5 best cooking oils for your health, according to experts

From avocado to walnut, our experts have pored over the options to give you the inside scoop on the healthiest cooking oils around.

Cooking oils are a kitchen staple, but selecting the right one can be a slippery business.

With a wide variety to choose from, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed in the oil aisle.

Whether you’re after a healthy oil for frying or a flavourful option to use in a salad dressing, here are our experts’ recommendations on cooking oils that are good for your health.

What makes a healthy cooking oil?

Fat composition

Nutrition Australia dietitian Leanne Elliston says different oils can have different impacts on your health.

“Some fats are harmful and some are helpful, so it’s important to choose an oil that contains good fats with a healthy fatty acid profile,” Leanne says.

The healthiest oils include those that contain poly- and monounsaturated fats derived from nuts, seeds, avocado and olives.

These fats can help reduce harmful cholesterol in the blood, Leanne explains.

Heat stability

Consider the oil’s heat stability to see if it’s a healthy choice, dietitian Dr Georgina Williams says.

Dr Williams explains heat stability is based on two factors: the smoke point, which is the temperature at which the oil starts to produce smoke, and oxidative stability, which describes how well the oil resists oxidation.

“Oxidation of oils can produce potentially harmful by-products, which makes oils with greater oxidative stability more preferable,” Dr Williams says.

Level of processing

Dr Williams also advises considering the oil’s processing to determine how healthy it is.

“For example, extra virgin or virgin oils are less processed than oils that are refined and heat treated,” she says.

“This means they are likely to maintain all of the important vitamins, antioxidants and fatty acids that are beneficial for health.”

Which cooking oils should you avoid?

Leanne recommends avoiding oils that are very high in saturated fat, such as palm and coconut oil.

Coconut oil consists of around 90 per cent saturated fat, while palm oil is about half saturated fat, research suggests.

“Saturated fat increases the risk of cholesterol and heart disease,” Leanne says.

“You’ll often find palm oil in vegetable blends, so it’s a good idea to be mindful of this when choosing a cooking oil.”

Which are the best cooking oils for your health?

Extra virgin olive oil

“This is hands down the healthiest cooking oil,” Leanne says.

“It’s got a healthy fatty acid profile and it contains lots of antioxidants, which have anti-inflammatory, cancer-fighting and heart health properties.

“You can cook and bake with it, use it in a stir-fry, or in salads.”

But Leanne says keeping it healthy also means maintaining its freshness.

“I always recommend buying local or Australian, and not storing for too long, as the fresher the oil, the healthier it is for you,” she says.

Canola oil

Registered nutritionist Kristen Beck says canola oil is a great option as a high-temperature cooking oil.

“Canola oil is low in saturated fats, contains heart-healthy omega-3s, and it’s a safe, stable oil,” Kristen says.

It also costs less than olive oil.

Avocado oil

Avocado oil is high in monounsaturated fats, which can help reduce inflammation and improve heart health.

“It also contains antioxidants that can help protect against disease,” Kristen says.

“Avocado oil has a high smoke point, which makes it suitable for high-temperature cooking like frying.”

Nuts and seeds

Kristen says oils that are high in polyunsaturated fats can be healthy, but they have a low smoke point.

“Flaxseed oil, walnut oil, pumpkin seed oil and sesame oil are not suitable for frying,” she says.

“But they are all great for use in salad dressings, dips, smoothies and low-temperature cooking methods like sauteing and baking.”

Rice bran oil

Rice bran oil contains unsaturated fats, vitamin E and antioxidants, Dr Williams says.

“It has also been associated with reduced cholesterol levels but because it has a higher saturated fat content than other plant oils, it should still be used in moderation,” she explains.

Dr Williams also notes that people should mostly use this oil for salad dressings because it has poor heat stability.

Is peanut oil healthy?

Containing poly- and monounsaturated fats and vitamin E, peanut oil has good heat stability as a cooking oil, Dr Williams says.

It may help improve cholesterol and regulate blood sugar levels.

“While it does not withstand high heat as much as olive oil, it would still be a good choice for stir-frying,” Dr Williams says.

Are cold-pressed oils healthier than refined oils?

The oil production process can have an impact on an oil’s nutritional make-up.

Cold-pressed oils are less processed and often preferred over refined oils because of the higher levels of bioactive compounds they contain.

Refined oils, on the other hand, undergo high heating that could lead to toxic substances,

But cold-pressed oils can be more expensive.

“I’ll scrimp and save on some groceries, but not on my oils,” Leanne says.

“Paying extra for good quality, healthy oil is worth it.”

However, some cold-pressed oils, such as walnut oil, have a lower smoke point and are not good for frying at high temperatures.

What oil should you use for frying?

Dr Williams says for frying, people typically use seed oils such as sunflower oil because of their high smoke point.

“However, it should be noted they have poor oxidative stability and may lose key nutrients during heating,” she notes.

“Instead, olive oil can be used for frying due to its high smoke point and high oxidative stability.

“Seed oils have been in the news the past year due to their high omega-6 content, which is a healthy fatty acid that may be less beneficial in high amounts.

“It is (therefore) recommended to consume seed oils in moderation, and try to choose less refined options, such as virgin or cold-pressed, where possible.”

What is the healthiest cooking oil?

According to Dr Williams, olive oil may be the best healthy cooking oil to have in your pantry.

Scientific evidence suggests it can help promote liver health and heart health, and reduce inflammation, she says.

“Olive oil has the best heat stability of all cooking oils and is rich in unsaturated fats and antioxidants for health,” Dr Williams says.

For more on healthy oils:

Originally written by Dimity Barber, May 2023. Updated by Melissa Hong, April 2024.