The Best – and Worst!
- Oils for Cooking & Baking
Does it matter what oil you use to cook and bake? Can you simply grab the first thing on the shelf for cooking or baking? No, because not all oils are created equal, and some oils you thought were healthy can actually cause harm. When it comes to frying, sauteing, roasting, or baking, the type of oil matters a lot. It’s like choosing between kinds of milk or types of sugar – they may have the same general name and purpose, but they vary significantly in terms of quality and nutritional content.
So how do you choose the best oil for cooking and baking – and what oils should you avoid? Here’s our objective comparison of common cooking oils, based on science and expert advice. Bookmark this page and share this with your family for next time you buy groceries! (We first discuss some science behind our comparison. To go straight to the ranking, click here.)
First, Let’s Understand Fats and Smoke Points.
Fats and smoke points are two major considerations when choosing your edible oil.
Oils are mostly fats, but not all fats wreak havoc to your health. Experts at Harvard Health have helpfully categorized dietary fats into good fats, in-between fats, and bad fats:
- Monounsaturated fats – These come from a number of plant sources typical in Mediterranean diets, such as olive oil and avocado oil. Using these fats can help lower your bad cholesterol (low-density cholesterol or LDL) without lowering the good kind (high-density cholesterol or HDL).
Polyunsaturated fats – Some of these come from plants like sunflower and safflower oils, but others are derived from healthy animal sources. Ever heard of omega-3 fatty acids from fish and omega-6 fatty acids from sunflower seeds? Those are polyunsaturated fats. These are actually essential fats, meaning our body needs them but has to derive them from food.
However, there’s one caveat with omega-6 fatty acids: if you eat too much of them, they could trigger inflammation in the body. We talk more about “pro-inflammatory” oils further below.
Saturated fats – Most of these are animal-derived like lard, butter, dairy, pork, and poultry fat. Some tropical oils like virgin coconut oil contain saturated fats as well. What these fats do is raise both your good and bad cholesterol, so they aren’t necessarily harmful.
In the past, saturated fats were villainized for supposedly being damaging to health, but some newer studies have discovered that that this isn’t strictly true. One analysis of 21 studies concluded that there’s no significant evidence of saturated fats increasing the risk of heart problems.
The key is balancing your good and bad cholesterol intake. If your diet is already leaning towards LDL cholesterol (the bad one), you’ll want to watch your saturated fats. The source of your saturated fats matters as well. A 2018 study found that virgin coconut oil did better than butter in raising “good cholesterol” (HDL) and lowering “bad cholesterol” (LDL). So if you’re looking for a healthier alternative to butter, you’ve got scientific evidence to pick virgin coconut oil!
Trans fats/Hydrogenated fats – The worst kind of dietary fat, these are created through a chemical process called hydrogenation, which turns oils solid and prevents them from going rancid. Trans fats drive up bad cholesterol and actually lower good cholesterol, so as much as possible, you want to cut them out of your diet. Check the ingredients of common junk foods and you’ll likely find a form of hydrogenated fat. Another trans fat culprit? Solid margarine and other solid shortenings.
Next to fats, the other huge consideration in choosing cooking oils is smoke point, or the temperature at which the oil starts smoking. This is crucial not just for those who hate smokey kitchens.
According to the mavens at MasterClass, when oil starts smoking, it begins to develop a burnt flavor while also releasing harmful free radicals into your dish. Free radicals are unstable atoms in our body that damage our cells and DNA, making us more vulnerable to diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and more. So as much as possible, you want to minimize cooking with oils past their smoke points.
Keeping in mind the temperature of your cooking, use the oil with the appropriate smoke point. For example, if you’re doing high-heat cooking like deep-frying, go for oils with high smoke points. But for moderate heat like searing, sauteing, baking, or drizzling, low-smoke-point oils will do nicely.
Here’s a list of smoke points of common cooking oils, from highest to lowest:
- Refined avocado oil – 271°C or 520°F
- Safflower oil – 266°C or 510°F
- Refined olive oil – 240°C or 465°F
- Peanut oil – 232°C or 450°F
- Corn oil – 232°C or 450°F
- Refined coconut oil – 232°C or 450°F
- Sunflower oil – 232°C or 450°F
- Refined sesame oil – 210°C or 410°F
- Vegetable oil – 204-232ºC or 400-450ºF
- Canola oil – 204ºC or 400ºF
- Grapeseed oil – 199ºC or 390ºF
- Pork fat (lard) – 188ºC or 370ºF
- Vegetable shortening – 182ºC or 360ºF
- Unrefined sesame oil – 177ºC or 350ºF
- Virgin coconut oil – 177ºC or 350ºF
- Extra virgin olive oil – 163-190ºC or 325-375ºF
- Butter – 150ºC or 302ºF.
Now that we’ve laid down some fundamental info for choosing kitchen oils, let’s get to ranking the best and worst of them!
The 5 Best Oils for
Cooking & Baking
5. Sesame oil
A favorite in Asian cuisine, sesame oil is packed with the good fats (mono- and polyunsaturated), but low in bad saturated fat. While this is one of the healthier cooking greases out there, bear in mind two caveats. One, sesame oil has a distinct flavor that makes it challenging to use in some dishes. And two, opt for the unrefined kind. Refined oils often get stripped of their micronutrients, and at the same time, they are processed with refining chemicals like solvents!
4. Peanut oil
Most peanut oils are composed of monounsaturated fats (good for you). Plus, they’re also packed with vitamin E, promoting the health of your cells. The one catch with peanut oil is its flavor, which can affect the taste of certain dishes. Best for: High-heat stir-frying or sauteing
3. Virgin coconut oil
VCO is one of those oils that contain “in-between fats,” which means they have healthful properties but you should use them in a well-balanced diet, preferably free of trans fats and with a low to no junk food consumption.
VCO is also hailed as a wonder oil for its other benefits like being anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antiviral. Some studies even show it helps ease mild Covid-19! Virgin coconut oil is packed with lauric acid, which breaks down viruses and prevents them from multiplying.
Further, the saturated fats in VCO are medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which means they’re easier for the body to digest and absorb. By comparison, the fats in other oils like avocado oil and olive oil are long-chain triglycerides.
The benefits from VCO remain intact because it’s unrefined. As we mentioned above, refined oils lose their nutritional value and are added with synthetic chemicals, so you’ll want to replace those with unrefined oils.
And if you’re wondering about VCO’s nutty aroma and flavor, don’t worry – it’ll come out barely noticeable to non-existent in your final dish. So it’s an oil more suitable to a wider variety of cuisines and dishes.
Best for: Roasting, sauteing, baking, shallow frying
2. Extra-virgin olive oil
Extra-virgin olive oil is rich in healthy monounsaturated fats, so much so that it’s associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Take note, though: you’ll want the extra-virgin kind, which means it has not gone through chemical processing. In addition, EVOO tends to have a low smoke point. It is best for drizzling on salads and not ideal for high heat cooking.
Best for: Low-heat sauteing, dips and dressings
1. Avocado oil
Avocado oil offers a trifecta of benefits: it has one of the highest levels of monounsaturated fats among edible oils, its mild flavor allows for versatile cooking, and its high smoke point makes it good even for high-heat dishes. Of course, choose the unrefined kind to obtain its benefits. Best for: Searing, deep-frying, stir-frying, grilling.
We mentioned above how solid margarine is a bombshell of trans-fats (the worst fats!). According to The Mayo Clinic, “the more solid the margarine, the more trans fat it contains. So stick margarines usually have more trans fat than tub margarines do."
Our take? Just steer clear of this shortening as much as possible. If you need to grease something like a pan or baking dish, brush some virgin coconut oil instead.
3. Canola oil (rapeseed oil)
This one’s controversial. Some sources tell you that canola is high in good fats and low in bad fats. But all that is canceled out by its disadvantages.
First, canola oil is another pro-inflammatory food ingredient – which, as we now know, triggers a variety of health issues.
In addition, canola oil is highly processed. To maximize oil extraction, canola manufacturers soak their plant material in the solvent hexane – the same solvent in gasoline! Hexane pulls the oil from the plant material and is then evaporated out of the mix. Later in the manufacturing process, the oil is deodorized to remove unwanted odors and taste. Deodorization uses temperatures above 200ºC, which transforms some of the oil’s unsaturated fatty acids into trans-fatty acids. Essentially, some of its good fats become bad fats.
2. Palm oil
Palm oil may be extremely common and cheap, but it’s one oil to avoid. The biggest problem with palm oil is the way it’s sourced. Palm oil farming involves the deforestation of rainforests to give way to plantations, particularly in Southeast Asia. This results in massive habitat loss for wildlife, endangering animals, plus the loss of countless trees that help fight climate change.
In addition, palm oil corporations are taking over small-scale coconut farmers in Southeast Asian countries. As the multinational palm oil industry creeps in, local coconut farmers have to beg for support from the government and the market.
For these reasons, many advocates and chefs would tell you to skip the palm oil and replace it with a more sustainable and ethical oil like virgin coconut oil.
Made Mindful Virgin Coconut Oil is sourced from Filipino farms in Quezon and Bicol provinces, where our farmers receive above-market pay. We also work with locals for the harvesting, dehusking, and extracting of the oil.
1. Hydrogenated oils
As we’ve learned above, hydrogenated fats a.k.a. trans fats do not contain any nutritional value at all and only contribute to bad cholesterol. In fact, some countries like the US, Britain, Canada, Denmark, and Switzerland have banned or restricted trans fats in their food products.
Margarine is a ubiquitous example of a hydrogenated fat, but many other food items contain vaguely labeled “vegetable oils” that are fully or partially hydrogenated. Check food labels and look out for hydrogenated oils in items such as vegetable shortening, pre-made doughs, chocolate drinks, powdered milks, and even coffee creamers – aside from food products like chips, crackers, and popcorn.
All this goes to show that the most healthful oil to use in your food is the one that’s least processed. Made Mindful VCO is extracted purely through mechanical press, so it has zero chemical processing. No heating, deodorizing, bleaching, or additives. You get 100 percent pure virgin coconut oil that’s perfect for sauteing and baking. You can blend it with your smoothies, use it for your skin and hair, and consume it with a tablespoon, too! Made Mindful VCO is also approved by the Philippine Food and Drug Administration.
Find some easy recipes using Made Mindful VCO here, and sign up for our newsletter to get our Mindful Living Guide that includes healthy, yummy recipes!