The best type of cooking oil
There are many different types of oil but which ones are the best? The answer isn’t as straight forward as naming one type of oil that is healthier than the rest – although olive oil appears to be one of the most popular choices for the “best” oil. It comes down to the way in which the oil is going to be used.
The pros and cons of three of the most commonly discussed oils are outlined below, along with oils to watch out for.
Olive oil has one of the highest levels of monounsaturated fats (this is a good type of fat) and a low quantity of saturated fat (bad fat).
Cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil has not been subjected to heat or chemical solvents and is rather produced from mechanical processes alone. This increases its appeal as a more ‘natural’ oil. The lack of heat and solvent exposure means it retains more nutrients and antioxidants.
Extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point (approximately 160 – 200 degrees). The smoke point refers to the temperature at which the oil starts break down and smoke – this can produce harmful chemicals that can increase the risk of cancer. All unrefined oils will have a lower smoke point. This means that olive oil is not idyllic for cooking techniques that use a high heat e.g. sautéing, stir frying, cooking in a wok.
Additionally, olive oil lacks the omega 3 and vitamin E content that other oils contain.
When is olive oil best used?
Olive oil is a good option for meals that don’t require much heating, for example, when it is used as a salad dressing or to dip bread in.
The optimal type of olive oil to use is cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil (not to be confused with virgin olive oil) – as previously mentioned, this process does not expose the olives to any heat or solvents during processing. This type of olive oil has a desirable flavour and has the health benefits of a rich antioxidant content. It is shown to have protective effects for cardiovascular health and macular degeneration.
Pure olive oil and light olive oil have higher smoke points which make them more suitable for cooking, however, they do not have the same health benefits as cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil.
Rice bran oil
There has recently been a lot of fuss over the wonders of rice bran oil. Whilst it does have positive characteristics, its nutrient profile does not differ significantly from other types of oils – despite how the marketing may make it seem.
Rice bran oil contains oryzanol and tocotrienols. Oryzanol is a plant sterol which has the ability to block cholesterol absorption by the body, thereby reducing cholesterol levels. Tocotrienols are converted in to vitamin E, they are an antioxidant that helps to protect against heart disease. These 2 compounds aren’t as prevalent in other oils.
When it comes to cooking, rice bran oil is a good option! It has a high smoke point so it is more stable at higher temperatures and will therefore be less prone to breaking down and producing harmful chemicals. It also has a lower viscosity (thickness) than some other oils, which means that you can use less as it spreads further; it also means less will be absorbed by the food.
Rice bran oil is higher in saturated fat, particularly when compared to canola or olive oil. It as well is a refined oil and whilst this makes it more stable at higher heats, it compromises its antioxidant and vitamin content, removing its ‘natural’ qualities.
Despite the potential cholesterol lowering properties of rice bran oil, the amount of plant sterol received from a serve is only small. This means that the quantity most people consume will likely have little effect on cholesterol levels.
When is rice bran oil best used?
Due to its high smoke point (approximately 250 degrees), rice bran oil is a great option for stir frys, baking and sautéing – those cooking methods that require a higher heat. It remains stable for longer periods at higher heats without hydrogenation (creating trans fatty acids).
Canola oil is derived from the oil of the rapeseed. Its name comes from ‘Canadian oil, low acid’. It has a high monounsaturated fatty acid content.
Canola has the lowest amount of saturated fat compared to other oils. This makes it a good option for cooking along with the fact that it is stable at high temperatures. Canola oil is as well a source of omega 3 which has many health benefits of its own for such things as inflammation and heart health.
Like rice bran oil, canola oil is refined and is therefore further removed from its natural form than olive oil. As a result, more of its nutrients are lost to processing.
When is canola oil best used?
Canola oil is a good all purpose oil. It is suitable for sautéing, stir frying, baking and other cooking methods that require a high heat.
Oil to be aware of
There are 2 vegetable oils to be aware of when it comes to cooking – palm oil and coconut oil.
Coconut oil: This is a thick oil extracted from coconuts. Despite its plant origin, it has very high saturated fat contents, particularly compared to other oils – as can be seen in the table below. It is therefore wise to be very cautious of the amount of coconut oil you are using.
Palm oil: Palm oil is also very high in saturated fat and should be avoided. It is commonly used by food manufacturing companies for such items as chips and fried products.
Often a product will state that it uses vegetable oil instead of palm oil – this makes it sound better. If you look at the nutrition information panel and see that over a third of the products total fat content is saturated, it is likely that palm oil is the culprit.
The table below outlines the fat profiles of different oils. All oil is virtually free of trans fat.
|Oil||Saturates (%)||Monounsaturates (%)||Polyunsaturates (%)|
Table adapted from Essentials of Human Nutrition 
High temperature cooking: Use oil that is stable at higher heats, such as canola oil, which also has a lower saturated fat content. These oils won’t produce smoke as easily and will therefore avoid the production of those nasty chemicals!
Serving cold: When using oil that is not undergoing any heat exposure, cold pressed extra virgin olive oil is a good way to go e.g. used cold on salads and vegetables.
By using a mixture of oils, you can reap the benefits that they each provide e.g. the antioxidants and vitamins of olive oil and the vitamin E and omega 3 of other oils like rice bran and canola oils. Remember to use any oil sparingly though!
Contact us for results focused nutritional advice
This article was written by our dietitian Belinda Elwin who is a Dietitians Association of Australia member and Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist.
If you have diet related questions or if you want healthy eating advice, Contact us today!
1. Mann J, Truswell A. Essentials of Human Nutrition 3rd edition. Oxford University Press: 2007.