Q: I've been doing a lot of cooking at home recently, and I can't seem to get my cooking oils straight! Which is the best oil to cook with, and what is the nutritional difference between oils?
A: This is a great question, especially because there are so many oils to choose from. Just remember that all oils are fats. Some may be so-called good fats, but even the best cooking oils should be used in moderation. My recommendation is to use extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) and canola oil.
Extra-virgin olive oil contains healthy, monounsaturated fats, which help raise your "good" (HDL) cholesterol and lower your "bad" (LDL) cholesterol. EVOO is also a great choice because it's versatile — its flavor is compatible with virtually anything. It can be used to cook chicken, fish, vegetables, and eggs, and even to make salad dressings and sauces. This oil is produced by pressing olives, which are packed with nutrients. This is why EVOO is such a heart-healthy choice. If EVOO isn't working for you, go with canola oil.
Canola oil contains both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. In addition, it contains omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation and decrease the risk of heart disease. Both EVOO and canola oil are very low in saturated fat (approximately 1 gram per tablespoon), making them even better choices.
Coconut oil is a popular alternative to olive oil these days, and you can find it at health food stores like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. Health critics are still in disagreement about how frequently you should consume the oil, since it is high in saturated fat. Yet, vegans are huge advocates — coconut oil offers a sweet vegetable fat that vegans can use for baking, instead of using butter. It can create pie crusts, icings and more. It has a natural sweetness that tastes great when sautéing bitter greens like kale or chard. You should just be watchful of how much you use, one tablespoon of coconut oil has about 13.5 grams of fat and 120 calories, which is similar to the calorie count in both canola and olive oil.
I also use a couple of other oils. One you might try is sesame oil, used typically in Asian cuisine; it has a strong flavor that complements a variety of foods. While sesame oil does contain monounsaturated fats, the downside is that it also has a large amount of saturated fat (which we want to limit). A serving of sesame oil (typically 1 tablespoon) contains a whopping 14 grams of fat! So go easy on this oil if you choose to use it — one tablespoon will go a LONG way toward adding flavor — but also calories.