Which is the healthiest cooking oil?

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  • Not all cooking oils are created equal, but which are the healthiest?
  • Olive and canola oils are the reigning champs
  • Coconut oil should only be used in very small quantities

Going into a grocery store nowadays, you might be overwhelmed by the vast number of cooking oils on offer. Derived from a variety of plants and nuts, these oils (vegetable oils) can be an important part of one's diet, but which one is the healthiest for everyday cooking?

Firstly, it's important to know your fats. Saturated fats, commonly found in butter, cheese and coconut oil, have been proven to increase bad cholesterol (LDL) that contributes to heart disease. 

Then there are unsaturated fats, which are divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. All fats are made up of these three kinds of fat, but at different ratios, says Harvard Health, but a high saturated fat content is considered unhealthy, whereas unsaturated fats can fight inflammation and are beneficial to the heart.

Reduce saturated fat intake

Polyunsaturated fats are often considered to be better than monounsaturated fats, but studies that compared oils with different levels of these fats found no difference in benefits.

While many health guidelines advise including unsaturated fats in a healthy diet, it's, however, important that you reduce your intake of saturated fats, and not just add mono- and polyunsaturated fats to your diet.

So which oil is the best?

Coconut oil

This tropical oil has long been touted as a "superfood", but very little science actually backs this up. One professor of epidemiology even called it "poison" reported the BBC, because the majority of the oil is actually made up of saturated fat.

You don't have to cut it out completely as it still contains some helpful nutrients. You should, however, restrict coconut oil to a maximum of 10% of your total energy intake.

Other oils

Examples of popular oils in South Africa are olive oil, sunflower oil and canola oil. Internationally, palm oil and soybean oil are very widely used. Soybean oil has a high content of polyunsaturated fat and, like canola, is a good plant source of omega-3 fatty acids. 

Most vegetable oils are, however, highly processed and contain very few nutrients. 

Olive oil

This Mediterranean delight has the best, confirmed reputation of all vegetable oils. It's high in monounsaturated fats, antioxidants and vitamin E. Extra virgin olive oil is unrefined, and a study found that it can lower the risk of cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and is great for the gut.

Another study found that, compared to other cooking oils like canola, extra virgin olive oil had the lowest number of polar compounds and oxidative by-products 

Olive oil should not be used at high temperatures. There's evidence that it loses its benefits when heated to smoking point, although expert opinions differ on this point.

Canola oil

With a higher cooking point, and much less expensive than olive oil, canola oil is another popular everyday cooking oil. It's made from rapeseed, and its cultivation and processing were pioneered in Canada.

While canola oil has a higher amount of monounsaturated fats, it also has a reasonable amount of polyunsaturated fats. Livescience notes it also has the lowest amount of saturated fats of all vegetable oils. It's also one of the few plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

Avocado oil

One of the priciest oils on this list, avocado actually contains 20% saturated fat. This is still much lower than coconut oil and butter, though. Similar to olive oil, it's also high in monounsaturated fats. 

It can withstand quite high cooking temperatures.

Peanut oil

Like avocado oil, peanut oil also has a high saturated fat content at 18%. This oil is popular for the taste it lends to stir-fries and other Asian dishes.

Sesame oil

Similar to peanut oil, it's apopular for its flavour, and fortunately it's also high in both poly- and monounsaturated fats.

Unfortunately, it contains few nutrients.

Sunflower oil

Compared to canola, sunflower oil is mostly made up of polyunsaturated fats and has high levels of vitamin E.

Canola is often considered better than sunflower oil due to its higher oleic acid content, which decreases bad cholesterol, but studies have found that the two have the about same effect when it comes to preventing heart disease.

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