The best oils to use for cooking, according to nutritionists

Which oil is best for marinating chicken, making salad dressing or roasting veggies? Here's how to choose the right oil for your needs.
Image: Cooking vegetables, step four, pouring the olive oil
Oils with a higher smoke point — like avocado, sunflower seed and peanut oil — are best for sautéing veggies.Floriana / Getty Images
Get the Better newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Natalie Rizzo, RD

The oil aisle can feel like the Wild West. With so many varieties on store shelves, it can be overwhelming. Which is best for salad dressing? What about marinating chicken? Are certain varieties healthier options?

When it comes to whether certain oils are better than others for your specific cooking need, the answer is yes. Certain oils work well in sauces and dressings, while others are suited for high-temperature cooking or baking. Not to mention that every oil has a different taste and a range of health benefits (or lack thereof). So, instead of grabbing the cheapest oil on the shelf, here's what you need to know to choose the right one.

Choosing an oil: Smoke point, nutritional facts and price

There are a few things to consider when choosing an oil, including smoke point, cooking method, taste and nutrition. Smoke point is the temperature at which the fat begins to break down and oxidize. For optimal taste and nutrition, oil shouldn’t be used above its smoke point. Ones with higher smoke points are best for roasting, baking, frying and sautéing. Those with lower smoke points make nice finishing oils, dressings, sauces or dips. Taste also plays a role in your choice, since some have a more noticeable flavor than others.

In terms of nutrition, it’s important to remember that oils are a calorie-rich fat. Most are high in the “good” polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat, but some do have significant amounts of the “bad” saturated fat. Regardless which oil you are using, it’s important to pay attention to portion size to avoid overdoing it and keep calories and fat intake at a reasonable level. A serving size of oil is 1 tablespoon and using 2-3 tablespoons in a recipe that feeds four people is ideal. For baked goods that call for a lot of oil, you can lighten the recipe by replacing half of what is called for with an equivalent portion of pureed fruit, like mashed banana, pureed pears or no-sugar applesauce.

The other thing you may notice when standing in the oil aisle is that price can differ dramatically from one bottle to the next. More expensive oil doesn’t always translate to higher quality. Some oils, like avocado oil or peanut oil, are pricier because they are produced in smaller amounts and are harder to find. But if you’re trying to pick between a $7.99 or $24.99 bottle of olive oil, there are a few things to consider.

First, choose an olive oil in a dark bottle, which prevents rancidity from heat or light. A quality olive oil will also taste like fresh olives with a hint of peppery bitterness. If it tastes sour or smells stinky, it’s low quality or has gone bad. Lastly, there are certain seals of approval you can look for on olive oil bottles. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Quality Monitored Seal means the chemistry of the olive oil has been verified for purity and quality, and a sensory panel judged and approved the flavor. The North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) Seal is given after olive oils are purchased and tested directly from supermarkets to confirm adherence to the standards set by the International Olive Council (IOC).

Now that you know what to look for, let’s dive a little deeper into seven popular varieties you’ll see on store shelves.

Freekeh "Fried Rice" made with avocado oil.Jackie Newgent

Avocado Oil

This recently popular oil has one of the highest smoke points, coming in around 520° Fahrenheit (F). This makes it ideal for an all-purpose oil or really high heat cooking. “Avocado oil is rich in monounsaturated fats, specifically oleic acid or omega-9, so it’s considered a heart-healthy oil with the potential to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol,” says Jackie Newgent, RDN, culinary nutritionist and author of “The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook”. Newgent adds that you shouldn’t expect to get all of the same benefits of eating avocado by using just the oil. Yet, it is her oil of choice for making Freekeh “Fried Rice” and baked tortilla crisps.

Sunflower Seed Oil

Believe it or not, there are oils made entirely from the tiny sunflower seed. With a smoke point of 450°F and a slightly nutty flavor, it’s often used for sautéing, stir frying, deep frying and baking. There are a few varieties of sunflower seed oil, and some are higher in monounsaturated fats than others. High oleic sunflower oils have the most beneficial monounsaturated fats, and research has found that substituting this type of oil for saturated fats in the diet can produce lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Abbie Gellman, MS, chef, registered dietitian and owner of NYC-based Culinary Nutrition Cuisine, adds that sunflower oil has high levels of Vitamin E, which promotes healthy skin. Try using this high smoke point oil to cook up some Shishito Peppers.

Vegan Dark Chocolate-Pumpkin Bread made with grapeseed oil.

Grapeseed Oil

Made from the seeds of grapes that are normally discarded in the wine making process, the smoke point for grapeseed oil is about 420°F. “Since grapeseed oil has a relatively high smoke point and a ‘clean’ taste, it’s an ideal all-purpose oil,” says Newgent. She recommends using it in baking, like in this Vegan Dark Chocolate-Pumpkin Bread. “Grapeseed oil is rich in omega-6 fatty acids, which can be a heart-friendlier option than a cooking fat high in saturated or trans fats, like butter, margarine or shortening,” she adds. However, she notes that research has found that a high intake of omega-6 is linked with inflammation.

While this sounds problematic, much of the omega-6 oil in the American diet comes from processed and fried foods. High amounts of omega-6 from unhealthy food sources has been linked with inflammation, but the American Heart Association says that eating omega-6 in moderation is perfectly healthy and even encouraged. As a rule of thumb, stick to a 1:1 ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 in your diet by eating equal amounts of foods that contain each. So go ahead and use grapeseed oil, but also eat plenty of fatty fish and nuts.

Olive oil

The smoke points for olive oils ranges from about 325°F (extra-virgin olive oil) to about 465°F (extra-light olive oil). “There’s a just-right olive oil for every cooking or baking purpose due to the varying smoke points and flavor profiles,” says Newgent.

There’s a just-right olive oil for every cooking or baking purpose due to the varying smoke points and flavor profiles.

Extra-virgin olive oil is not the best for cooking over medium-high or high heat, but it makes a nice finishing oil on top of dips, salads, soups or bread or in salad dressings. For a simple and tasty maple balsamic vinaigrette, whisk together ½ cup of olive oil with ¼ cup of balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard and 1 teaspoon of pure maple syrup. If you really love olive oil and want to cook with it, look for extra-light olive oil, which has a higher smoke point and can be used in baking and high heat cooking.

It’s important to note that while extra-light olive oil is light in color and olive taste, that doesn’t mean it’s lower in calories. Olive oil is rich in plant compounds called polyphenols, which have been linked to reducing incidences of cancer and heart disease.

Coconut oil

This controversial oil has been making waves in the nutrition scene due to its high saturated fat content. The American Heart Association recently advised against using coconut oil due its 82 percent saturated fat content. (In comparison, every other oil on this list only has about 10-20 percent saturated fat.) They cite a study that compared the effects of coconut oil, butter and safflower oil and found that butter and coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol, compared with safflower oil. Another study also found that coconut oil significantly increased LDL cholesterol compared with olive oil. With this in mind, if you do choose to cook with coconut oil, know that it has a smoke point of 350°F and a slight coconut flavor, making it the oil of choice for some to use in stir fries and pan frying. “If you're vegan, coconut oil provides some saturated fatty acids that you might not get from other foods, but I don’t recommend using coconut oil if you eat animal protein at all,” says Gellman.

Vegetable oil

Typically made from a blend of many different oils, like sunflower, safflower, peanut, canola, corn and soybean, vegetable oil is very affordable and neutral tasting. It has a smoke point of about 400°F, making it a good option for any sort of oven cooking. Vegetable oil contains the highest levels of polyunsaturated fats of any type of cooking oil, which is a good thing since these types of fats have been shown to lower coronary heart disease.

While liquid vegetable oil is chock full of heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats, there are other forms of veggie oil that aren’t quite as good for you. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is used to make products like margarine, coffee creamer, packaged snacks and fried foods. Unfortunately, this form of vegetable oil has harmful trans fats, which is associated with increase in heart disease and death. Vegetable oil in its purest form is part of a healthy diet, but partially hydrogenated oils aren’t.

Peanut Oil

This high heat oil has a smoke point of about 450°F. “Because of its high smoke point and slight nuttiness, this is a popular oil to stir-fry Asian cuisine and deep-fry comfort foods, like French fries and fried chicken,” says Newgent. “Peanut oil is also high in monounsaturated fat, and it contains phytosterols that can block absorption of cholesterol,” says Newgent.

But just like grapeseed oil, peanut oil is rich in inflammatory omega-6. As noted previously, moderate amounts of this fatty acid are fine, but too much can be cause for concern. Use peanut oil in conjunction with other omega-3 rich oils, like olive oil. Plus, those with peanut allergies will be happy to know that they don’t need to avoid peanut oil, according to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). The proteins in peanuts that can cause an allergic reaction are removed when refined into an oil. However, this is not the case for cold-pressed peanut oil, and those with a peanut allergy should avoid this type of oil.

WHAT A NUTRITIONIST WANTS YOU TO KNOW

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.