6 Best Healthy Oils to Cook, Deep Frying With, and Oils to Avoid
If you love deep-fried foods, that is nothing to be ashamed of.
Fried foods are popular in cuisines around the world, and if you were to avoid eating fried foods completely, you would be depriving yourself of some wonderful culinary experiences.
Still, fried foods have a reputation of being extremely unhealthy.
Does that mean you need to give them up? Not necessarily.
It could be that what you need to give up is the unhealthy cooking oil you are using.
Is Frying Food Really Bad For You?
I am going to introduce you to the healthiest oils for frying food in just a moment, but first let’s talk about whether you should fry food.
Most of us were raised with the belief that we should steer clear of fried food by default.
But frying is a method of cooking which has pros as well as cons.
Consider some of these advantages (1):
- When potatoes are fried, their dietary fiber content actually increases.
- Because frying takes place at a high temperature and over a brief time period, it leaches fewer vitamins from foods than some other methods of cooking.
- Some cooking oils have nutritional value as well. Frying foods are a great source of vitamin E as a result.
All of that said, frying foods are high in calories and can be fattening. So they should be eaten in moderation.
KEY POINT: Fried foods have a reputation for being terrible for our health, but in reality they have a place in our diet.
Fried foods are often higher in nutrition than their counterparts prepared through other cooking methods.
Frying and Cooking Oil Infographic
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Cooking Oil Stability Is Vital
When it comes to selecting the right oils for cooking, you need to choose oils which are high in nutrition and stable.
Frying foods involves subjecting oils to high heat. The following are typical temperatures:
- Pan frying: 248 °F (120 °C)
- Deep frying: 320 °F - 356 °F (160 - 180 °C)
Oils which oxidize too easily at high heat will release harmful free radicals.
Free radicals can cause oxidative damage in the body which can contribute to a number of different diseases including dementia, cancer, and cardiovascular disease (2).
How can you figure out which oils will resist oxidation and rancidification at high levels of heat?
The key is the relative degree of saturation of the fatty acids contained in the oil.
This comes down to the bonds between the fatty acid molecules.
- Saturated fats have single bonds.
- Monounsaturated fats have double bonds.
- Polyunsaturated fats have two bonds or more.
Polyunsaturated fats should be avoided in cooking because their bonds are more reactive.
This means that when they are heated to a high degree, the oil can oxidize or go rancid more easily.
You are safer with saturated and monounsaturated fats which have just single or double bonds between the fatty acid molecules.
Healthy #cooking oils have low proportion of polyunsaturated fats and a high smoke point
When looking for the stability of oils in high heat, pay attention to the smoke point.
The smoke point is the temperature at which the oil breaks down and start smoking; you’ll see a bluish smoke.
KEY POINT: For cooking safely, you want to avoid frying foods in oils which contain high amounts polyunsaturated fats. Look for oils with high smoking points for stability.
Which Oils Should You Avoid When Frying Foods?
Before I get into the list of oils you should consider using when you fry your foods, let’s quickly run down the list of oils you should steer clear of.
All of the oils below are problematic for the following reasons:
- They are high in polyunsaturated fats, as discussed above
- They contain high levels of omega-6 fatty acids
- They contain low levels of omega-3 fatty acids
- They are high in toxic trans fats
Here are the oils to avoid:
- Sesame oil
- Rice bran oil
- Grape seed oil
- Safflower oil
- Sunflower oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Corn oil
- Canola oil
- Soybean oil
Using these oils once in a while is fine if you enjoy them, but you should not make a regular habit out of it.
The typical diet is already way too high in omega-6 fatty acids and way too low in omega-3 fatty acids (3).
Some of these oils also are known to contain toxic compounds.
For example, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are introduced into grape seed oil through the drying process involved in its manufacture (6). PAHs are known carcinogens.
As to trans fats, this study (7) found that soybean and canola oils commonly sold in US stores contain between 0.56 to 4.2% trans fats.
Trans fats are bad for you. In fact, a mere 2% increase in trans fat intake might lead to a 23% increase in your risk for cardiovascular disease (8).
KEY POINT: Many of the commercial vegetable oils which you see for sale in the supermarket are really bad for your health.
While you should not fry food too often because of the high calorie content, in many ways fried foods have gotten a bad rap because of the unhealthy oils typically used.
6 Best Oils to Cook and
Deep Fry With
So now you can understand why frying your food now and again is not necessarily a bad idea and may actually present some health benefits if done in moderation.
But to redeem your frying pan, you must get away from unhealthy oils and their ill effects.
So here are 6 of the healthiest oils to cook and deep fry with:
1. Coconut Oil
I will start with the number one best choice all around - coconut oil.
Coconut oil is incredibly stable; refined coconut oil has a smoke point of 400°F (204°C) (57).
In fact, even after continuous deep frying at a temperature of 365°F for 8 hours straight, coconut oil’s quality does not break down (9).
If you recall our discussion about saturated vs. polyunsaturated fats, you will remember that saturated fats are best for resisting oxidization.
The fatty acid content of coconut oil is more than 90% saturated.
This is what lends it its high stability.
On top of that, coconut oil can actually impart a number of health benefits:
Burn Calories Faster, Speeding up Your Metabolism
When your metabolism is faster, you shed more weight, so this makes coconut oil an excellent choice if you are dieting.
Fight Gingivitis and Plaque
Oil pulling using coconut oil can reduce gum inflammation, tooth decay, and other oral health problems (16).
Obviously this will not be a very pronounced effect if you are simply eating food fried in coconut oil, but the germ-killing effects of the oil may still be advantageous.
Increase Your HDL Cholesterol
If you boost your HDL cholesterol levels, you can fight cardiovascular disease (17).
Coconut oil is known to boost HDL cholesterol (18).
Shrink Your Waistline
Coming back to dieting, some of the hardest fat to burn is visceral (belly) fat. This fat is particularly bad for you and can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes (19, 20, 21).
Treat Brain Disorders
This makes it a safe and natural method for protecting brain health.
If you overeat because you never feel full, you will find that coconut oil can improve your feeling of fullness, reducing that urge.
This can help you out on a diet (26).
Fight Inflammation Throughout Your Body
Inflammation is a major factor in the development and progression of many diseases.
You can see now why coconut oil is our top choice. Not only does it lack the negatives of canola oil and the other “bad” oils” which we recommend avoiding, but it actually can contribute to your health.
The most nutritious form of coconut oil is unrefined.
This type does have a faint coconut smell and taste, so if you do not like the flavor, you will want to purchase the refined variety.
Just keep in mind that you will lose some of the benefits.
Coconut oil fat composition (58):
- Saturated fat: 91.9%
- Monounsaturated fat: 6.2%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 1.9%
KEY POINT: Coconut oil is extremely stable as a cooking oil and has numerous other health benefits, making it the top choice for frying your foods.
2. Butter and Ghee
Butter is not the best choice if you are going to be deep frying your food because of the trace amounts of carbs and proteins it contains when heated.
If you heat your butter up too much, it can burn.
If however you are avoiding deep frying and are simply pan frying your food, or you use clarified butter, you can avoid this problem.
Butter’s smoke point is 350°F (175°C) (71).
Butter has a bad reputation, but it is one which is largely unfounded. Eaten in moderation, it actually has health benefits.
Butter is rich in a number of important nutrients. These include vitamins A, E and K2 as well as two important fatty acids: butyrate and Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA).
This can help with fat loss since higher energy expenditure means a faster metabolism.
And because CLA can improve insulin sensitivity, butter may be a good choice for cooking if you are a diabetic or if you are pre-diabetic.
It is margarine which is bad for you. Chock full of trans fatty acids, margarine may actually increase your risk of coronary heart disease (33).
Butter fat composition (59).
- Saturated fat: 68.2%
- Monounsaturated fat: 27.8%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 4%
Ghee for Deep Frying
Want to cook with butter, but don’t want to risk it burning? You can buy clarified butter, or “ghee,” from the store, or you can make it yourself at home.
Ghee has a higher smoke point (485°F or 252°C) than butter (71) When you use ghee for deep frying at a high heat, you will not have to worry about burning.
Fat composition does not differ between butter and ghee.
How to Clarify Butter:
Here are the steps to make ¾ cup of ghee:
- Purchase some butter you enjoy. One of the benefits of making your own ghee is that you can choose any butter you want to start with. This can result in super high-quality ghee. Make sure that you go with unsalted butter. The best type comes from grass-fed cows.
- Put one cup of butter in a medium saucepan. Heat it over low until it melts. Because you are using low heat, there is no chance of the butter burning.
- You will notice that the clear fat and milk solids have separated through the melting process.
- Continue to cook your butter at a low simmer. Wait until it begins to bubble.
- Continue simmering. The bubbles will shrink and eventually you will see the appearance of foam across the surface of the liquid. At this point, you will see some browning of the milk solids as well as clumping on the edges of your saucepan.
- The milk solids will continue to brown. When they reach a golden hue and begin dropping to the bottom (usually around 8-10 minutes after the bubbling starts), it is time to take the pan off the heat.
- Get a cheesecloth and strain the butter through it. The brown milk solids will be caught in the cheesecloth. Throw it away.
- What goes through the cheesecloth into your container is a clear golden liquid - clarified butter, or “ghee.”
While you do not need to refrigerate ghee, it is a good idea just to be safe. It will solidify at cold temperatures, but it will retain a nice silky texture.
KEY POINT: Butter is much better for you than you probably realize. Margarine, the 'healthy' alternative to butter, is not healthy at all.
Butter is one of the better oils for cooking, but at high temperatures, it can burn unless you use it in its clarified form, called 'ghee.'
3. Olive Oil
Olive oil is among the best-known healthy oils for cooking.
Virgin olive oil has a smoke point of 410°F or 210°C (57).
While it is low in saturated fats, it is low in polyunsaturated fats as well. Around three-quarters of its content takes the form of monounsaturated fats.
Olive oil can vary in quality quite a bit, so you will want to make sure that you are purchasing the best type, which is that made by only one producer.
Single-producer olive oil tends to be purer and has superior flavor to those produced by multiple sources.
In terms of nutrition, 100 grams of olive oil contains 72% of the RDA of vitamin E along with 75% of the RDA of vitamin K (60).
One drawback of olive oil is the high ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids, but this disadvantage is balanced out by the low polyunsaturated fat content.
A study demonstrated that olive did not significantly oxidise until after 24 hours of continuous deep frying (72). This could be due to its antioxidant content.
Olive oil contains an important compound called oleocanthal. This potent antioxidant has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.
Oleocanthal is so powerful that it even works as a painkiller. One study (36) even revealed an astonishing discovery. The oleocanthal in just 50 ml of extra virgin olive oil has a pain-killing effect which is comparable to 10% of the adult dosage recommended for pain relief through ibuprofen.
Olive oil also has an effect on your genes and proteins. This is yet another way in which it can combat inflammation (37).
While chronic inflammation at a low level usually is not very noticeable for a long time, it does wreak havoc on your body, and over the long years of your life, it can increase your risk for a number of diseases.
By mediating inflammation through your genes and proteins, olive oil protects you from those diseases.
You probably have heard of the Mediterranean diet, which is widely recommended by medical professionals to protect heart health.
Olive oil is among the prime features of the Mediterranean diet. It is quite likely that it is one of the major contributors to the diet’s protective effect.
Olive oil fat composition (60):
- Saturated fat: 14.2%
- Monounsaturated fat: 75%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 10.8%
KEY POINT: Olive oil is a very healthy cooking oil which is safe to use even at relatively high temperatures. It is stable and protects heart health through a number of different mechanisms.
4. Avocado Oil
If you are looking for an alternative to olive oil which shares a similar composition, avocado oil is a great choice.
Its high smoke point (520°F or 270°C) means that you can use it to cook at relatively high temperatures without concerns that it will polymerize (57).
It is relatively low in both saturated and polyunsaturated fats and consists mainly of monounsaturated fats. Its flavor is light and slightly nutty.
Like olive oil, avocado oil has a number of benefits, particularly for heart health.
One important nutrient in avocado oil is oleic acid. This is a monosaturated omega-9 fatty acid which is also found in olive oil.
Researchers believe (41) that this fatty acid is exactly what makes olive oil and avocado oil such great natural treatments for high blood pressure.
This is a nutrient which your body cannot produce on its own, so dietary sources such as avocado oil are very important.
Avocado oil also contains fats which can improve the absorption rate of other nutrients, including the carotenoid antioxidants in plants.
A lot of the veggies which contain these antioxidants are low in fat content, which means that if you eat them on their own, it can be hard to absorb their nutrition.
In one study (51), researchers discovered that absorption of carotenoids in a salad containing romaine lettuce, spinach and carrots was increased when avocado oil was added to the mix.
Just how significant was the boost? With the avocado oil, absorption was 17.4-fold what it was without the oil!
So avocado oil makes an excellent oil to cook with but you can also use it cold in salads, dressings, mayonnaise, hummus, smoothies, and so on.
Avocado oil fat composition (61):
- Saturated fat: 12.1%
- Monounsaturated fat: 73.8%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 14.1%
KEY POINT: Avocado oil is one of the healthiest oils you can cook with. It is stable at high temperatures and has benefits for heart health, eye health, and arthritis.
It also can increase absorption of key antioxidants in vegetables, so it is an excellent choice if you are preparing any veggie-based dish.
5. Macadamia Nut Oil
The majority of nut oils are not a good option for frying your foods, because they are high in polyunsaturated fats, and are therefore unstable.
One exception is macadamia nut oil. It has a smoke point of 390°F (199°C) (71).
Macadamia nut oil is somewhat expensive but not as bad as you might think.
Like other nut oils, it has a light flavor and imparts a somewhat buttery taste to foods.
Unlike other nut oils, macadamia nut oil is high in monosaturated fats, and has a profile which is similar to olive oil.
Macadamia nut oil is also low in omega-6 ratty acids and high in a number of antioxidants which protect your overall health.
Macadamia nut oil fat composition (62):
- Saturated fat: 14.3%
- Monounsaturated fat: 78.6%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 7.1%
KEY POINT: For the most part, nut oils should be avoided when cooking, but the exception is macadamia nut oil.
Macadamia nut oil is surprisingly reasonably priced, and has a fat profile similar to olive oil. This makes it stable even at high temperatures.
6. Lard and Other Animal Fats
Whether lard and other animal fats such as bacon drippings or tallow (beef fat) are healthy for cooking depends on how the animal has been fed and cared for.
Animals which are raised eating grains tend to contain fats which are high in polyunsaturated fats.
Animals which are grass-fed or pasture-raised on the other hand tend to have a different fat composition containing higher amounts of saturated and monounsaturated fats.
So in some cases, lard and other animal fats are excellent choices for cooking, but in other cases, they should be avoided.
You can purchase lard or tallow from your supermarket, or you can save the drippings from your bacon when you cook it up on the stovetop.
How do you save bacon drippings? Just store them in a mason jar and keep it handy in your kitchen. Purely rendered animal fat takes quite a long time to go bad.
You technically do not even need to put it in the fridge, though if you do, it should last even longer. Just be aware that some people say there may be an odor if you do this. Covering it with a lid should help to prevent this.
Just make sure you investigate where your lard (or meat) is coming from (always a good practice anyway).
Check the package to find out how the animals were fed. If you still cannot find the information you are looking for, you can check the website for the farm in question.
Lard fat composition (63):
- Saturated fat: 41%
- Monounsaturated fat: 47.2%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 11.8%
Tallow fat composition (64):
- Saturated fat: 52.1%
- Monounsaturated fat: 43.7%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 4.2%
KEY POINT: Animal fats can make a healthy choice for frying your foods, but it all depends on what the animals were fed.
Aim for fats from grass-fed and pasture-raised animals. These fats have fewer polyunsaturated fats than those which come from grain-fed livestock.
Oils That Are Good for You
but Not for Cooking
You now know the healthiest oils you can cook with as well as some oils you should avoid.
But you may be wondering about some other oils you know are good for your health which didn’t make the list above. What about fish oil? Peanut oil? Flax oil? Palm oil?
All of these oils are healthy for you, but they do not make the list above for various reasons. Let’s go over them now.
1. The Problem with Fish Oil
Fish oil gets a lot of attention these days for its health benefits, as it rightly should.
It is rich in omega-3 fatty acids; just a tablespoon a day is all it takes to meet your recommended daily amount of DHA and EPA.
Some types of fish oil are also high in other nutrients.
Cod fish liver oil contains a significant dose of vitamin D3. A lot of people do not get nearly enough of this key nutrient.
Here are a few of the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids such as those found in fish oil:
- Reduce triglycerides (52)
- Fight inflammation (53)
- Combat cognitive decline (54)
- Remove excess fat from your liver (55)
- Treat depression naturally (56)
So why is fish oil not a good choice for cooking? It comes down to the fat profile. Fish oil contains a high percentage of polyunsaturated fats.
This means that it is not all that stable at high temperatures. When cooking with fish oil, it may oxidize or go rancid.
You should still eat plenty of fish in your diet. But if you need to augment your omega-3 fatty acids, cooking in fish oil is not a good idea. A much better option is to purchase fish oil supplements.
Fish (salmon) oil fat composition (65):
- Saturated fat: 22.3%
- Monounsaturated fat: 32.5%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 45.2%
KEY POINT: Fish oil is excellent for your health thanks to the high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids it contains.
Unfortunately it also is high in polyunsaturated fats, which means it is not stable enough to cook with at high temperatures. For this reason, you should not use it to fry your foods.
2. The Problem with Flaxseed Oil
The situation with flaxseed oil is very much the same as it is for fish oil.
Flaxseed oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which makes it the best vegan alternative to fish oil.
That having been said, it is not a perfect supplement.
It contains omega-3 fatty acids in the form of Alpha Linolenic Acid, or ALA.
You need omega-3 fatty acids in the from of DHA or EPA.
You can convert ALA into EPA or DHA, but your body is not all that good at it.
So unless you do not eat fish at all, you should probably stick with fish oil over flax oil.
So why can’t you cook with flaxseed oil? Like fish oil, it is high in polyunsaturated fats. This means it is unstable at high temperatures and may degrade.
Flax oil fat composition (66):
- Saturated fat: 9.8%
- Monounsaturated fat: 21.1%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 69.1%
KEY POINT: Flax oil, like fish oil, is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, though fish oil is still a superior option.
Unfortunately flax oil suffers from the same drawback as fish oil when it comes to cooking; as both are high in polyunsaturated fats, neither is stable at high temperatures.
3. The Problem with Peanut Oil
Peanut oil is a very popular oil for cooking because it has a neutral flavor which does not impact the taste of the cuisine.
It also has the unique quality of not soaking up the flavors from foods.
This means that it can be re-used to cook other foods.
So if you have a number of foods to fry, peanut oil can be used for several batches in a row.
So why would you not want to use peanut oil in your cooking?
Like the majority of nut oils, peanut oil is not all that stable. It consists of roughly 34% polyunsaturated fats. This means it can oxidize easily.
Peanut oil fat composition (67):
- Saturated fat: 17.8%
- Monounsaturated fat: 48.6%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 33.6%
KEY POINT: Peanut oil is easy to cook with and has a neutral flavor profile which makes it a versatile choice.
Unfortunately its high polyunsaturated fat content also makes it unstable at high temperatures. So you may wish to avoid it, or at least keep its use to a minimum.
4. The Problem with Palm Oil
Palm oil is quite tasty and healthy. It is low in polyunsaturated fats, which means it is stable and perfect for deep-frying foods.
It also has a very neutral flavor, rather like peanut oil. This is particularly the case with red palm oil. This unrefined variety is high in Coenzyme Q10 and vitamin E (68).
So why should you not use palm oil in your cooking? The concerns here are not health-related, but rather environmental.
It is a challenge to harvest palm oil in a sustainable manner.
Growing trees to produce more palm oil cuts into the space needed by orangutans to thrive. Orangutans are endangered, so it is important to preserve their habitats.
Palm oil fat composition (68):
- Saturated fat: 51.4%
- Monounsaturated fat: 38.8%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 9.8%
KEY POINT: Palm oil is a healthy oil for cooking which is stable to use. The problem is that harvesting palm oil poses a danger to endangered orangutans. For this reason, it is not a good choice to use in your cooking at this time.
5. The Problem with Canola Oil
On the surface, canola oil also seems like it should be a healthy cooking oil.
It is cheap and readily available, so you may be tempted to buy it.
Canola oil is largely made up of monounsaturated fats, which means it is stable.
It also has a pretty good ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Canola oil’s light flavor makes it a versatile option for preparing a wide range of fried foods without impacting their taste.
The problem with canola oil comes down to how it is prepared.
Canola oil contains a substance called euric acid in nature. Euric acid is toxic, so it has to be removed from the oil before you can cook with it.
In order to remove the euric acid completely, canola oil producers have to subject the oil to processing using other toxic solvents such as hexane.
As a result of all this processing, canola oil is not a healthy choice.
Canola oil fat composition (69):
- Saturated fat: 8.1%
- Monounsaturated fat: 64.1%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 27.8%
KEY POINT: Canola oil has a moderately good fat profile, but it is heavily processed using toxic solvents, so it is not an ideal choice for healthy cooking.
How to Store Your Cooking Oils Properly
So to summarize, the best oils for cooking are:
- Coconut oil
- Olive oil
- Macadamia nut oil
- Avocado oil
Even these oils can go rancid however if they are not properly stored.
Frying Foods Is Not Entirely Unhealthy So Long as You Stick with Healthy Cooking Oils
Fried foods are high in calories, which is why you should not eat them all the time.
Frying leaches fewer nutrients than other cooking methods however, and is a good way to boost the fiber and vitamin E in your diet.
How healthy your fried foods are depends on how healthy your cooking oils are.
So if you want more fried foods in your life, the key is to make sure that you are sticking with healthy cooking oils like avocado oil, coconut oil, olive oil, butter/ghee, and macadamia nut oil.
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