Mountaintop Medicine: Nutrition Notes — How to Choose the Right Cooking Oil

Hello! Welcome back to another edition of Mountaintop Medicine: Nutrition Notes!

We often focus on convenience when choosing a cooking oil rather than its nutritional value, quality, and smoke point. In this article, I am going to explain a variety of common cooking oils using these components to best describe their contribution to our health and what type of food preparation they can best be used for.

But first, here are a few things to consider when choosing the right cooking oil:

Leah Gardner, EPH Registered Dietitian

Depending on where the oil is sourced from, the type and proportion of fatty acids they contain can vary, which influences their effects on our health.

Cooking oils have a range of smoke points, or elevated temperatures at which they are no longer stable. You should avoid using cooking oils when cooking at temperatures above their smoke point because it can cause the oils to break down. When broken down, oils oxidize and release free radicals that can have negative effects on our health.

The amount of processing can affect the quality of your cooking oils. Highly refined oils have a uniform appearance and are typically less expensive. Unrefined oils endure minimal processing and sometimes contain sediment particles, causing them to have a cloudier appearance, while containing more of their natural flavor and color. Unrefined oils also contain more nutrients, which makes them more sensitive to heat and can cause them to go rancid more quickly than processed oils. This means that refined oils typically have a higher smoke point than unrefined oils.

Common Cooking Oils

  1. It is tried and true that olive oil has been proven to be one of the healthiest and most versatile cooking oils readily available. It has long been the gold standard for cooking oils across the world, especially in Mediterranean countries. Olive oil is rich in an unsaturated fatty acid called oleic acid that has positive impacts on our health, especially for its anti-inflammatory properties that help to prevent obesity, heart issues, and type 2 diabetes. It is also rich in the antioxidant, vitamin E that helps to fight off those free radicals mentioned above. Extra virgin olive oil is unrefined and has a smoke point of about 350 degrees Fahrenheit, making it useful in many recipes that involve sautéing and baking, or making cold dressings. Light olive oil is more refined but has a high smoke point of about 470 degrees Fahrenheit and can be used for higher heat cooking.
  2. Avocado oil has a similar nutritional composition to olive oil, as it has a high percentage of oleic acid. It has a smoke point of approximately 520 degrees Fahrenheit, making it a great option for high heat cooking like oven roasting or deep frying.
  3. Safflower oil is another cooking oil high in unsaturated fatty acids such as oleic acid and omega-3 fatty acids important for our heart and brain health. This oil has neutral flavor and high smoke point of about 510 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes it useful for marinades, sauces, dips, and high heat cooking such as oven baking, deep frying, and barbecuing.
  4. Another kitchen staple is canola oil because the refining process leaves it with a neutral flavor and a medium high smoke point of about 400 degrees Fahrenheit. It can be used for stir-frying, sauteing, grilling, frying, and baking. It has been considered a healthy cooking oil because it is high in unsaturated fat, which we now know is important for heart health. Although, one major drawback of canola oil is that it does not come from a natural plant, and instead, is produced from genetically modified plants.
  5. Vegetable oil is often a blend of a variety of several types of oils. It is an inexpensive, generic oil that many people keep in their kitchens. The problem that can come with this type of oil is that it can be hard to track what exactly is in it- such as what plants it was derived from or how it was processed. The ratios of fat depend on the type of oils used in the blend. Although, vegetable oils have smoke point of about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, making it useful for a variety of cooking methods.
  6. Coconut oil is often feared for its high concentration of saturated fat but has been shown to increase levels of HDL cholesterol, or our “good” cholesterol. Unrefined virgin coconut oil has a significant coconut flavor and a smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit, making it the most useful for baking. Refined coconut oil has a slightly more neutral flavor and a higher smoke point of 450 degrees Fahrenheit and can be used for sauteing or oven roasting in addition to baking.

Should you use cooking sprays?

Cooking sprays add another level of convenience and speed when cooking. While seemingly harmless, these sprays use chemicals like butane, isobutane, and propane to propel the oil from the can. When possible, it is best to use bottled forms of cooking oils to avoid consuming these propellants. But if avoiding cooking sprays is not an option, opt for sprays made from olive oil or avocado oil to reap the most health benefits.

As you can see, not one single cooking oil is universal. They all can be used for a variety of different needs- whether you’re looking for the most healthful or using multiple high heat cooking methods.

A quick reminder: I am now offering outpatient nutrition counseling and education services at Estes Park Health. If you are interested, please contact your healthcare provider for a referral. If you have any questions or if there are any nutrition-related topics that you would like me to discuss here on Nutrition Notes, please reach out at