What did you cook your dinner in last night? Olive oil? Butter? Canola oil? Lard? There is a lot of confusion around which oils are best for cooking. But with the help of some surprising new research, I can help you get on the right track.
Saturated, Polyunsaturated + Monounsaturated
First, let me explain the basics: we’ve all heard the terms saturated, polyunsaturated (PUFAs), and monounsaturated. Since the 1960s, the FDA has told us that saturated fats (e.g. animal fats, butter, ghee, and coconut oil) are unhealthy. They’ve told us that polyunsaturated fats (vegetable seed oils) are best, while monounsaturated fats (e.g. extra virgin olive oil) are healthy, but not to be used for cooking.
These recommendations are extremely controversial and, while due for a revision, they are still receiving hardline support from organizations like the American Heart Association and others. Let’s take a closer look at what oils are truly best for cooking.
PUFAs are extremely foreign to an ancestral human diet. The exceptions are omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids from fish (DHA and EPA) and ALA (alpha linolenic acid) from nuts and seeds.4
PUFAs are made from pressing oil out of seeds, grains, and beans like sunflower, safflower, corn, or soybeans, which is possible only with extremely high pressure, heat, and a multimillion dollar seed oil press. Clearly these seed and bean oils are a very recent introduction to the human diet, but why are they bad for us?
The answer is that the oils in seeds, grains, and beans are very volatile. They quickly and easily turn rancid from sunlight or heat. The clear plastic bottles of cooking oil we were told were so healthy for us have been heated to over 400°F, degummed, refined, bleached, boiled, and deodorized, leaving them indigestible with no nutritional value.
The Chemistry of Fats
Fats are made up of carbon chains connected by either single or double bonds. When the bonds are saturated, the bonds between the carbons are single (with hydrogen atoms making up the remaining bonds). All the available bonds are taken, so the chain is saturated and therefore stable.
In an unsaturated fat, the chain of carbons are connected with double bonds. The single hydrogen bonds are replaced with an addition carbon bond, making a double bond between the carbons (which looks like: c=c=c).
If there are many such double bonds in a fatty chain, it is called a polyunsaturated fat or PUFA. The double bond means that the chain of carbons lacks the hydrogen atoms that strengthen and stabilize the fat, rendering the fat unstable compared to its more stable saturated cousin.
In a monounsaturated fat, the chain of carbons are mostly single bonds (or saturated), except for one unsaturated double bond. Monounsaturated bonds are more healthy because they are mostly stable and saturated (which would look like this: c-c-c-c=c-c-c).
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When fat is saturated, the bonds are stronger, which is demonstrated by solidity at room temperature: think butter, ghee, and coconut oil. In the refrigerator, they get rock hard and in the heat, they melt. PUFAs (vegetable oils) are weaker unsaturated bonds, which are liquid regardless of the temperature and much more susceptible to damage. A monounsaturated fat (like olive oil) would be liquid at room temperature but would thicken up in the fridge, suggesting that the bond is stronger than a PUFA but weaker than a saturated fat.
So logically, the best cooking oils are the most stable saturated fats like butter, ghee, and coconut oil, which would be the most heat tolerant. That said, it is always wise to use lower heat whenever possible. Enough heat can damage or oxidize any oil, changing a healthy fat into an unhealthy fat.
The smoke point is when the oil is heated and begins to oxidize and release toxic compounds. A smoke point chart can be misleading because the more refined and processed the oil, the higher the smoke point. Using the oil with the highest smoke point like almond, sunflower, or avocado does not take into consideration how highly refined these oils may be. Unsaturated fats or vegetable oils will generally have a higher smoke or flash point because they are the most refined compared to the more stable saturated fats.
In the lists below, you can see which oils are most saturated and therefore most heat tolerant. It lists the oils from highest to lowest percentage of unsaturated fats. Notice that high oleic sunflower oil is low in unsaturated fats (4%) but extremely high in monounsaturated fats (81%), making it a heat tolerant cooking oil like extra virgin olive oil, which is 73% monounsaturated fat.1
Percentage Polyunsaturated Fat in Cooking Oils (High to Low)
- Safflower 80%
- Flaxseed 74% (high in omega-3)
- Grapeseed 73%
- Sunflower 69%
- Soybean 62%
- Corn 59%
- Cottonseed 52%
- Sesame 43%
- Canola 28%
- Peanut 26%
- Chicken fat 18-23%
- Olive 11%
- Lard 11%
- Palm 9%
- High oleic sunflower 4%
- Butter 4%
- Coconut 3%
Percentage Monounsaturated Fat in Cooking Oils (High to Low)1
- High oleic sunflower 81%
- Extra virgin olive 73%
- Canola 65% (GMO product and highly refined and processed)
- Peanut 56%
- Chicken fat 48-50%
- Duck fat 50%
- Beef tallow 42-48%
- Lard 45%
- Sesame 41%
- Butter 30%
- Corn 27%
- Cottonseed 19%
- Sunflower 18%
- Flaxseed 17%
- Grapeseed 16%
- Safflower 11%
- Coconut 6%
To determine the best cooking oils, you would take the oils with the least polyunsaturated fat and the most saturated fat, with a high monounsaturated fat content as well. Since high oleic sunflower oil is hard to find and sourcing is unreliable, I suggest cooking primarily with coconut oil, olive oil, and ghee. Ghee is purified butter with all the milk solids (which can be damaged by heat) removed.
The Magic of Olive Oil
New research suggests that high quality extra virgin olive oil may be the best cooking oil of all because of its extremely high polyphenol antioxidant content and relative stability in high heat. High polyphenol content olive oil has been shown to reduce LDL damage and oxidation and raise healthy HDL levels. A recent study found that both coconut and olive oil increased healthy HDL levels while reducing LDL levels.2
Because all cooking has an oxidizing effect, we should be cooking with the most stable saturated fats like ghee and coconut oil or a high quality monounsaturated fat like extra virgin olive oil that carries powerful antioxidants to mitigate heat damage.
Lipid researcher and author of Superfuel Dr. James Dinicolantonio makes the case that high quality extra virgin olive oil may be the best cooking oil of all. He even suggests cooking meat coated with a thin layer of olive oil to protect the fats in the meat from oxidizing.1
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Sourcing the best olive oil can be tricky, as 60–90% of the olive sold in grocery stores and used in restaurants may have been adulterated or diluted with PUFAs or cheap, unhealthy, unstable vegetable seeds oils.12
I’ll get into sourcing the best olive oil more below.
New Research on Cooking With Olive Oil
There has been much confusion around the safety of cooking with olive oil, as many studies found the smoke point of olive oil to be quite low. New research suggests that high-grade extra virgin olive oil is very stable at high heat and has a smoke point approaching 400°F.5
Most smoke point tests have been done on low quality, likely adulterated olive oils that were purchased off a supermarket shelf. Studies done on verified high quality extra virgin olive oil have demonstrated low acidity, more stability, higher smoke point, higher resistance to oxidation, and longer shelf life compared to the inferior counterfeit oils on the market.
The stable properties of a high quality extra virgin olive oil are primarily due to the high content of the naturally-occurring antioxidants, called polyphenols. Refining the oil or taking lower quality oil from later stages of pressing significantly reduces the polyphenol content of the oil, which is why getting the highest quality olive oil is so crucial. In one study, certain store-bought olive oils had as much as five times the polyphenol content as others.12
In a 2015 study on cooking with extra virgin olive oil, researchers found that frying with olive oil and water preserved the antioxidant content of the oil and the vegetables that were cooked and, in fact, boosted their antioxidant content.6
Olive Oil Taste Test
A few years ago at LifeSpa, my team and I organized an olive oil taste test using the best oils we could source from around the world, including France, Italy, California, and other countries. While there were amazing oils from Europe, the organic oils from California were undoubtedly the best tasting. The winner of our taste test was from a small, family-owned farm in California named Fandango.
After investigating why their oil was so good, we found that just getting an organic certification in California is a major accomplishment due to the stringent toxin, heavy metal, and pesticide residue requirements laid out in the state’s Proposition 65.
At Fandango, on harvest day, the olives are hand-picked when perfectly ripe, directly put into a certified organic mobile mill on site, then pressed immediately into an oil. This process preserves the highest content of polyphenols and allows them to tout the lowest levels of oxidation on the market. Thank God for small farmers who care about small batch quality, not quantity!
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Over the years, the folks at Fandango have become good friends of ours, but LifeSpa has no business relationship with them other than we love and use their olive oil exclusively.
How to Guarantee the Best Olive Oil
When sourcing olive oil, look for a harvest or press date. It is ideal to ingest the current year’s harvest.
If it is a California olive oil, make sure it is certified organic by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and certified extra virgin by the California Olive Oil Council (COOC).
If the oil is from Italy, look for a DOP seal (Protected Designation of Origin), which means the olives are from where they say they are.
Impressive Olive Oil Facts
- Seven tablespoons of high-polyphenol olive oil raises HDL levels by 3%.7
- Two tablespoons of high-polyphenol olive oil significantly improves endothelial function.8
- High-polyphenol olive oil enlarges HDL cholesterol particles, making them more heart-healthy.7
- High-polyphenol olive oil lowers blood pressure in adults aged 55–80.9
- High-polyphenol olive oil has been shown to cause toxic and unhealthy cells to self-destruct instead of divide.10
- New studies suggest that high quality extra virgin olive oil may protect against cognitive decline, bone density concerns, skin aging, and premature death.11
I hope I’ve given you some food for thought next time you pick up your skillet. Treat your body right by cooking with ghee, coconut oil, or high quality olive oil—your food will taste better, too!