Nutrition: What Cooking Oil Is Healthiest?

Rating the Cooking Fats

Choose the healthiest (and tastiest) oils, spreads, and shortenings

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

There are so many types of cooking fats and spreads to choose from at the grocery store, and so many questions to consider: Are the new margarines truly better than butter? Which oil is best to cook with in high heat? Does olive oil reign supreme?

So what's a health-conscious consumer to do? Well, because there are so many nutrient issues to consider, there is no simple answer.

Olive oil is highest in healthful monounsaturated fats, but it has few healthy omega-3 fatty acids. You can't use it for high-temperature frying, and it may impart an olive flavor when you bake with it.

Then there's canola oil, which is lowest in saturated fat and has an impressive amount of monounsaturated fat (though not as much as olive oil) as well as more omega-3s than any other vegetable oil. You can use it for both baking and high-temperature frying.

For certain bakery recipes in which you whip sugar with fat to create the proper texture (cakes, cookies, frosting, etc.), you can't substitute an oil. What's your best bet then? In these situations, I like to use margarines that are fairly low in saturated fat and fairly high in monounsaturated fat.

And where does that leave butter? Butter is very high in saturated fat (though not as high as palm kernel and coconut oils), but contains zero trans fats. It also has some monounsaturated fat (but not as much as some of the vegetable oils). I've got to admit there are certain recipes that just don't taste right without butter. So I use it in those recipes -- but the smallest amount I can get away with. And when I can substitute canola oil, olive oil, or a no-trans-fat margarine, you bet I do.

Let's start with a rundown of the different types of fatty acids, then we'll rate the cooking and table fats to help you decide which ones to buy.

Types of Fatty Acids

Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature (like butter or lard) while others are suspended in liquid, such as with whole milk or cream.

  • What they do in your body: Saturated fat can raise levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. It may also increase the risk of certain cancers.
  • Bottom line: Minimize these fatty acids! The National Cholesterol Education Program Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults recommends that less than 7% of our total calories come from saturated fat. This means a person eating 2,000 calories daily should have no more than 16 grams of saturated fat per day.

Trans fatty acids (or trans fats) occur naturally in small amounts in meat and dairy products. But most of the trans fats in our diets come from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, found in baked goods and other processed foods. This manufacturing process transforms some of the vegetable oil's unsaturated fat into trans fatty acids, which makes them more solid and stable. You'll find trans fats in any cooking or table fat that contains partially hydrogenated fat or oils.

  • What they do in your body: Their effects are like those of saturated fats, except that they offer a double whammy. In addition to raising "bad" cholesterol levels like saturated fat, trans fats also decrease your "good" (HDL) cholesterol. This is one reason many researchers consider trans fats a bigger bad boy than saturated fat. Many suspect that that trans fats increase not only the risk of heart disease, but also of type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, and, in women, breast cancer.
  • Bottom line: Get as little of trans fats as possible. Some margarines and shortenings contain 20% to 40% trans fatty acids. But there is a new generation of margarines being produced that have little or no trans fats.

Monounsaturated fats stay liquid at room temperature. Many experts urge us to make oils high in monounsaturated fat our first choice for cooking.

  • What they do in your body: Especially if they replace saturated or trans fats in the diet, monounsaturated fats reduce "bad" cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. They may also increase "good" cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, and improve insulin sensitivity (when you also eat fewer carbohydrates).
  • Bottom line: They are the smart fats! Choose cooking and table fats that contain more of these fatty acids and fewer saturated and trans fats. Aim to get 10% to 15% of your total calories from these fats. (With a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, 15% of calories computes to 33 grams of monounsaturated fat per day.)
  • Where to get them: They're found in olive oil (78% monounsaturated fat and 14% saturated fat), canola oil (62% monounsaturated fat and 6% saturated fat), peanut oil (48% monounsaturated fat), hazelnut oil (82% monounsaturated fat), almond oil (73% monounsaturated fat), avocados, and some nuts, such as almonds.

Polyunsaturated fats are divided into two main families: omega-3s and omega-6s. Each of these includes a fatty acid essential to health.

1. Omega-3 fatty acids include alpha-linoleic acid, found in plants, and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), found in fish.


"Studies show that omega-6s can reduce both total cholesterol and "bad" cholesterol when they replace saturated fat in the diet."

  • What they do in your body: Omega-3s, especially those found in fish, may help decrease blood clotting, decrease abnormal heart rhythms, reduce triglycerides (a type of fat molecule in the blood), and promote normal blood pressure. Your body can convert a small amount of the plant omega-3s you eat into the type of omega-3s found in fish. There's also evidence that plant omega-3s lower the risk of heart disease in their own right. To reduce the risk of inflammatory diseases, some researchers suggest getting more omega-3 fats and fewer omega-6s. Scientists are studying whether omega 3 fatty acids may help lower cancer risk.
  • Bottom line: These are the good guys, folks! Choose cooking and table fats that will increase your intake of omega-3s.

2. Omega-6 fatty acids include linoleic acid, the major omega-6 found in food.

  • What they do in your body: Studies show that omega-6s can reduce both total cholesterol and "bad" cholesterol when they replace saturated fat in the diet. But too much may cause health problems. Omega-6s may slightly decrease "good" cholesterol levels, compared with monounsaturated fats. And they can spur the production of hormone-like substances called eicosanoids that can lead to inflammation and damaged blood vessels. Further, excessive omega-6s can interfere with your body's conversion of plant omega-3s to the more powerful type of omega-3s usually found in fish.
  • Bottom line: These are better fats than the saturated or trans fats, and some are essential to the body. They can also lower heart disease risk when they replace saturated or trans fats in your diet. But eating excessive amounts is not a good idea.

Rating the Fats

I took a nutritional look at 22 types of fats and oils (listed in order from the lowest amount of saturated fat to the highest): canola oil, Eden Organic safflower oil, hazelnut oil, almond oil Take Control, Benecol spread, grapeseed oil, Land O' Lakes Fresh Buttery Taste Spread, Shedds Spread Country Crock, olive oil, soybean oil, Canola Harvest Premium Margarine, peanut oil, soybean margarine (hard), Smart Balance Omega Plus** Buttery Spread, Smart Balance Buttery Spread, Crisco shortening, chicken fat, lard, butter, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil.

After tallying the calories, fat, saturated fat, monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, trans fats, omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids, and Vitamin E for all these products, here's the story the numbers told:

The top five sources of beneficial monounsaturated fats are:

    1.Olive oil2. Hazelnut oil3. Eden Organic Safflower Oil4. Almond oil5. Canola oil

The top sources of beneficial plant omega-3s are, by far:

    1. Canola oil2. Soybean oil3. Smart Balance Omega Plus Buttery Spread

The three oils with the most omega-6s (which are essential but which we tend to get too much of) are:

    1. Grapeseed oil2. Soybean oil3. Peanut oil

The 10 oils/cooking fats lowest in saturated fat, contributing 2 grams or less per tablespoon, are:

    1. Canola oil2. Eden Organic Safflower oil3. Hazelnut oil4. Almond oil5. Take Control Spread6. Benecol Spread7. Grapeseed oil8. Land O' Lakes Fresh Buttery Taste Spread9. Shedds Spread Country Crock10. Olive oil

Putting It All Together

The bottom line is that it makes nutritional sense to focus on fats that have the least amounts of saturated fat and trans fat but higher amounts of omega-3s and monounsaturated fats.

When you do this, you end up with:

  • Canola oil for most of your cooking (because it contains the lowest amount of saturated fat, it's the fifth highest in monounsaturated fat, and it contains the most omega-3s)
  • Olive oil when it works in the recipe (because it contains the most monounsaturated fat; very little saturated fat; and, while it doesn't contain a lot of omega-3s, neither does it have a lot of omega-6s).
  • A "better" margarine (such as Smart Balance Spread, Land O' Lakes Buttery Spread, or Take Control) for certain situations when that works best. They contain less fat than butter and little to no trans fats, may contribute some monounsaturated fats ... and, oh yeah, they taste pretty good, too!

Published March 18, 2004


SOURCES: The National Cholesterol Education Program Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults: Final Report, September 2002. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, July 2001. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 1999; vol 18(3). American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, June 2001. Nutrition and Cancer, 2001; vol 39(2). Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention, September 1997. Environmental Nutrition, June 2003. ESHA Research Food Processor II nutrition analysis software, 2003.


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