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What are the best oils for cooking?

What are the best oils for cooking?

With olive oil more than doubling in price due to droughts and a bacterial infection affecting harvests in Europe, people are looking for alternative oils for cooking and dressings. Rapeseed oil is the most popular alternative to olive oil, and has long been considered a healthier and better alternative, but what is the best oil for cooking and food preparation?

There are lots of oils and fats available for cooking. A small amount of fat is a necessary part of a healthy, balanced diet and provides essential fatty acids which the body cannot produce itself. However, as oils and fats are high in calories, it's also important to remember to use them in sparingly. Our expert nutritionists explain the best oils for cooking and food preparation.

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Types of fat explained

To understand which oil is best for cooking, we need to first look at the types of fats and 'smoke points' found in different oils. The 'smoke point' is when the oil begins to burn and the beneficial nutrients begin to be lost. There are two main types of fat found in food - 'saturated fat' and 'unsaturated fat'. Unsaturated fat includes mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fatty acids.

Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and healthier when they're not heated. Rapeseed oil and olive oil are high in monounsaturated fats and are excellent for salad dressings or to drizzle on top of food.

Polyunsaturated fats include Omega 3 and 6 'fatty acids', and are essential for our health, and also they're most beneficial when not heated. Most foods tend to contain a mixture of different types of fatty acids, and they are classed by the predominant type of fat they contain.

The structure of a fat makes a difference in its use in food preparation and cooking, and the impact on our health. Vegetable or plant oils are derived from seeds, legumes and nuts, and they're liquid at room temperature. While they contain a mix of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, it is unsaturated fats that typically predominate.

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There is a lot of evidence that choosing oils high in unsaturated fats, particularly polyunsaturated fats like rapeseed oil, olive and sunflower oils, can support a healthy heart by reducing cholesterol and cardiovascular risk

Which is healthier: olive oil or rapeseed (canola) oil?

Olive oil has become the most popular oil in recent decades due to the popularity of the mediterranean diet, and TV chefs promoting it. However, as we highlight here, rapeseed oil is at least as healthy, with the lowest level of saturated fats, higher levels of polyunsaturated fats, and high levels of Vitamin E, which is important for healthy skin, eyes and our immune system

Per 1 TBSP Rapeseed oil Olive oil
Energy (kcal) 99 99
Fat (g) 11 11
Saturates (g) 0.7 16
Monounsaturates (g) 6.5 8
Polyunsaturates (g) 3.2 0.9
Vitamin E (mg) 2.4 0.6
Polyphenols (g) No Yes

Rapeseed oil and olive oil have a similar 'smoke point' of approximately 400F, while sunflower oil has a higher smoke point of approximately 450F. When choosing an oil, it's also important to consider the 'food miles' incurred to deliver the oil to the supermarket shelf, and if the oil has been produced locally or travelled thousands of miles across the globe. 

Dietary sources of fats and oils

Saturated fats

Butter, Ghee, Lard, Palm and Palm kernel oil, Coconut oil, Margarine and Dripping.

Monounsaturated fats

Rapeseed, Olive, Peanut and Avocado oils.

Polyunsaturated fats 

Soya, Corn, Safflower, Sunflower, Walnut, Rapeseed, Sesame and Flaxseed oils.

Cooking with oils

Oils provide an efficient mode of heat transfer during cooking, however they also get absorbed by the food. It is best to choose oils with a high smoke point and which are high in unsaturated fat. Rapeseed oil, olive oil and sunflower oil all have high smoke points and are high in unsaturated fat. 

The smoke point is the temperature at which the oil starts to give off smoke, a sign it is starting to break down. A higher smoke point means that a fat is more stable, and oils used for frying must be stable to withstand high temperatures and prevent a reduction in their quality.

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Best cooking oils for health 

Due to their high levels of unsaturated fats, the best healthy cooking oils are:

  • Rapeseed oil
  • Olive oil - refined or virgin
  • Sunflower oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Safflower oil

    Comparison of fats in cooking oils

    What types of fats impact heart health? 

    Dietary guidelines advise cutting down on all fats in your diet, particularly reducing the amount of saturated fat and avoiding trans fats. Numerous studies show these fats can have a detrimental effect on raising blood cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease. Learn more in our article 'How to keep your heart healthy'.

    For comprehensive support for a healthy heart, including managing blood cholesterol, we recommend HeartPro®, the advanced supplement developed by practitioners including probiotics, plant sterols, red yeast rice extract and chromium.  

    Are there any health benefits of cooking with coconut oil? 

    The use of coconut oil in cooking has become increasingly popular in recent years and it is being heavily promoted as a healthy oil that benefits heart health, however there is little evidence of positive health benefits.

    Although coconut oil has a high smoke point, it is also high in saturated fat which can negatively impact on cardiovascular health, so it is not advised to be consumed regularly.

    Which cooking oil is good for health? 

    There is strong evidence to suggest that replacing saturated fats with moderate amounts of unsaturated fats can promote a healthy heart and reduce the risk of heart disease.

    For heart health, it is advised to swap butter, palm oil, or coconut oil for rapeseed, olive, sunflower and soybean oil in cooking. It’s important to note that all fats and oils, whether saturated or unsaturated, are calorie-dense so they should be used sparingly. You don’t need to avoid fats altogether, just remember only a small amount is required as part of a healthy balanced diet.  

    We also recommend avoiding products which are derived from palm oil - one of our recommended sustainable hacks - because palm oil is a major driver of deforestation.

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    What are the health impacts of butter and lard?

    In contrast to rapeseed, olive and sunflower oils, animal fats like butter and lard, and certain tropical plant oils like coconut oil and palm oil, contain higher amounts of saturated fats than vegetable oils, and they are more solid at room temperature.

    Having a lot of saturated fat in your diet is linked with raised levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which can build up in your arteries. Too high levels of LDL compared to HDL cholesterol can cause your arteries to become narrowed or blocked, which increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, so it's important to try to reduce the level of saturated fats in your diet.

    Summary

    To reduce the risk of developing heart disease and support a healthy-heart, swap saturated fats for unsaturated oils. When cooking or preparing food, choose plant oils including rapeseed oil, avocado oil, olive oil or sunflower oil, and avoid tropical oils such as coconut, palm and palm kernel oil, and animal fats including butter and lard.

    If you enjoyed reading we think you'll also like Best Alternatives to Caffeine and Nutritionist advice for healthy weight loss.

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    Further reading

    We recommend you use the below table to help understand the health comparison of different cooking oils:

    Oil

    Type of fat

    Ideal culinary use

    Smoke Point

    Sunflower 

    Polyunsaturated

    Salad dressings & cooking, stir-frying, sautéing, deep-frying.

    High - 236°C

    Avocado

    Monounsaturated

    Pan-frying, roasting, baking. 

    High - 269°C

    Safflower

    Polyunsaturated

    Salad dressings & cooking, stir-frying, sautéing, deep-frying

    Medium-High (229°C)

    Soybean

    Polyunsaturated

    Salad dressings & cooking, stir-frying, sautéing, deep-frying

    High - 233°C

    Peanut

    Monounsaturated (& 30% polyunsaturated)

    Salad dressings & cooking, stir-frying, sautéing, deep-frying.

    High (233°C)

    Corn

    Polyunsaturated

    Salad dressings & cooking, stir-frying, sautéing, deep-frying.

    High (233°C)

    Ghee 

    Saturated

    Light sautéing, low heat frying, low heat baking. 

    High - 235°C

    Butter

    Saturated 

    Sautéing, baking.

    Medium - 167°C

    Palm 

    Saturated

    Commercial frying

    High - 226°C

    Coconut 

    Saturated

    Commercial frying

    Medium-High (170-235°C)

    Extra Virgin Rapeseed (Canola)

    Monounsaturated  (& 30% polyunsaturated)

    Low heat baking, salad dressings, light sautéing and drizzling. 

    Medium (150-199°C)

    Virgin Rapeseed (Canola)

    Monounsaturated (& 30% polyunsaturated)

    Multi-purpose frying. Mayonnaise & salad dressing.

    Medium - High (200-229°C)

    Extra Virgin Olive

    Monounsaturated

    Low heat baking, salad dressings, light sautéing and drizzling. 

    Medium (150-199°C)

    Virgin Olive

    Monounsaturated

    Dressings, stir frying, baking, sautéing, simmering 

    Medium - High (200-229°C)

    Regular & Refined Olive & Rapeseed (Canola)

    Monounsaturated

    Cooking at high temperatures. Deep frying. Roasting. 

    High (>230°C)

    Refined Sesame 

    Monounsaturated (& 40% polyunsaturated)

    For stir-frying, searing and deep frying.

    High (>230°C)

    Refined Walnut

    Polyunsaturated

    Making dips, dressings, drizzling and stir-fries. 

    Medium (150-199°C)

    Flaxseed

    Polyunsaturated

    Making dips, dressings and drizzling.  

    Low (<150°C) - heat sensitive 


    References

      1. Eyres L, Eyres MF, Chisholm A, Brown RC. Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans. Nutr Rev. 2016 Apr;74(4):267-80. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuw002. Epub 2016 Mar 5. PMID: 26946252; PMCID: PMC4892314.
      2. Jayawardena R, Swarnamali H, Lanerolle P, Ranasinghe P. Effect of coconut oil on cardio-metabolic risk: A systematic review and meta-analysis of interventional studies. Diabetes Metab Syndr. 2020 Nov-Dec;14(6):2007-2020. doi: 10.1016/j.dsx.2020.09.033. Epub 2020 Oct 13. PMID: 33096510.
      3. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/different-fats-nutrition/ 
      4. Hooper L, Martin N, Jimoh OF, Kirk C, Foster E, Abdelhamid AS. Reduction in saturated fat intake for cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020 May 19;5(5):CD011737. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD011737.pub2. Update in: Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020 Aug 21;8:CD011737. PMID: 32428300; PMCID: PMC7388853.
      5. Lichtenstein AH, Appel LJ, Vadiveloo M, Hu FB, Kris-Etherton PM, Rebholz CM, Sacks FM, Thorndike AN, Van Horn L, Wylie-Rosett J. 2021 Dietary Guidance to Improve Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2021 Dec 7;144(23):e472-e487. doi: 10.1161/CIR.0000000000001031. Epub 2021 Nov 2. PMID: 34724806.
      6. Sacks FM, Lichtenstein AH, Wu JHY, Appel LJ, Creager MA, Kris-Etherton PM, Miller M, Rimm EB, Rudel LL, Robinson JG, et al; American Heart Association. Dietary fats and cardiovascular disease: a presidential advisory from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2017;136:e1–e23. doi: 10.1161/CIR.0000000000000510  
      7. Foster R, Williamson CS & Lunn J (2009). BRIEFING PAPER: Culinary oils and their health effects. Nutrition Bulletin 34: 4–47. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-3010.2008.01738.x
      8. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/images/0215-2.pdf 
      9. EUFIC Review (2014) How to choose your culinary oil. https://www.eufic.org/en/whats-in-food/article/how-to-choose-your-culinary-oil 
      10. Comparison of the fatty acid profile of the main culinary oils. Source: MAFF (1998); USDA (2008), Taken from British Nutrition Foundation (2009). Culinary oils and their health effects.
     

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