The Skinny on Fats

Did you know that fats are essential nutrients that are fundamental to how the body functions? In fact, fats are integral to cell structure and also are included in hormones that control muscle contraction, immune function, blood clotting and blood pressure. Additionally, when it comes to healthy eating, there are some vitamins (A, D, E and K) that require fat to be fully absorbed and usable in the body.

The fat in nearly all foods is a mixture of fatty acids…saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. You want to choose fats that are unsaturated more often. Unsaturated fats are oils—they are plant-based and liquid at room temperatures. These types of fats are considered a better nutrition choice because of the positive effects they have on cardiovascular health.

It can be a challenge to know which oils to use when cooking. You want to make healthy choices, but you also want your food to turn out delicious. Here is a brief primer on how to choose the right oils, along with detailed descriptions of the most common oils you’re likely to use.

 The Smoke Point of Cooking Oils

When it comes to choosing oil, it’s important to know oil’s smoke point, which is the temperature at which heated the oil begins to produce smoke and burn. When this happens, it causes the healthy components of the oil to degrade into damaging free radicals. Because each type of oil has a different smoke point, certain oils are better for different types of cooking techniques. The higher the cooking temperature (frying, for example), the higher you want the oil’s smoke point to be to prevent it from burning.

Refined Versus Unrefined Cooking Oils

Cooking oils are extracted from plants, nuts and seeds. This extraction can be from the use of pressure (also known as cold-pressing) or processing using mechanical, thermal and/or chemical processes. The refinement of oil can change both the flavor and the smoke point. The more refined the oil, the higher the smoke point. The less processed the oil is, the more flavorful the oil will be.

Types of Oils

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)Unrefined and unaltered oil extracted from olives

  • Nutrition: A very high monounsaturated fat composition. Additionally, EVOO contains a phytonutrient that protects vascular health.
  • Flavor: Intense olive taste, fruitier flavor and low acid
  • Smoke Point: Low
  • Cooking: Use for lower-heat cooking or in baking to substitute for butter. Best in salad dressings or dips where the flavor can take center stage.

Olive Oil: Blend of EVOO  combined with refined olive oil

  • Nutrition: A high monounsaturated fat composition
  • Flavor: Mild, lighter and less olive-like flavor
  • Smoke Point: Medium
  • Cooking: Use it for low- to medium-temperature cooking, such as sautéing and stir-frying.

 Canola OilRefined oil extracted from the seed of a yellow flowering plant called a rapeseed

  • Nutrition: A high composition of both mono- and polyunsaturated fats
  • Flavor: Very light; allows the flavors of the food to shine
  • Smoke Point: Medium
  • Cooking: Works well for medium-temperature cooking such as sautéing and stir-frying.

Nut/Seed Oil (such as walnut) Unrefined oil extracted from nuts/seeds

  • Nutrition: A high composition of polyunsaturated fats. Additionally, walnut oils have a high linolenic acid content, which converts to omega-3s to support heart health.
  • Flavor: A rich nutty flavor
  • Smoke Point: Very low
  • Cooking: Best when not cooked at all or only at very low cooking temperatures. Instead, use it to add a tasty flavor to salad dressings and marinades.

Peanut OilRefined oil made from peanuts

  • Nutrition: A high composition of both mono- and polyunsaturated fats
  • Flavor: A strong peanut flavor and aroma
  • Smoke Point: High
  • Cooking: Ideal for frying foods or making popcorn. Also, great to use when you want to give a slight peanut flavor to food.

Avocado OilRefined oil made from the fruit of an avocado

  • Nutrition: A very high composition of monounsaturated fats
  • Flavor: A delicate, buttery and slightly nutty flavor profile
  • Smoke Point: Very high
  • Cooking: Versatile; can be used in both high-heat cooking or as a finishing oil on salads

Coconut OilRefined oil made from the meat of a coconut

  • Nutrition: A high saturated-fat ratio
  • Flavor: A slightly sweet coconut flavor
  • Smoke Point: Low to medium
  • Cooking: Most commonly used in baked goods, but can lend a delicious coconut flavor to sautéing or stir-frying