Your Guide To Heart-Healthy Cooking Oils | Desi~licious RD

Are you confused about which cooking oils to use to keep your ticker healthy? Choosing the “right” type among the wide variety available can be a tad overwhelming. Which are the best cooking oils for cooking? How do you store them? And what about a cooking oil’s smoke point? So many questions! “Oil in oil,” no cooking oil is created equal.

a female standing over a pan on a cook top with a bottle of oil in her hand

In this practical guide, we’ve got all your heart-healthy cooking oil answers. Oil in a day’s work!   

Do We Need Cooking Oils In Our Diet?

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to eliminate all fat from your diet for heart health. In fact, dietary fat provides the body with energy, helps with nutrient absorption, and is essential for nervous system development and function. What’s important is to include healthier types of fats – especially when it comes to reducing the risk of heart disease. According to Health Canada, two to three tablespoons of healthy fats can be included in your diet. 

The Canadian Cardiovascular Society recommends that Canadians reduce the intake of saturated fats. These should be replaced with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (more on these later!). 

So what does this mean when it comes to your everyday dietary choices?

Some Background On Types Of Fat: Saturated vs Unsaturated fats

There are numerous types of fats – the two main types are saturated and unsaturated fats, which are naturally available in food.

Unsaturated fats have the reputation of being the “healthy” fats since years of research has associated their intake with improved cholesterol levels and cardiovascular benefits (here and here). These include most plant-based sources of fat, such as:

  • Olive oil
  • Avocados
  • Nuts 
  • and seeds.

Unsaturated fats can be further categorized into monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). Certain types of PUFAs are grouped as Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) because your body cannot produce them on its own. Specifically, these are omega-3 and omega-6 fats and must be obtained from food. 

On the other hand, saturated fats are often labelled as “unhealthy.” This is based on some evidence linking regular intake of saturated fats with an increase in LDL cholesterol levels and, subsequently, an increased risk for heart disease. Saturated fats include all animal-based fats, such as butter and ghee, and a couple of plant-based oils, including coconut and palm oils. 

Fats Controversy and Consensus

Over the past few years, some researchers have been arguing that not all saturated fats are equal when it comes to heart health (here and here). In fact, in a recent workshop, leading nutrition scientists have suggested that the limits placed on saturated fat intake be lifted as there is no reliable scientific evidence that these limits would “prevent cardiovascular disease or reduce mortality.” Some scientists argue that the effect of saturated fats should not be considered “in isolation,” instead the emphasis should be on overall dietary patterns (herehereherehere and here).

The debate around saturated fat is by no means a free card to “up” your intake of saturated fats. Research has shown that there is less inflammation and atherosclerosis (build-up of plaque in arteries) when saturated fats are replaced with unsaturated fatty acids (herehere and here). Plus, real living thriving populations (The Blue Zones) – with the least amount of chronic disease – do not have a high intake of saturated fat. Thus, the recommendation to continue to replace saturated fats with unsaturated oils still stands. 

Cooking food ingredients. Olive oil and basil leaf
Cooking food ingredients. Olive oil and basil leaf

How to Choose a Heart-Healthy Cooking Oil

Heart-healthy oils should be rich in MUFAs and PUFAs. Replacing saturated fats with MUFAs has been shown to lower LDL or “bad” cholesterol and increase HDL or “good” cholesterol levels (here and here). Dietitians and nutrition experts agree with the suggestion to include sources of monounsaturated fats to replace unhealthy sources of fat. 

These include:

  • Olive Oil
  • Canola
  • Peanut oil
  • And sesame oil

PUFAs may also be helpful to heart health. Omega-3s have shown to lower triglyceride levels, improve cholesterol profiles and have cardioprotective effects. Sources of omega-3 fats should, therefore, be emphasized in the diet. You can start by including at least two servings of fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, sardines) in your weekly meal plan.

Whether Omega-6s benefit heart health is under debate. However, the ratio (or balance) of omega-3 to omega-6 intake seems to be essential for cardiovascular outcomes. 

Omega-6s are believed to have a pro-inflammatory effect while the omega-3s are known to be anti-inflammatory. Of course, inflammation is essential for your survival. It helps protect your body from infection and injury. Still, it can also cause severe damage and contribute to disease when it’s chronic or excessive. In fact, chronic inflammation may be one of the leading drivers of the most serious modern conditions, including heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and many types of cancer.

Due to the abundance of omega-6s in the North American diet, most of us consume a much higher amount of omega-6s, which has been linked with inflammation and chronic diseases. The good news is, decreasing the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio has been shown to quell inflammation.

Common sources of omega-6s include: 

  • Sunflower oil
  • Corn oil
  • Cottonseed oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Sunflower seeds 
  • and walnuts. 

To reap the most heart-healthy benefits from PUFAs, the ratio between omega-3 to omega-6 intake should be about 1:1 to 1:4. This means that no more than 5% to 10% of your total caloric intake should come from omega-6s. This is the equivalent of 9 grams of omega-6 fats.

6 Cooking Oils And When To Use Them

I’m often asked whether a cooking oil’s smoking point is important. The smoking point is the temperature at which a cooking oil starts to smoke and produce undesirable free radicals and toxic fumes. Generally, cooking oils with a very low smoke point are suitable for salad dressing and drizzling. Keep in mind that oils with a high smoking point are best for cooking and frying. 

The Best Heart-Healthy Cooking Oils

Olive Oil

Green olives in olive wood bowl and bottle of olive oil served on old wooden table
Green olives in olive wood bowl and bottle of olive oil served on old wooden table

Olive oil is obtained from olives, is widely available, and is relatively affordable. Compared to other oils, olive oil has a higher proportion of MUFAs, which are known to promote heart health. Additionally, olive oil is a source of polyphenol compounds that are suggested to contribute to its cardioprotective effects. Among different types of olive oil, Extra Virgin olive oil would be the least processed and likely higher in antioxidants. 

Smoke Point Of Olive Oil:

Extra-virgin olive oil has a medium-high smoke point at 160℃.

Best Uses:
  • When cooking at medium heat (sautéing)
  • In salad dressings and for drizzling over food
Storage:

Olive oil should be stored in a dark and cool cabinet to keep it fresh.

Sunflower Oil

Sunflower Oil with seeds on vintage wooden background
Sunflower Oil with seeds on vintage wooden background

Sunflower oil is naturally high in MUFAs and PUFAs, though it is often modified to contain similar amounts of MUFAs as olive oil. It is also a good source of vitamin E and phytosterols, which offer cholesterol-lowering properties. 

Smoke Point Of Sunflower Oil:

Sunflower oil has a high smoke point at 227℃.

Best Uses:
  • High-temperature cooking
  • Frying
Storage:

Sunflower oil should be stored in a dark and cool cabinet.

Canola Oil

Rapeseed oil in a bottle on white background

Canola oil ranks second next to olive oil and sunflower oil regarding its MUFA content. Besides, canola is a good source of Omega-3svitamin E, and phytosterols. The unique advantage of canola oil may be its neutral taste, making it a versatile cooking oil for recipes. Not to mention, canola is one of the most affordable types of oil, making it a suitable staple in most pantries. 

Smoke Point Of Canola Oil:

Canola oil has a relatively high smoke point at 204℃.

Best Uses:
  • Sautéing
  • Baking
  • Stir-frying and deep-frying
Storage:

Canola oil should be stored in a dark and cool cabinet.

Avocado Oil

Avocado oil in bowl and fresh avocados on wooden board .

Avocado oil has a sweet and unique aroma. It is high in MUFAsantioxidants, and vitamin E. The disadvantage is that avocado oil is relatively expensive and not as widely available. 

Smoke Point Of Avocado Oil:

Avocado oil has a very high smoke point at 271℃.

Best Uses:
  • Grilling, roasting and broiling
  • Stir-frying and deep-frying
  • In salad dressings and for drizzling over food
Storage:

Avocado oil should be stored in a dark and cool cabinet.

Sesame Oil

white sesame and oil in glass bottle
white sesame and oil in glass bottle

Sesame oil is a very good source of MUFAsOmega-3svitamin E, and phytosterols. What makes sesame oil unique is its nutty flavour. 

Smoke Point Of Sesame Oil:

Sesame oil has a medium smoke point at 177℃.

Best Uses:
  • Sautéing
  • In salad dressings and for drizzling over cooked food
Storage:

Sesame oil should be stored in a dark and cool cabinet.

Flaxseed Oil

Healthy brown linseeds and oil.
Healthy brown linseeds and oil.

Flaxseed oil is one of the richest sources of Omega-3 fats. A unique feature of this oil is its perfect omega-6 to omega-3 content, which is precisely at the recommended 1:4 ratio. The smoke point of flaxseed oil is relatively low, making it suitable for salad dressing and drizzling on cooked foods.

Smoke Point Of Flaxseed Oil:

Flaxseed oil has a very low smoke point at 107℃.

Best Uses:
  • In salad dressings and for drizzling over cooked food
Storage:

Flaxseed oil should be stored in a dark, dry and cool cabinet.

Which Cooking Oils You Should Limit or Avoid!

Liquid coconut oil in glass jar, broken coconuts, dark table, selective focus

Over recent years there has been a lot of hype surrounding coconut oil, typically advertised as a “healthy” fat. However, research suggests otherwise. Coconut oil is high in saturated fatty acids, and regular consumption has been associated with a significant increase in LDL cholesterol levels and heart disease (herehere and here). The same is true for palm oil, which consumers seem to be aware of. 

Other commonly used sources of saturated fat in food preparation are butter and ghee. Butter is a source of specific vitamins and nutrients, such as vitamins A and E. Remember, it is also very high in saturated fat. Similarily, ghee has a comparable nutritional profile as butter, although it has a slightly higher fat content. Given their high saturated fat content, both ghee and butter should be used in moderation, such as in baking and to add flavour to food. 

So, what’s the takeaway? 

Nutrition science is not black and white. The same old saying holds true: eat a variety of food, and include nutrient-rich wholesome options – more often. Stick to the recommendation to limit the intake of saturated fats to less than 10 percent of the daily caloric intake to ensure more variety in your diet. This means that a person consuming a 2000 calorie diet should limit their saturated fat intake to less than 20 grams per day. 

Here’s an entire recipe collection of heart-healthy recipes.

What’s your favourite cooking oil? What are some of your go-to heart-healthy recipes? Leave me a comment below!

how to choose heart healthy cooking oils infographic

This blog post was written in collaboration with Sanaz Baradaran
Sanaz is a Registered Dietitian and nutritionist. She holds Bachelor’s degrees in Human Biology, Secondary Education, and Food and Nutrition, as well as a Master’s degree in Kinesiology and Health Sciences. As a Registered Dietitian in private practice, Sanaz is trained to provide advice and counselling about diet, food and nutrition using the best available evidence coupled with good judgment about the client’s unique values and circumstances.
Desi~liciously Yours,
Shahzadi

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