Best and worst oils to eat and cook with.

Cooking oilsHi all –

I have been so incredibly busy lately. I literally have about 3-4 unfinished blog pieces in my drafts! But I just had to jump on and quickly write about a very important topic and the idea for this blog was (very, very unfortunately) inspired by my experience tonight at one of my favorite local restaurants here in Boca Raton, Florida.

Tonight, while ordering a salmon & veggie dish at a favorite local organic health food restaurant, I decided to ask a simple but very important question that I usually ask at every restaurant I eat at: “what type of oil do you use to cook the salmon with? How about to sauté the veggies?” I was certain that I would hear olive oil or coconut oil, or at worst no oil at all. But to my surprise, the waiter informed me that their establishment cooks their foods in soybean oil.  Now, this would not come as a shock to me if I were eating at any old restaurant.  Most restaurants use soybean or some other inexpensive vegetable oil to cook their foods.  What bothered me is that this restaurant in particular was an organic healthy eatery.  I tend to hold places like that to a higher standard.

Now for those of you that are unfamiliar with why cooking with soybean oil is bad for you, the 2 main problems are:

  1. It has an inordinate amount of pro-inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids, and my goodness the average american diet has way too much of this. It is estimated that the ratio of omega 6:omega 3 fatty acids in the average American diet is above 20:1. Ideal for proper health is about 2:1! A healthy eating establishment should know this and if they are truly looking to promote vibrant health in their customers they should be cooking with a different oil that has less omega 6 and more omega 3 (or neither for cooking…better yet a saturated fat like coconut oil is best).
  2. Soybean oil, like all other vegetable oils that are high in PUFAs (Poly Unsaturated Fatty Acids), is a very unstable oil that oxidizes very easily, especially when exposed to even mild heat. These oils are so unstable that they can even become rancid during transport if the temperature of the truck that is carrying them gets too high. Rancid oils or oils that have become oxidized during cooking essentially become trans fats (I know that many of you know that term…it’s the holy grail of “keep eating this if you want to croak from a heart attack before you are 50 years old”).

The problem is that most people are SO misinformed about this stuff. Most of the restaurants that we all eat at use either soybean oil or some other high PUFA vegetable oil to cook and to fry in and they actually believe that it is healthy. This could not be further from the truth.

The main takeaway here: always ask what kind of oils they prepare your foods with at every restaurant. If you can customize, opt out of the vegetable oil.  If they do use vegetable oils, there are ways that you can tailor your orders and ask them not to prepare your meal with soybean oil. That is what I ended up doing last night.

I found a link Dr. Sue Fairchild’s blog (Sue works for University of Kansas Medical Center’s integrative medicine program) that does an absolutely incredible and easy to understand breakdown of all oils and which ones are best (and worst) to cook with, and which ones are truly healthy. Here is the link, but because the contents of the page are SO vitally important I am also going to copy and paste the information contained in the link below as well. I implore all vegans and vegetarians who often eat and/or cook with soy or canola oil to take heed as well:

Once in a while we all crave some junk food or desire to eat out. 

Some of the most common oils used to cook chips are “canola and/or sunflower and/or safflower”, and the majority of restaurants use “vegetable oil”. Some Chinese restaurants proudly proclaim that they cook with soybean oil, while other establishments boast of using canola oil. In a pig study comparing soy against coconut oil, animals fed soy oil gained weight while those fed coconut oil stayed lean.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA)
PUFAs are easily oxidized by oxygen and heat, and form much higher amounts of toxic lipid peroxides than other oils. These lipid peroxides cause oxidative damage, and their intake needs to be minimized. Some oils, such as canola and perilla, are high in alpha linolenic acid, which when heated, can lead to the formation of carcinogens and mutagens. 

People who have a high intake of dietary PUFAs also have a higher tissue polyunsaturated fat content, and this fat in tissues can also undergo lipid peroxidation. Antioxidants do help, but it is best to not overdo PUFA intake.

Polyunsaturated fats also may have a tendency to decrease body stores of zinc, iron, and magnesium. 
Having a diet high in polyunsaturated fat without sufficient antioxidant protection may help promote disease such as atherosclerosis. Antioxidants can include vitamins such as E and C, but also includes a wide variety of herbs and spices. Rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and various polyphenols, etc, have known antioxidant activity.

Oils high in PUFAs have to be manufactured, transported, and stored very carefully to be safe for eating. Ideally, PUFAs should be kept air-tight/oxygen-free and cold. 

Omega 3 and omega 6 oils are PUFAs. Many omega 3 oils have very beneficial effects, provided they are undamaged and handled very carefully, minimizing exposure to air and light and heat. For example, evening primrose oil is a commonly used supplement. Keep it in the fridge, and make sure it was not processed with heat.

Omega 6 oils are found abundantly in corn, soy, canola, sunflower, safflower and other commercially used cooking oils. The problem is that people are consuming too much of these oils, thus throwing off their omega 3 to omega 6 ratio. The proper balance is fats in a body is important, as if our fat balance is off, cell membranes and other cellular processes do not function quite as well. People today eat way too much omega 6 oils. The ideal ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 is about 1:4.
Part of the problem with commercial meats is that the animals are fed corn or soy, which not only are bad because they are GMO, but also bad because the ratio of omega 3 to 6 is imbalanced, and there is thus too much omega 6 and too little omega 3 in the resulting meat. People buying meat should look not only for organic, but also for free range, and ideally, green finished. Very lean beef will have less bad omega 6’s than fattier beef.

Some oils high in polyunsaturated fats can be very beneficial. They should be kept refrigerated and airtight. They should be consumed cold and should not be cooked with. Examples include flax oil, fish oil, evening primrose oil, etc.

Approximate PUFA content of selected oils:

Evening Primrose oil (81% PUFA)
Hemp oil (80% PUFA)
Flax oil (72% PUFA)
Grapeseed oil (71% PUFA)
Chia oil (70% PUFA) 
Safflower oil (75% PUFA)
Sunflower oil (65% PUFA)
Perilla oil (63% PUFA)
Corn oil (59% PUFA) 
Soybean oil (58% PUFA)
Pumpkin oil (57% PUFA)
Walnut oil (55-63% PUFA)
Cottonseed oil (50% PUFA)
Sesame oil (41-45% PUFA)
Canola oil (30-37% PUFA)
Rice bran oil (36% PUFA)
Beech nut oil (32% PUFA)
Peanut oil (29-32% PUFA)
Pecan oil (29% PUFA)
Brazil nut oil (24-36% PUFA, 24% SAFA)
Mustard Oil (21% PUFA, 12% SAFA, 12 % oleic acid, 42% erucic acid)
Pistachio oil (19% PUFA)
Cashew oil (17% PUFA, 20% SAFA)
Almond oil (17% PUFA, 8% SAFA)
Duck fat (13% PUFA, 1% cholesterol)
Lard (12% PUFA, 41% SAFA, 1% cholesterol)
Palm olein (12% PUFA)
Filbert oil (10-16% PUFA)
Avocado oil (10% PUFA)
Macadamia oil (10% PUFA, 15% SAFA)
Goose fat (10% PUFA, 1% cholesterol)
High Oleic Sunflower oil (9% PUFA)
Palm oil (8% PUFA, 50% SAFA)
Olive oil (8% PUFA, 14% SAFA)
Butter (4% PUFA, 50% SAFA)
Ghee (4% PUFA, 48% SAFA, 2% cholesterol)
Cocoa Butter (3% PUFA, 60% SAFA)
Coconut oil (2-3% PUFA, 92% SAFA, 0% cholesterol)
Palm kernel oil (2% PUFA, 82% SAFA)

As you can see, the higher the PUFA content of said oil, the less suitable it is for cooking with from a health standpoint. I would prefer not to cook with any oil that has a higher than 10% PUFA content. 

So when buying popcorn, corn chips, crackers, tortilla chips, etc, look for those have used a low PUFA oil. Also avoid any oil that says “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated”.

Sunflower oil comes in several varieties with different PUFA content. Regular sunflower oil is to be avoided. Look for the high oleic kind instead.

Acceptable oils include: high oleic sunflower, olive oil, red palm oil, organic lard, organic butter, organic ghee, coconut oil (expeller pressed may be better for cooking with depending on temperature), and cocoa butter. Plant oils are still better than animal fats due to higher levels of environmental toxins in animal products.

Smoke point:
Certain cooking applications require oils with a higher smoke point. Virgin coconut oil has a very low smoke point. So, if you need to cook at higher temperatures, choose an oil with a higher smoke point. 

Refining an oil will tend to increase the smoke point. The smoke point of coconut oil can be increased by combining with avocado oil or olive oil. 

Tropical Traditions has a quality expeller pressed coconut oil that has a higher smoke point than virgin coconut oil. Look for oils processed without hexane. Bear in mind that cooking at lower temperatures is more healthy. 

Fried food is not healthy. 

However, if frying has to be done,  this is a rough guide for picking the better oils.

First choice (highest smoke point): organic ghee or refined avocado oil. 
Second choice (less expensive options, slightly lower smoke point): refined high oleic sunflower oil, extra light olive oil, refined coconut oil. 
Third (less ideal) choices would include refined high oleic safflower oil and refined peanut oil – use only if better oils are not an option. 
Poor (worst) choices for frying include soybean oil, corn oil, walnut oil, regular sunflower or safflower (not high oleic) oil, cottonseed oil – Stay away from these!

Be aware that the quality as well as processing of refined oils may vary. Avoid oils refined by high heat and solvents, and go for physically refined expeller-pressed oils instead. Spectrum and Tropical-Traditions are two brands that seem to have good manufacturing processes.

Approximate smoke point of selected oils:

510-520°F refined avocado oil, refined safflower oil
490°F rice bran oil
485°F ghee, mustard oil
440-450°F refined peanut oil, extra light olive oil, refined coconut oil, refined sunflower oil
420-430°F hazelnut oil, almond oil
400-410°F macadamia oil, refined canola oil
375-400°F extra virgin olive oil, unrefined avocado oil
370°F Lard
350°F virgin coconut oil
320°F unrefined high oleic sunflower oil, unrefined peanut oil
275-320°F butter
Coconut Oil:
Coconut oil deserves a special mention as it has had an undeserved bad reputation due to poorly done studies.
Yes, coconut oil is a saturated fat, and no, it does not do bad things to your cholesterol. In fact, virgin coconut oil is heart healthy and tends to decrease belly fat.
Saturated fats of vegetable origin and saturated fats of animal origin also behave differently and have different health effects.
Coconut oil is high in medium chain fats, which are easily burned for energy. In contrast, PUFAs are much less easily burned for energy and tend to be more easily stored as fat.
Coconut oil has been shown to be a valuable endurance food, and also has anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-cancer properties. There is some evidence that lauric acid and myristic acid (contained in coconut oil) has some anti-protozoal activity.

Buy oils in glass containers instead of plastic where possible. The chemicals in plastic have a tendency to leach into oils. If plastic, choose a container that is BPA free. 
Plastics with these recycling codes do not use BPA chemistry and are preferred: 1 (PETE), 2 (HDPE), 4 (LDPE), 5 (PP), and 6 (PS). 
A container that is code 3 (PVC) or code 7 (Other) is likely to contain BPA or another bisphenol compound.

Cooking meat:
Cookiing meat with salt increases lipid oxidation. Salt is best added to meat after cooking. Herbs and spices added to the meat will also tend to help decrease lipid oxidation.

Better snacks:
Bearing in mind that no fried food is healthy, last I checked, the bagged chip brand “Way Better” has better oils, using “high oleic”. Other snacks that pass my inspection include: San-J rice crackers, and Edward and Sons rice crackers. Udupi tapioca chips (and other products of the Udupi snack line) are made with palm olein or palm oil, and can be found in many Indian grocery stores. Certainly there are other decent products than what I mentioned. Just be sure to always read the ingredients.

Eating out:
Avoid Chinese restaurants, as most tend to cook with vegetable oil (mostly soy). Greek, Italian, and Mediterranean restaurants will have a greater tendency to cook with Olive oil. Taco Bell uses canola in their deep fryer. Chipotle uses vegetable/soy oil unless you specifically ask for olive oil.

About flax:
I generally avoid pre-made flax products, especially from ground flax or flax oil, because I am uncertain how much lipid peroxidation has happened prior to and during production. Flax oil is beneficial, but not if it has gone rancid. Studies have shown that manufactured flax meal has high levels of lipid peroxidation.  It is best to buy whole flax seed and grind it yourself just before use.

About Olestra:
Fat free Pringles and Fat free Lay’s use olestra. Olestra is a fat that is not digested and not absorbed. Too much olestra can give someone diarrhea. Olestra has one benefit; it can help with a PCB detox. PCB is an environmental toxin that is fat soluble. A documented case of a PCB toxic individual in Australia was helped by eating 7 fat free Pringles every day. Over the course of two years, this individual lost excess weight, and improved their diabetes. Because Olestra is not absorbed, and because PCB’s are fat soluble, small amounts of Olestra hold on to PCB’s which can then simply be excreted.
Overuse of Olestra may possibly also interfere with absorption of fat soluble vitamins.
Fat free Pringles is sold at K Mart but not at Walmart. I have not yet come across a source for Fat free Lay’s. I actually think the Lay’s product has less other junk in it than the Pringles product, and would be my preference, although I have heard that Fat Free Lay’s may be discontinued.

Su Fairchild, MD
Integrative and Orthomolecular Medicine
Environmental Medicine

That is all for today folks. Please remember to ask the waiter at your favorite restaurants which oils they use to cook your food and for your health and your family’s health, request that they use butter, extra virgin expeller-pressed coconut oil, or no oil to cook your foods. For cooking at home, we use and stand by the following products:
I invite comments, questions, concerns, in the comments section below. Just keep it classy, San Diego!
– Rick Gold

2 thoughts on “Best and worst oils to eat and cook with.

  1. Rick,
    Found this page by accident. Kudos on an excellent write-up. Noticed that my page on oils from KUMC is not the most up to date version. I just to let you know that I have more up-to-date information on my blog and website: and

    1. Hi Su! Thanks so much for commenting! It was YOUR write-up that was excellent. Thanks for so clearly and concisely depicting the PUFA content of various oils and the guidelines for which ones to cook with. It was so compelling I just had to include it on my blog. I will start following your blog as well! Stay in touch!

      Rick Gold

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