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Harvard Commentaries
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Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


Food for Thought Food for Thought
 

Are You Due for an Oil Change?


December 06, 2013

By Lindsay LaJoie, B.S.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

When it comes to cooking oil, it's great to have choices. But sometimes, too many options at the supermarket can be overwhelming.

Not all oils are created equal. Some are good for your health while others promote disease.

This guide will help you make healthy choices in the supermarket aisle.  

Which Fats Are Healthy?

Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. They  are abundant in cooking oils. A diet that includes sources of healthy, unsaturated fats can provide some health benefits.

  • Monounsaturated fats may reduce the risk of heart disease by reducing levels of LDL cholesterol (also known as "bad cholesterol") in the blood. Monounsaturated fats may also help control blood sugar, which can reduce the risk of diabetes. Some food sources of monounsaturated fats are avocado, nuts (such as almonds and cashews) and nut butters.
  • Polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids—the essential fatty acids. These fatty acids are not produced by the body. You must get them from your diet. Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in normal brain function and development. And they may help prevent inflammation. Omega-6 fatty acids can reduce cholesterol levels, which reduces the risk of heart disease. Food sources of polyunsaturated fats include walnuts, sunflower seeds, and fish (salmon, herring and canned tuna).

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Not-so Healthy Fats

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. They are associated with an increase in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in the blood.

Saturated fats should be eaten in limited quantities. Try to replace unsaturated fats with healthy fats as often as possible.

Certain cooking oils, such as coconut oil, are high in saturated fat. One tablespoon of coconut oil has 12 grams of saturated fat. That's why it's best to limit how much you eat.

When buying coconut oil, be sure to choose virgin coconut oil. It doesn't have the unhealthy trans fats that are found in hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated forms. Read more about coconut oil.

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Side-by-Side Comparisons

Compare the monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated fat content of some common cooking oils. As you can see, the tropical-sounding oils — palm oil and coconut oil — contain the highest amounts of saturated fats. They should be eaten less frequently than the unsaturated oils.  

Oil (1 tbsp)

Monounsaturated (grams)

Polyunsaturated (grams)

Saturated (grams)

Olive

9.9

1.4

1.9

Canola

8.9

3.9

1.0

Peanut

6.2

4.3

2.3

Soybean

3.1

7.8

2.1

Corn

3.8

7.4

1.8

Walnut

3.1

8.6

1.2

Almond

9.5

2.4

1.1

Sesame

5.4

5.7

1.9

Flaxseed

2.5

9.2

1.2

Sunflower

11.7

0.5

1.4

Palm

5.0

1.3

6.7

Coconut

0.8

0.2

11.8

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Smoke Points Matter

Different cooking oils have different smoke points — the temperature at which they begin to produce smoke.

Smoke produced when cooking with oil generates toxic fumes and harmful byproducts that may be carcinogens. When oil reaches its smoke point, it also begins to degrade. This adds an unpleasant smell and taste to food. If oil begins to smoke while you are cooking, it is best to throw it away.

High smoke point

Cooking oils that begin to smoke at high temperatures are best suited for browning, searing and pan-frying, because they can withstand the most heat. These include:

  • Almond oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Light olive oil

Medium-high smoke point

Choose cooking oils with a medium-high smoke point when stir-frying, oven cooking or baking. These include:

  • Canola oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Medium smoke point

Cooking oils with a medium smoke point will produce smoke at lower temperatures than high or medium-high smoke point oils. They're best for light sautéing, baking at low temperatures and sauce-making. Medium smoke point oils include:

  • Sesame oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Coconut oil

No-Heat Oils

The best oils for making salad dressings, marinades and dips include:

  • Flaxseed oil
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Walnut oil

Let's clear up some confusion about olive oil. All types are high in healthy fats and contain the same amount of calories. Terms such as "extra virgin" and "virgin" olive oil actually refer to the acid content of the oil. Extra virgin olive oil has less acid than virgin or pure olive oils. This gives it a fruitier flavor and aroma. Don't be fooled into thinking that light olive oil is fewer in calories. In the case of olive oil, "light" refers only to the color and aroma of the product. For higher temperature cooking, keep a bottle of canola oil in the pantry as a backup.

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Don't Let the Drizzle Turn into a Downpour

Cooking oils are rich in healthy unsaturated fats. However, this does not mean they should be eaten in excess.

A tablespoon of oil contains about 120 calories and over 10 grams of fat. A person's daily allowance for oils varies based on age, sex and level of physical activity.  One to two tablespoons of cooking oil is adequate to enjoy the benefits of essential fatty acids without taking too much of a chunk out of your  calorie "budget."

Oils in foods such as fish, nuts or salad dressings are other sources of essential fatty acids.  

Lindsay LaJoie, B.S. is a Dietetic Intern at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She graduated with a B.S. in Food Science & Human Nutrition from the University of Maine.

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