Choosing a healthy oil for cooking, frying, or baking

What should you look for when picking a healthy oil for stir fried vegetables, or making French fries? A high smoke point is important, which often means choosing an “extra light” or “refined” oil rather that a virgin or extra virgin oil.

Oil composition is important also. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6) oxidize easily, so should be minimal. Monounsaturated fat is OK. The chart below shows fat composition on the left, broken down into four items: total saturated fat, shown in blue; total monounsaturated fat (mostly oleic acid) in green; undifferentiated omega-3 fatty acids (mostly alpha-linolenic acid) in yellow; and undifferentiated omega-6 fatty acids (mostly linoleic acid), shown in red. Data source: USDA Nutrients Database.

On the right are smoke points in degrees Fahrenheit. These are approximate values, and are shown for filtered or refined oils. The exception is flaxseed oil, as a refined preparation does not appear to be commercially available.

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So which oil should you use? The criteria above are best met by four oils: avocado, olive, high oleic safflower, and high oleic sunflower. The latter two are usually sold as massage oils, rather than food oils, and ordinary safflower or sunflower oils do not meet the criterion of low polyunsaturates. So choose extra light olive oil or avocado oil. Some sources suggest that premium (read: expensive) extra virgin olive oil also has a high smoke point, so this may be a good alternative for some people. Butter works also, for baking and pan-frying, and imparts a flavour liked by many.

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