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Cooking oils: What you need to know

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Some of the most frequent questions I get asked have to do with oils. “Which oil is the healthiest?” “Which oil should I use for cooking?” “Is coconut oil good for you?” These questions came up at the most recent grocery store tour I did this past weekend.

There are no straight answers to any of these questions. In some circumstances a very healthy oil is not one most chefs would use for cooking; and in some cases a good cooking oil is not one a dietitian would recommend for health.

Oils that are suited for cooking have to withstand high heat. Certain oils, when heated, undergo changes that render them unstable and therefore are not the best choices for cooking. For example, olive oil – which is recommended for good health since it contains unsaturated fats and has low levels of omega 6 fatty acids – is not well suited for frying.  Olive oil has a low smoking point, meaning it will start to smoke at a lower temperature than other oils. Olive oil is better used for dressings, marinades and baking. Conversely, palm oil, which is good for frying, scores low for health. So that’s the dilemma.

After reviewing many sources, searching the Internet and exploring nutrition and culinary references, I came across a chart that does a nice job presenting the dichotomy between culinary and health preferences. It includes information about the nuances of different oils such as the level of refinement, the presence of omega 3 and 6, and even includes some information about genetic modification.

This link will take you to a blog post that explains how the chart was created. The chart is linked to the blog post.

To read the chart
The chart is divided into four sections by two axes. The culinary considerations are on the X axis and the health component of the oils is on the Y axis. The further right you go on the X axis the better suited the oil in terms of cooking (higher temperatures). The further up you go on the Y axis the better the oil in terms of health. For example, you might see that although walnut oil is made from heart healthy walnuts which are high in omega 3 fatty acids, heating the oil compromises these, therefore it is not recommended for cooking but can be used as a ‘finishing’ oil in dressings, marinades and such.

I hope you find this chart as useful as I have and it is my wish that it answers some of your questions.

Be well, stay well!

About Julia Salomón MS, RD, CD

Julia is the corporate dietitian at Affinity Health System and also a nutrition educator. She works at various sites throughout the organization working with Affinity’s employee wellness program. She earned her Master’s degree in nutrition science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1996 and became a dietitian shortly thereafter. Julia has worked on several nutrition projects abroad as well as domestically. Before joining Affinity Health System in June of 2011, she worked as a college dietitian and later in the school nutrition field. She has earned certificates of training in adult and childhood weight management. Julia has a special interest in nutrition, public health and wellness.

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