Oils are H-O-T right now. Sure, you’ve known about EVOO (thanks, Rachel Ray) and basic vegetable oil forever now, but you’ve probably been hearing other wild and exotic oil names like safflower, argan and marula lately. You’ve also probably been hearing about their versatility in cooking, heart-healthy benefits, cholesterol-lowering powers – and, oh, about a million other uses.
That said, these oils all have slightly different tastes and nutritional profiles. “For overall good health, replace saturated fatty acids with unsaturated fatty acids,” says Lauren Popeck, RD, a licensed dietitian at Orlando Health. “Aim for 5 to 7 teaspoons per day. Fats are rich in calories, however, they also increase absorption of fat-soluble nutrients, so they are a vital part of cell membranes and hormones, promote satiety and offer sensory qualities that make food taste good.”
“Grapeseed oil is light in colour and flavour, with a mild, slightly nutty taste that works well with a variety of other flavours,” says dietician and writer Jessica Cording, RD. “Since it has a high smoke point, you can use it in frying or other high-heat cooking methods.” Additionally, sub it for olive oil in salad dressings, sauces, or condiments like homemade mayonnaise because “it emulsifies well and won’t separate as easily as other oils might,” Cording says. The polyunsaturated fat in grapeseed oil may help lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and vitamin E has been shown to fight inflammation. Like most of the oils we’ll cover, one serving is a tablespoon with roughly 120 calories and 14 grams of fat.
Pro tip: “If using in a salad dressing, stick to about one teaspoon per serving of the dressing—you’ll get the great flavour and some of the benefits without going overboard,” Cording says. “For frying, pour the oil into a spritzer bottle and spray onto a nonstick skillet to keep calories down.”
Other uses: Mix with other oils to make a massage oil or use as a moisturizer. Use grapeseed oil as a treatment for skin injuries, or use as a lubricant while shaving.
Extracted from the kernels of the Marula tree, this oil has a clear, light yellow colour and nutty aroma, says Popeck. “It’s mostly comprised of monounsaturated fatty acids, which trigger less LDL cholesterol and more HDL cholesterol production,” she explains. “It is also a rich source of antioxidants which help to strengthen skin and [the] immune system.”
Protip: Use for cooking if you’re really in need, otherwise sub this oil into your skincare and haircare regimen for argan. (Trust us.)
This Moroccan staple has a rich, nutty flavor. “It has a low smoke point compared to other oils, so is not well suited to cooking, though a few drops can be added at the end of sautéing for some depth,” Cording says. “It’s best used to finish off a dish with a drizzle of flavor. Try using it in salad dressings and sauces that will not be cooked. It’s also great to dip bread in.” Additionally, this oil is lighter on the calories at just 70 per serving instead of the standard 120. “Studies in rats have shown argan oil’s potential to lower blood pressure,” says Cording.
Pro tip: “Because a few drops go a long way in terms of adding flavour, try drizzling over a grain-and-vegetable dish, or drizzle over salad or dessert,” says Cording.
Because coconut oil is – whoa – about 50 per cent saturated fat, it’s solid at room temperature and perfect for baked goods. “It can also be used as a vegan butter substitute,” says Cording. “It has a mellow, slightly coconut-y flavour that works with a variety of other flavours, sweet and savory alike.” And while it’s super-high in saturated fat, coconut oil is high in lauric acid, too, a medium-chain triglyceride that is metabolized differently from the long-chain triglycerides in most other oils. “MCTs are more likely to be burned off as fuel, and some research shows coconut oil may slightly boost the metabolism rate, supporting modest weight loss,” says Cording. “That said, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s still high in calories and needs to fit into your daily calorie needs.”
Pro tip: Do. Not. OD. “Because the jury’s still not out on the impact of saturated fat on cardiac health, you may want to be conservative in the amount you use compared to sources of unsaturated fat if you are concerned about heart disease,” Cording says.
Other uses: Coconut oil is a multi-use miracle product. Use it as a make-up remover, a moisturizer, or even a way to clean teeth by swirling the oil around in the mouth for 20 minutes or so before spitting out. (It’s called “pulling,” if you’re curious.)
Peanut oil has a wide variety of uses because of its overall neutrality, according to Cording. “Because it has a very high smoke point and neutral taste, peanut oil is good for frying, deep-frying, and other forms of high-heat cooking,” she says. “Still, because of peanut oil’s high smoke-point you may retain less of the oil than if you were to use something with a lower smoke-point.” Peanut oil has a pretty even proportion of saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats, and along with vitamin E, the oil contains resveratrol, which has been studied for its protective effects against cancers, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and viral infections.
Pro tip: Although the oil is ideal for deep-frying, just say no. “Just because you can deep-fry something doesn’t mean you should,” Cording says. “Peanut oil is also good for sautéing or can be used in sauces and dressings.” Better uses.
It just sounds spring-like, doesn’t it? But you don’t have to wait; stock up on this oil now. Sunflower oil has a light taste and appearance, which makes it a versatile ingredient and cooking oil. “It has a high smoke-point so it stands up well to heat,” says Cording. “It can also be used in low-heat cooking methods or in a sauce or as an ingredient in sunflower seed butter. It makes a great all-purpose oil to have in your kitchen.” On the benefit side, sunflower oil is higher in antioxidant vitamin E than any other oil, so drizzle this to employ some free-radical-fighting powers.
Pro tip: “If using for frying, you can pour oil into a spritzer bottle and spray lightly but evenly onto a pan or skillet,” says Cording. Easy peasy.
Kind of like soy milk, soybean oil has a neutral taste that blends well with lots of dishes. “Soybean oil is often used for frying and for other high-heat methods of cooking,” Cording says. “Hydrogenated forms, because they preserve texture and provide a rich mouthfeel, can have a long shelf life, and are a common ingredient in packaged snacks, frozen foods, and condiments like mayonnaise and margarine.” In addition to healthy polyunsaturated fats and the Vitamin E of other oils, soybean also packs vitamin K, which is important for bone health. But be careful: this is often used in packaged goods with lots of trans fat (the worst kind).
Pro tip: “In general, there is a lot of controversy surrounding soy, especially when it comes to GMO sources,” says Cording. “So, this particular oil may be best kept off the shopping list unless you are using a non-hydrogenated source clearly labeled as non-GMO.”
Other uses: You may see soybean oil as an ingredient in skincare and haircare products; the antioxidants protect against free-radical damage related to sources like pollutants and the sun. Interestingly, it may also be used as an insect repellent.
Wheat Germ Oil
This isn’t one of the most common oils, but it’s worth noting: “Wheat germ oil has a dark, rich colour and flavour, and since it should not be heated, it is best used as an accent to dishes after cooking or in sauces or salad dressing,” says Cording. Wheat germ oil is also a great source of antioxidant vitamin E and other vitamins like A and D, which help with eye and bone health – among a laundry list of other benefits.
Pro tip: Remember, you’re not actually “cooking” with this one. “Try using a drizzle on top of a salad, pasta dish, or grain-and-vegetable side,” says Cording.
Nope, not sunflower: saf–flower. This oil is made from the seeds of the plant by the same name. “This oil has a high smoke-point, and it stands up well to searing, browning and deep-frying. It’s naturally high in Omega-6 fatty acids, but it is also often modified to be high in monounsaturated fatty acids, otherwise known as high-oleic safflower oil,” Popeck says. “High oleic oils are heart-healthy due to increased monounsaturated fats, and are also becoming popular in processed foods because they are more shelf stable than polyunsaturated fats.”
Pro tip: Use safflower oil when you don’t want an overwhelming flavour to your dish, like in a stir-fry, curry or in any variety of baked goods.
If you’re into nutty oils, here’s another to add to your list: walnut. An even trendier oil than peanut, this one’s made from nuts that have been dried and cold-pressed. “The rich, nutty flavour works great as a salad dressing, or simply as a flavour enhancer,” says Popeck. “It’s also a good source of Alpha-linoleic acid, which the body converts to the Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.” These may help lower lipids, blood pressure and vascular inflammation, all of which support overall health. Whoo!
Pro tip: “Walnut oil does not stand up to high heat due to its medium smoke-point,” says Popeck. Because of this, stick to drizzles of it on salads or other veggies.
This oil is popular in Asian dishes, and has a medium smoke-point, which makes it best for light sautéing, sauces and low-heat baking, according to Popeck. “Sesame oil is rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, specifically linoleic acid, which is an omega-6,” she says. Although omega-3s get more buzz, both are essential because we don’t make them on our own. We get them solely from dietary sources.
Pro tip: If you’re checking store shelves, realize that colour impacts flavour. “The darker sesame oil is bolder in flavour than the lighter version,” says Popeck. So, depending on how robust a nutty flavour you want, choose wisely.
Canola oil is one of the most neutral flavor options among all oils, making it extremely versatile. “Has a medium-high smoke point, which means it’s best for baking, oven-cooking or stir-frying,” says Popeck. The omega-3s and omega-6s may help with cardiovascular health.” Canola oil is also often highly-refined, which removes undesirable tastes, smells, or colours. “Refined and unrefined oils have the same fatty acid profile,” says Popeck. “However, cold-pressed or unrefined oils contain more plant chemicals that contribute to their healthfulness.” So, might not pack quite as many benefits as your other oil selections, but it’s versatility should still make it a staple.
Pro tip: Go crazy, kids – and by that we mean, use in all kinds of dishes, not drizzle to your heart’s content, as canola is still high-fat and caloric. You can use this oil to sauté, bake, roast, stir-fry and more. Also, you can cut 1:1 with olive oil when making salad dressings, if you think the olive flavour is nice, but a bit too strong.
If you’re obsessed with superfood avocado, good news! You can get it in oil form, too. “Avocado oil is another one high in monounsaturated fats, which are linked to reducing LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and raising HDL cholesterol,” says Popeck. “Avocado oil has a high smoke point, which makes it ideal for cooking methods such as searing or browning, as well as simply using it cold.”
Pro tip: Popeck says that cold-pressed avocado oil is less refined than the regular kind, and therefore contains more antioxidants. “Overall, unrefined oils are more heart-healthy and flavorful,” she says. So, choose cold-pressed if you can.
Flaxseed has become more and more popular as a superfood recently, with its high fiber content and omega-3 powers, thought to be helpful in fighting heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke. “This is one of best plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, and is also a good source of monounsaturated fatty acids to promote decreased total LDL cholesterol and increased HDL,” says Popeck. Flaxseed oil also packs anti-inflammatory properties, keeping the body primed to ward off disease.
Pro tip: “Store flaxseed oil in the refrigerator because it oxidizes easily,” Popeck says. “It’s not suitable for cooking because of the low smoke-point, so toss with a salad dressing or try a drizzle over quinoa.”
Other uses: Sort of like flaxseed, the oil can be used as a mild laxative of sorts. On top of that, it’s also a solid option for moisturizing skin. You may also find this oil in various substances, like varnishes and paints, as a waterproofing agent.