What Oils Are Healthy? A Comprehensive Guide to Cooking Oils & Fats

What oils should i cook with?

Let’s talk.

what oils are healthyGrab a cup of tea, and let’s take an in-depth look at cooking oils. On this journey, we will be exploring the predicament of oils and a healthy diet. We will learn which cooking oils to avoid and which oils are healthy for cooking and eating. But before we get to that, there is some fascinating history to be perused about how the American diet shifted from traditional fats to processed, cheap vegetable oils. You know I love a good history lesson, so let’s get started!

When I began my wellness journey a little over five years ago, the topic of healthy fats was still very new; but now it has made more of a mainstream push as coconut oil seems to make its way in to every home, despite the scare of saturated fats causing heart disease that was ingrained in our society in recent decades. So, let’s take our time today to fully understand healthy fats, where they come from, how to cook with them, and how America strayed from the healthy, traditional fats in the first place and the impact that has had on our health. Reader, this is going to be a long read, so stay with me, because some of this will fascinate you, and you will end this article knowing exactly which fats and cooking oils to avoid, and how to use the healthy fats and oils in cooking.

A Brief History of Fats and Cooking Oils in America

Our story begins in an unlikely place…the founding of a soap manufacturing business in 1837. A business founded by two men…an Irish potato famine fleer and another immigrant to the U.S. who had suffered the loss of his business in England due to a fire. Our main characters were James Gamble and William Procter, who formed Procter & Gamble, a candle and soap manufacturing business.

In 1878, Procter & Gamble created one of its most well-known products…Ivory. Ivory soap became famous due to its ability to float in water. The standard practice at the time was to hand wash dishes and clothes in a bucket of water. Imagine that grimy bucket as the water became dark and soiled. Imagine reaching your hand in to the flotsam to find your bar of soap. Wouldn’t it be nice if the soap floated to the top of the water, instead of having to search for it at the bottom of a grungy bucket? It is no wonder that Ivory quickly became a household product.

Before that time, soap was typically made from animal fats. In order to cut their production costs, Procter & Gamble chose to replace the animal fats with cheaper palm and coconut oils. In 1901, P&G started Buckeye Cotton Oil Company, leasing a cottonseed crushing mill in Mississippi. The cottonseed oil was used in their Ivory and White Naphtha soaps. By 1905, they owned and operated eight mills and sold cottonseed oil in bulk as salad oil to hotels and restaurants, but could not yet figure out a way to sell it directly to the consumer market.

But it wasn’t until 1911 that Procter & Gamble introduced a new product, and made its true impact on transitioning the American diet from traditional fats to processed, cheap vegetable oils.

As the price of animal fats continued to rise, and the use of electricity in homes expanded; Proctor & Gamble found itself forced to seek revenue outside of candle and soap manufacturing.

In 1907, A German scientist, E.C. Kayser, invented hydrogenation – a process that transforms a liquid oil into a solid. In the process, hydrogen atoms are introduced to the fatty chain acids which alters the molecular structure. Hydrogenation made the oil more shelf stable and created a product that looked just like lard, a traditional product rendered from pig fat. Kayser took his process to Procter & Gamble and showed how he could take cottonseed oil and create a product that looked like lard.

P&G quickly marketed the new product as a cheaper and healthier alternative to animal fats. The ad campaigns convinced women that the new product was pure and wholesome. The company claimed This new product was created just after Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle was published (1906), which vividly described how lard was tainted in production along with other unsanitary practices in the meatpacking industry. Add to that WWI and the Great Depression looming, and the sales of this new product quickly skyrocketed and true lard became just a memory.

The new product was the first man-made fat to become a part of our diets.  It was the very first all-vegetable shortening. It was designed in a lab to replace lard with cottonseed oil, essentially an industrial byproduct. It was Crisco.

Crisco is a cornerstone example of how traditional animal fats were replaced with hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated vegetables oils as food sources. But more important than understanding how the transition took place, is being knowledgeable about how that transition has affected our health. After all, we each choose what we eat at every meal, it is our personal responsibility to make the right choices for ourselves and our families.

I refer to fats and oils as a predicament for a healthy diet, because they have been the cause of so many false claims through the years. The purported benefits of the hydrogenated vegetable oils have now been proven false.  The scientists of the 1950s who were proclaiming that saturated fat was the cause of high cholesterol and heart disease were wrong. The low fat diet craze that sprang out of a desire to control obesity was also proven false.

But, good news, reader, it is finally becoming more mainstream knowledge that healthy fats are good for us and needed by our bodies. But, how do you know which fats are healthy for us? We are going to look in to specific oils for cooking and eating next, but a general rule that I like to go by is if the fat comes from a natural, unadulterated source and has a traditional background of usage in our diets; then that is a fat that I will consider adding to my own diet.

What Vegetable Oils Should I Avoid and Why?

Cottonseed Oil

While this may be an oil that you have not specifically purchased, and therefore, believe that your diet is free of; think again. Cottonseed oil is found in processed foods including, but not limited to, the following: peanut butter, boxed cereals, crackers, cookies, breads, salad oils, mayonnaise, dressings, marinades, margarine, etc. It is used in some restaurants and is also used in personal care products such as shampoos, soaps and makeup.

Cotton crops are typically GMO (93% in the US) and have less chemical regulations, since they are not a crop only designated for food. It is one of the most highly sprayed crops and therefore contains a lot of pesticide residue. It is a very cheap oil, and any company looking to make cheap processed food may be using it in the ingredients.

The ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 in cottonseed oil is 259:1. (For an ideal diet, you want a 1:1 ratio.)

Canola Oil

Canola oil comes from Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed. Rapeseed is a member of the mustard family.  The Erucic acid naturally found in rapeseed is poisonous, so a modified version is used to produce canola. During processing, a petroleum solvent is used to extract the oil. The oil must undergo more processing and is treated with more chemicals to improve color, smell and basically to make the oil something that a consumer would perceive as palatable. Canola oil goes rancid easily and baked goods made with it develop mold quickly.

Soybean Oil

The crop is processed mainly as a vegetable oil, and the remaining meal is used as livestock feed or as a source of biodiesel. The oil constitutes about 65% of the 28 billion pounds of oil that Americans consume annually. About half of the soybean oil used in America is hydrogenated.

To extract the oil, hexane is used as a solvent. The oil is then further processed and refined to make it palatable.

Soybean oil can be found in mayonnaise, salad dressing, margarine and non-dairy coffee creamers. Partially hydrogenated soybean oil is found in processed foods – partially hydrogenated oils contain trans fat.

Soybean oil is high in Omega 6.

Soy is probably the first crop most people think of when they hear the word GMO. According to Dr. Mercola, GMO soybeans are linked to very serious adverse health effects, including an increase of infertility rates rising with each generation. (SOURCE)

Corn Oil

The story of corn oil is very similar to that of soybean oil. It too is processed mainly as oil and also used in feed and biodiesel. The oil is expeller-pressed from the germ then solvent-extracted with hexane or isohexane. The oil is then refined through an alkali treatment to bleach it and steam distilled to deodorize it.

Corn, canola and soybean oils are polyunsaturated vegetable oils, which means that they are not very stable for heating.

Corn oil is generally the cheapest of the vegetable oils. Interestingly, it is also our country’s most heavily subsidized crop by the government.

Similar to soybean, over 90% of corn in America is GMO. Corn oil’s Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio is 49:1.

Sunflower Oil

There are hybrid versions of sunflowers that are high in oleic acid, which is similar to olive oil. This makes the high oleic sunflower oil more stable when heated, which makes it common for frying and in fast prep packaged foods. Sunflower oil is also high in Omega 6, sometimes up to 70%. Remember, we would like a 1:1 ratio of Omega 6 and Omega 3.

Grapeseed Oil

Made from grape seeds that are byproducts of winemaking, grapeseed oil is another common option. It is typically extracted using hexane and/or very high heat. It is high in polyunsaturated fats, and is therefore susceptible to oxidation and going rancid with heat.

However, grapeseed oil is interesting because it contains Vitamin E, about twice the amount of Vitamin E found in olive oil. Vitamin E works as an antioxidant that keep fats from oxidizing.

It has one of the highest Omega 6 percentages of the vegetable oils; higher than sunflower, corn, soybean or canola.

Its high Omega 6 content and the processing it undergoes are what keep me from using this oil, despite its Vitamin E content.

Margarine, Shortening and Spreads

These are artificial substances that include the hydrogenation of vegetable oils. Margarine began in France as oleomargarine, a mix of beef fat, milk and salt. It was a sponsored project of Napoleon III in response to the rise in butter prices.

Later, the fat was changed from animal fats to vegetable oils. When first brought to U.S. in the late 1800s, some states passed laws prohibiting its manufacture and sale, while other states required margarine to be dyed bright pink in an effort to make visible to the public its artificiality. Those laws were later overturned by the Supreme Court, and margarine became a staple due to its cheap cost.

Since these products contain the vegetable oils already explained, we know the risks of how the oils are processed. These products also have artificial flavors, emulsifiers and preservatives added to them. They are typically bleached and then coloring is added to make them resemble real butter. In some cases, sterols are added, which can cause endocrine disruption (unbalance your hormones). And the list of problems goes on and on. These products should be avoided completely.

Vegetable Oil

There are also products that are called vegetable oil and are typically corn, sunflower, canola or soybean oil, or a combination thereof. I have already covered each of the oils individually above. They should list the actual oils on the label. Wesson oil would fall in to this category too.

One of the reasons that vegetable oil became so popular is that it is cheap, and it does not have any real flavor of its own, so it does not really change the flavor of the food you are cooking or what you are baking. But, the reason it has no flavor is because these oils have been deodorized and chemically processed, making them odorless and tasteless. That is not natural. And yet, most of us have become so used to it, that we turn our noses up at traditional oils like true extra virgin olive oil, that has a peppery taste. Our American taste preferences have been changed by all of the deodorized oils. Now, it is time to take them back.

A few side notes…

When these oils are partially hydrogenated (made solid for products like margarine, etc.) they become trans fats, which are very detrimental to our health.

Due to their low cost, many of these oils are also used in livestock feed. Another reason to go grass fed and pasture raised.

What oils should I cook with?

Enough of those bad oils, let’s move on to the healthy oils. You will notice that these are traditionally used oils, and that they each have their own flavor.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil contains 92% saturated fat, with over two-thirds in the form of medium-chain triglycerides. The medium-chain fatty acids are easily converted to energy by the liver. Of particular benefit in coconut oil is its high content of lauric acid, also found in Mother’s milk.

Coconut oil has natural antibacterial and antifungal properties. It is very shelf stable and resists heat-induced damage.  It is purported to stimulate the metabolism, and aid in lowering bad cholesterol levels while raising good cholesterol levels.

Its high saturated fat content was vilified for years, but now that there has been yet another shift in the fat paradigm, coconut oil is gaining popularity and is found in many households and most grocery stores.

It is an excellent oil for cooking, as its smoke point is 350 degrees for extra virgin coconut oil.

Here is the coconut oil I like. It is traditionally made and has the highest antioxidant levels. It does not have the strong coconutty taste of so many in the stores, its taste is more mild, and lends itself better to other foods. For new customers, they typically provide a free book all about coconut oil’s benefits with the first purchase. They run BOGO frequently, so join their email list to be notified of sales. I typically buy the gallon size and then continuously refill a mason jar that I keep handy to use. This is a great oil for RVing, as you do not have to worry about the heat affecting it.

Butter from Grass-Fed Cows

Butter is made from cow’s milk and full of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K2). It also contains trace minerals our bodies need, including selenium (important for healthy thyroid function). Butter contains short- and medium-chain fatty acids and also touts certain anti-microbial properties. It also contains a healthy balance of Omega 6s and Omega 3s.

When butter comes from grass-fed cows, it also contains high levels of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which helps to protect against cancer and helps to build muscle.

Its smoke point is 200 – 250 degrees.

Here is the grass-fed butter I buy. It can be found at most WalMarts, which is a huge bonus for RVers!

Ghee

If you can not tolerate dairy, then ghee may be a helpful buttery substitute for you. Ghee is made when butter is melted and the milk solids are separated from the remaining oil. The remaining oil is the ghee, and most people who can not eat dairy, are able to eat ghee. It does not have the creamy texture of butter, but it does have its richness.

Ghee is made up of medium-chain fatty acids, making it easy to digest . It is stable at room temperature. It has a higher level of butyric acid than butter, which is touted for its beneficial effects on the immune system and as an anti-inflammatory.

It has a much higher smoking point than butter at 485 degrees, making it great for cooking.

Here is the ghee I like that comes from pastured, organic fed cows. Great for RVing since it is shelf stable – no need for room in the tiny fridge! A little goes a long way with ghee, so the jar lasts.

Avocado Oil

High quality avocado oil is cold pressed from the pulp of the fruit. It is rich in the monounsaturated fat, oleic acid, which is an Omega 9 fatty acid that is heart healthy and easily burned for energy – it is the same main fatty acid in olive oil too.

Avocado oil is a great source of vitamins A, D and E. It is also high in antioxidants, which help the body by seeking out free radicals and neutralizing them.

The smoke point for avocado oil is 500 degrees, the highest.

This is the avocado oil I prefer to buy. This is the avocado oil I buy when RVing and my best option is a Walmart. Note the difference in price. Typically, the best quality is a bit more expensive when it comes to all of these healthy oils. So, do the best you can with your budget.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is most well known for its high oleic acid content (about 75%). It consists of more long-chain fatty acids. Extra virgin olive oil is also full of antioxidants.

Olive oil is a very traditional oil and has been used for centuries. The biggest problem olive oil has faced in recent years, is that scandal that much of the extra virgin olive oil on the market was actually adulterated with lesser quality oils. So, care needs to be taken in sourcing olive oil.

Olive oil’s smoke point is 375 for extra virgin.

Here is the olive oil I like and trust. True extra virgin olive oil has a lot of flavor, it can be described as peppery, and even bitter. This one is high quality but not as bitter in my opinion.

Lard

Lard is made by rendering pig fat. It is 40% saturated, 48% monounsaturated and 12% polyunsaturated. The levels of Omega 6s and Omega 3s vary according to what the pig has eaten.

The smoke point for lard is 370 degrees.

I have never purchased lard, only ever made it myself when I purchased fat from a local farm who raised pastured, heritage breeds on non-GMO feed. It is a simple process, and the outcome is incredible. I loved using the lard to fry potatoes – there is something magical in that combination! It is also considered the best fat for pie crusts, but you know I am not much of a baker, so I can’t comment on that.

Which oils do I use?

Coconut oil reigns supreme in my household, mainly because of its versatility within and outside of the kitchen. Living in a RV, it is important to minimize our products for storage, and coconut oil makes that simple. I use it for everything from oil pulling to oiling cutting boards to cooking.

However, it is a solid at room temperature, which is not always conducive. When I want a liquid, I use avocado oil or olive oil. I do not cook with olive oil personally, but I like it on salads. I use avocado oil on salads, as well as in baking, when I need a liquid oil.

I also love the richness of ghee. I typically use it after I cook to add flavor to a dish. I like to put a spoonful in soups, or add it to vegetables after I have sautéed them. I use coconut oil to do the actually cooking, but then just add a touch of ghee to add richness.

I have been dairy free for a few years, but have recently begun to occasionally incorporate butter in my diet. Chris eats butter. We only eat grass-fed beef and butter.

A few side notes…

Remember from last week that sourcing healthy oils is important. We want cold-pressed, unrefined, organic or extra virgin as much as possible.

Eating healthy fats helps to cut sugar cravings.

Well, I think that finally wraps up the discussion on cooking oils! I hope you gained some new perspective today, and maybe even a new oil to try! Share your favorite cooking oils in the comments below!

Now that we have covered oils for cooking and eating, next week for Self Care Sunday, let’s jump in to important oils for supplementation!

Resources & Further Reading:

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About Jen

I love travel, which led me to become a fulltime RVer. I love wellness, which I can talk about 'til the cows come home. I love being self-employed, which means I get to dabble in what interests me from essential oils to RV planners. But most importantly, I love my husband and our life together on the road!

8 comments on “What Oils Are Healthy? A Comprehensive Guide to Cooking Oils & Fats

  1. Thank you, Jen, for this very informative article!
    Very interesting and helpful in choosing the right, healthy oils!!

  2. Very interesting article. I have started using coconut oil but have gotten negative comments on the scent it adds to dishes. The info on shelf life was new to me and supports what I had been observing. I’ve avoided lard, butter and coconut oil in the past simply because they were solid at room temperature and I was told to avoid them. Thank you for the clear, easy to understand recommendations.

    • Hi, Richard. Thank you for the feedback. I agree with you on the scent/taste of coconut oil – sometimes it can be too much. You may want to consider an expeler-pressed version. That version goes through an extra step of processing that removes the odor/taste. It is bland, but it is more refined that the extra virgin.

  3. Just a question …. what could i substitute adding a creamer to my coffee. i am currently using the powder creamer but want to use something healthy.
    thank you!

    • Hi, Cindy! That is a great place to make a switch! My first recommendation is to give bulletproof coffee a try. Here is a link explaining what it is, its benefits, and how to make it: https://blog.bulletproof.com/how-to-make-your-coffee-bulletproof-and-your-morning-too/. Basically, you are adding healthy fats to coffee that give your body energy to burn. It is coffee + MCT oil (that is coconut oil that has been fractionated so that it only contains the medium-chain fatty acids – those are the ones easiest to digest and transfer to energy) + butter or ghee. You can get MCT at some grocery stores, or online – just make sure it is MCT (there are other versions of fractionated coconut oil that are not edible, just used in skin products). MCT is a great oil to eat anytime, as salad dressing, etc. But it is not for cooking. I would try that first. Otherwise, I would replace the powder with either real cream from grass-fed cows (which will probably be hard to find) or coconut milk (not a fat free version). Hope that helps! Let me know how you make out!

  4. Hi Jen. Great article. I wondered what you thought of switching out avocado oil for coconut oil in baking recipes. Can it be one for one and does it get good results? I’ve tried to bake some bread and muffins with coconut oil and the coconut oil taste and smell is just overpowering to me. I’ve been getting both my coconut oil and avocado oil from Costco recently. It’s the Kirkland brand Organic, virgin coconut oil. And, Ottavio Avocado Oil. Thanks!!

    • Hi, Brenda! In full disclosure, I am not much of a baker – I have a tendency to not follow a recipe exactly. So, take my experience with a grain of salt. I have not had any trouble changing out the coconut oil for avocado oil. In fact, I think it is much easier, since most recipes want you to melt the coconut oil before adding it to the mix. Since the avocado oil is liquid at room temperature, no pre-melting is necessary. I have done a 1-1 replacement for melted coconut oil. Hope that helps!

  5. Making your own ghee is so much cheaper. I use Kerry Gold unsalted butter to make it. There is a stove top and also an oven method. Well worth the effort as it is 35%-55% cheaper than good organic ghee. I use mostly coconut oil and ghee for cooking and like you olive oil uncooked.

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