Types of Cooking Oils: Which Oils Are Healthiest?

Cooking oil bottles in a row isolated on white background.

The debate over which oils are healthiest for cooking and dressing your food rages on. The official story is still that highly processed, prone-to-rancidity oils like the ubiquitous canola are best, while closer-to-nature fats like lard and tallow are basically slingshotting you into an early grave. Plenty of people are pushing back against the narrative that seed oils like canola, cottonseed, and soybean are the gold standard, though. I’d count as a good thing—except for the confusion it causes. The average person who just wants to “eat healthy” is getting caught in the informational crossfire, unsure about which oils are actually best. 

No oil exists naturally, mind you. Olive oil isn’t harvested by leaving open containers under dripping olives on the branch, nor is that liquid sloshing around inside a coconut pure oil. I’m not trying to disparage “processing” in and of itself. It takes a certain amount of processing to get any sort of oil. 

Still, not all oils are created equal. They differ in terms of flavor, fatty acid profile, oxidative potential, and rancidity proclivity. Today I’m going to examine the most common oils on the market and weigh in on which I would and would not use, starting with my favorites.

Healthiest Oil Choices (Primal Approved)

Avocado Oil

The first alphabetically and also the first oil I grab off the shelf when it’s time to sauté, stir fry, roast, marinate, grill, drizzle, dress… there’s nothing this oil can’t do. I’ve even been known to put it on my skin and dab it on a paper cut.  

Olive oil might get the lion’s share of attention for its favorable fatty acid profile, rich in the desirable monounsaturated variety, but avocado oil boasts a similar breakdown. Avocado oil also has the upper hand when it comes to smoke point, coming in at a chart-topping 520 degrees Fahrenheit, making it a great choice for all types of cooking. The light, subtle taste lends itself well to salad dressing, too. Buy in dark bottles to minimize oxidation.

Fatty acid breakdown:

70% monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA)
12% omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA)
1% omega-3 PUFA
12% saturated fatty acids (SFA)

Olive Oil

I have whole posts dedicated to olive oil’s benefits and how to pick the best one, so I won’t rehash the details here. Suffice it to say, olive oil is 100 percent Primal approved goodness. It’s a delicious salad oil, a decent sautéing oil, and it can even be used as moisturizer and shaving lotion. Olive oil and the polyphenols it packs are a big reason the hype surrounding the Mediterranean diet.

Olive oil is one area where conventional wisdom gets it right. Enjoy this one, and keep a bottle of organic extra virgin olive oil on hand for salad dressings or roasting or baking at medium heats. It also does a decent job standing up to heat but will lose its delicate flavors if heated too high. This is a good enough reason for me to use a different fat/oil when cooking at high temps. Keep it below 400 degrees Fahrenheit or so. 

Fatty acid breakdown:

73% MUFA
3.5-21% omega-6 PUFA
1% omega-3 PUFA (not even worth mentioning, really)
14% SFA

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is a tasty, shelf-stable (no hydrogenation required) tropical oil loaded with saturated fatty acids. In fact, it’s almost purely saturated, which is why some doctors and nutritionists will advise against its consumption. Not me, though. Besides the fact that I’m not afraid of saturated fat, coconut oil has tons of great uses in the kitchen. 

Refined coconut oil stands up to heat well (the smoke point is around 400 degrees Fahrenheit) and doesn’t have a distinctive taste, while unrefined virgin oil is a murky, cloudy mess—but it’s a delicious, creamy mess that I prefer. My favorite use is for sautéing vegetables. 

Fatty acid breakdown:

6.2% MUFA
1.6% PUFA
92.1% SFA

Palm Oil

Palm oil is controversial; just check out the comments section on my post on the subject. Many palm oil plantations encroach upon the rapidly dwindling natural habitats of the orangutan, which are already in short supply in this world. The consensus seems to be that sustainable palm oil, especially the more complex, nutritious unrefined red palm oil, can be found. You’ve just got to look a little harder at the labels. West African red palm oil, for example, is considered to be pretty safe environmentally. 

Oh, and palm oil is also highly saturated and heat-stable. Red palm oil is also stable, but it deserves special mention for its nutrient density—lots of CoQ10, Vitamin E, and SFAs. If you don’t want to use palm oil, though, coconut oil is a good substitute. 

Fatty acid breakdown:

39% MUFA
11% PUFA
50% SFA

Walnut Oil

Walnut oil is one of the better tasting nut oils. It is high in omega-6s, sure, but walnut oil isn’t something you’re going to use every day, or even every week. The stuff tastes great, though, and a small splash goes a long way at the end of a cooking session or onto a tossed salad. 

I definitely would advise against using this on a regular basis, especially for cooking, and you should always store it in a dark, cool spot in the house. For those that do dairy, try mixing a bit with some full-fat Greek yogurt: amazing.

Fatty acid breakdown:

23% MUFA
53% omega-6 PUFA
10% omega-3 PUFA
9% SFA

Macadamia Nut Oil

I love this oil, but I also love the parent nut. The oil assumes the buttery, smooth, rich flavor of the macadamia nut, making it an interesting choice for salad dressings. It also makes a surprisingly good homemade mayonnaise and can be used to sauté and cook in a pinch. The only drawback is its price. 

Fatty acid breakdown:

71% MUFA
10% PUFA
12% SFA

Sesame Seed Oil

The premier “flavor oil.” Sesame seed oil, especially the toasted variety, offers an unmatched and irreplaceable flavor profile. Certain Asian dishes work best with a bit of sesame oil, but if you’re wary of using it over high heat (which you probably should be), you can always add it to the dish after cooking. 

Despite the high PUFA content, sesame oil also contains a ton of antioxidants that can help minimize heat oxidation. I wouldn’t use this more than semi-regularly, though.

Fatty acid breakdown:

43% MUFA
43% PUFA
14% SFA

Flaxseed Oil

I’ve mentioned the seed and its oil a few times over the years. After being initially supportive of flax consumption, I now recommend minimizing intake.

People generally use flax oil as an omega-3 supplement, rather than for cooking. This is a good choice, seeing as how flax is almost entirely made of PUFAs, which are prone to rancidity and oxidation when exposed to heat. For omega-3s, though, meat eaters would be better off just taking fish oil or, better yet, eating small, oily fish. The DHA and EPA in fish oil are far more useful than the ALA in flaxseed oil. Strict vegetarians, have at it—just don’t use flaxseed oil to sauté your tofu.

Fatty acid breakdown:

19% MUFA
24% omega-6 PUFA
47% omega-3 PUFA (from ALA)
8-9% SFA

And now for the ones I go out of my way to avoid…

Cooking Oils that Deserve the Cold Shoulder

Canola Oil

Canola oil comes from rapeseed, a completely unpalatable seed rich in erucic acid, which is bitter and rather toxic. Canola oil is rapeseed oil stripped of erucic acid, as I detailed in this previous post. Food manufacturers like it because all the refining and deodorizing leaves the final product with a neutral flavor. Cardiologists like it because it’s relatively low in saturated fat (not something I would tout) and high in omega-3s. Unfortunately, the high-heat canola processing means a good portion of the omega-3s could be rancid on the shelf.

Canola gets a firm NO from me. 

Fatty acid breakdown:

61% MUFA
21% PUFA
9-11% PUFA
7% saturated fatty acids SFA

Corn Oil

Corn oil boggles my mind. I can’t wrap my head around how extracting gallons upon gallons of liquid oil from a lowly corncob is actually possible. How isn’t it too much work for the payoff? I mean, I’m no corn eater, but I’ve chomped a few kernels in my day, and I don’t understand how squeezing oil out of this non-vegetable sounds like a good idea to anyone. There’s just no reason to eat this. 

Fatty acid breakdown:

24% MUFA
59% PUFA (mostly O-6)
13% SFA

Soybean Oil

Soybean oil is about as ubiquitous as corn and canola. (You can thank soy’s status as one of Monsanto’s big four genetically modified crops for that.) In fact, you’ll often see an ingredient list include “canola and/or soybean oil.” Huh? Do food manufacturers honestly not know what kind of oil is going into their products? Best avoid the crapshoot and skip anything that “might contain” soybean oil altogether. The fact that it’s often partially hydrogenated suppresses my appetite even further. No thanks.

Fatty acid breakdown:

23% MUFA
51% omega-6 PUFA
6% omega-3 PUFA
14% SFA

Peanut Oil

Restaurants like to tout that they use “healthy” peanut oil in their deep fryers. Okay, the relatively MUFA-rich peanut oil may be a better choice than corn or sunflower oil for high heating, but it’s still a legume oil prone to rancidity. In the UK, it’s known as groundnut oil. Avoid both.

Fatty acid breakdown:

46% MUFA
32% PUFA
17% SFA

Sunflower Seed Oil

High in PUFAs with little to no omega-3s, sunflower seed oil is a pretty bad choice. Trouble is it’s everywhere, and it has a reputation for being healthy. Just don’t keep the stuff in your house (not a problem; it’s flavorless, odorless, and completely boring), and keep fast food dining out to a minimum, and you should be able to avoid sunflower seed oil.

Fatty acid breakdown:

19% MUFA
63% PUFA
10% SFA

Safflower Oil

Like sunflower seed oil but worse, the oil derived from the “bastard saffron” is about 75% omega-6 PUFAs with not a speck of omega-3 in sight. It’s also lower in MUFAs and SFAs. What’s not to dislike?

Fatty acid breakdown:

14% MUFA
75% PUFA
6% SFA

Cottonseed Oil

At least most of the oils I’ve mentioned come from technically edible plants, in some form or another. Cottonseed oil, however, comes from cotton. You know, the stuff that shirts are made of? Yeah. It’s everywhere, from margarine to cereal to shortening to frozen desserts to bread, because it’s cheaper than other oils (again, thanks to Monsanto), and it only needs “partial hydrogenation” to maintain stability. Luckily, that won’t be an issue for MDA readers who already avoid all that stuff in the first place. Warn your friends and family, though.

Fatty acid breakdown:

17% MUFA
52% PUFA
26% SFA

Grapeseed Oil

It does have a buttery taste, and it gets a lot of hype as a worthy replacement for olive oil, but skip this stuff. It has high oxidation potential, especially if you follow the recommended instructions and use it for deep frying or high-heat sautéing. There’s no good reason to use it.

Fatty acid breakdown:

16% MUFA
70% PUFA
9% SFA

Always choose the right oil for your recipe! Instantly download your free Guide to Fats and Oils

Give Me the Quick Version, Sisson. What’s the Best Cooking Oil?

Avocado and olive are the oils I reach for most often because they’re so darned versatile. Coconut oil is a close third in terms of usefulness, but I’ll often use butter instead. Just personal preference. The nut oils (walnut, macadamia) and sesame taste great, but I use them more sparingly and often at the end of cooking or as a drizzle to enhance the flavor of a dish. 

Seed oils are unnecessary and best avoided. Realistically, unless you personally prepare every morsel of food that goes in your mouth, you won’t be able to dodge them entirely. This is a “do your best” situation. When I’m dining out, I request that my food be cooked in olive oil or butter when possible, and I’ve been known to bring my own salad dressing with me. At the grocery store, I check out labels. But I don’t stress about every possible exposure. In the big picture, I trust my Primal lifestyle to carry me through. 

What are your preferred culinary oils and why? Let me know your thoughts.

(Note: The fatty acid profiles here are approximations. Exact values will differ based on processing and analyzing methods.) 


TAGS:  is it primal?

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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