chemical warfare agent mustard gas,” and causes everything from mad cow disease to blindness, and kidney, liver and neurological health issues.” (source)
Even when you get cold-pressed, organic, non-GMO canola oil, you’re still putting yourself at risk for life-threatening heart trouble, hypertension and strokes, and retarding growth in children, among other ills.
Crisco vegetable shortening is made from soybean soil, fully hydrogenated palm oil and TBHQ, a toxic chemical made from butane. So give that one a hard pass, too.
Likewise, Margarine (that disgusting imitation butter) is packed with high levels of trans fats causing heart disease by raising levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) and lowering levels of HDL (good cholesterol).
Don’t eat fake foods EVER!
What’s the deal with high oleic?
A few brands have started using high-oleic safflower or sunflower oil and touting them as healthier cooking oil alternatives. But my anti-inflammatory guru, Ivy Larson from Clean Cuisine, spells it out for us:
Food manufacturers like to use high-oleic oils because they don’t contain trans fats and they are highly shelf-stable. It’s not that the oleic acid itself is bad, in fact oleic acid is a monounsaturated fat that constitutes about 75% of the fat in olive oil. However, the oleic acid in olive oil is naturally-occurring and the oleic acid in high-oleic safflower oil or high-oleic sunflower oil is not. There’s a BIG difference! High-oleic acid oils are a processed food and they do not have the same nutritional profile of an unrefined oil that is naturally rich in oleic acid, such as extra virgin olive oil. (source)
Healthy Oil Label Guide: What to Look for to Ensure Quality + Safety
When it comes to shopping for healthy cooking oils, labels can be confusing. Click here to download the cheat sheet for the words I always look for to ensure the oil is safe, high-quality, healthy and delicious. Plus, you’ll also receive a healthy cooking oils shopping list you can take with you to the grocery store!
Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links, and I will earn a commission if you purchase through these links. Please note that I’ve linked to these products purely because I recommend them and they are from companies I trust.
Photo Credit: Heidi Geldhauser
Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links, and I will earn a commission if you purchase through these links. Please note that I've linked to these products purely because I recommend them and they are from companies I trust. There is no additional cost to you.