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Choosing a healthful cooking oil

Learn the best cooking oils to use, find out when to use them and get tips for substituting healthier oils for less healthy ones in recipes.

Butter or margarine? Canola or olive oil? When it comes to healthful cooking, these choices can seem difficult. But they're important.

Even though cooking oil makes up a relatively small part of most people's diet, it's something that deserves attention, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). And it's actually relatively easy to make good choices, if you know what to look for.

It comes down to fat

The key to choosing the right cooking product is the type of fat it contains.

Here's a quick primer from the USDA and other dietary experts on what oils and fats make the grade:

The best oils are those high in unsaturated fats, which have health benefits when consumed in moderation. These include oils made from plants such as corn, canola, olive, safflower, soybean and sunflower. Soft, light and trans-fat-free margarines also fall into this category.

Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. These oils from canola, olives, peanuts and some other plants are good because they lower bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL), says the American Heart Association.

Polyunsaturated fats found in sunflower, corn and soybean oils are liquid or soft at room temperatures and also lower bad cholesterol. According to Harvard Medical School, polyunsaturated fats such as omega-3 fatty acids also raise good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL) and lower triglycerides.

Oils to avoid are those high in trans or saturated fats, which increase the amount of harmful LDL cholesterol in your blood. These include solid fats such as shortening and hard margarine, butter, and lard.

Palm and coconut oils also fall into this category because, although they're made from plants, they're high in saturated fat.

Regardless of which oil you use, it's important not to use too much. Even the more healthful fats are high in calories.

Best uses for vegetable oils

When cooking with oils, some of the best choices are:

  • Olive oil for light sautéing and salad dressings. Don't use it for high-temperature cooking.
  • Peanut oil for higher-temperature sautéing.
  • Canola oil for baking.
  • Soybean and safflower oils for most purposes.

Substitutions

If a recipe calls for a less healthful oil, you can make a substitution. For example, when your recipe calls for butter, lard, bacon, bacon fat or chicken fat, use a liquid vegetable oil or a soft margarine that is low in saturated fat and has 0 grams trans fat.

reviewed 11/10/2020

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