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The Truth About ‘Healthy’ Cooking Oils

Walk into any supermarket and you’ll find an abundance of cooking oils. Extra virgin olive oil, rapeseed oil, sunflower oil – the list goes on. And on. But which oil do you choose if you want to make a healthier choice?

There seems to be so much confusion about the health benefits of consuming certain oils. Brands are keen to boast of their selective health benefits; every week a study reveals new findings and national authorities, like the British Heart Foundation, advocate outdated and widely discredited recommendations.

So where do we turn? Olive oil was once the go-to oil for healthy cooking but now coconut oil seems to be enjoying a moment in the spotlight. But does it offer any real, tangible benefit? Or is it just marketing hype?

If you want to know the real truth, without all the marketing speak, read on…

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Why different oils matter

Here’s the rub. It’s not just a question of choosing a ‘healthy’ oil but rather an oil that will stay healthy once it’s been heated.

If you’re cooking at a high heat – for frying or sautéing for example – you’ll want oils that don’t oxidise at low heat temperatures.

What’s so bad about oxidisation? It’s a chain of chemical reactions that degrades the quality of the oil. When oils react with oxygen, it forms free radicals and harmful compounds – which you definitely don’t want to be ingesting.

So how do you work out an oil’s resistance to oxidisation? Simple: look for oils high in saturated or monounsaturated fats and avoid oils high in polyunsaturated fats.

Saturated, most especially, and monounsaturated fats are stable and have a high degree of resistance to oxidation. However, polyunsaturated fats are highly reactive to oxidation. To find this info: check the nutrition label. There should be a breakdown of all three kinds of fats.

What about the smoke point?

Ignore it. The smoke point and oxidation are two different things. The smoke point of oil has no bearing on the nutritional breakdown – or nutritional fluidity – of an oil. The smoke point is simply the temperature at which a fat or oil starts to burn and give off smoke. It’s also the time where an oil takes on a more unpleasant flavour.

Flavour-wise – the smoke point is important. Nutritionally – the smoke point has little to do with an oil’s health benefits or its safety for cooking at higher temperatures.

Which oil should I choose?

From our research, there’s a few stand out oils and quite a few that should be avoided if possible. If in doubt: check the packaging and opt for oils high in saturated or monounsaturated fat. Equally, avoid refined, polyunsaturated fats.

So without further ado, here’s some of the healthiest cooking oils.

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Coconut Oil

Don’t dismiss this oil just because it’s trendy. It is popular – but for a good reason. The health benefits are real.

Over 90% of the fatty acids found in coconut oil are saturated, making it exceptionally resistant to heat. For any high heat cooking, coconut is your best bet. Plus, there’s a myriad of other health benefits. Coconut oil is antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-fungal and antibacterial; it can improve cholesterol, speed up metabolism and kill harmful bacteria in your gut.

More and more supermarkets are stocking coconut oil so it’s getting more affordable too.

Butter or Ghee

Real butter and ghee – a form of clarified butter – are wonderfully good for you. Both are rich in soluble vitamins A, E and K2 as well as fatty acids CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) and butyrate.

In some studies CLA has shown to help reduce body fat percentage and butyrate can help fight inflammation and improve gut health.

Both are high in saturated fats (around 65%) and low on polyunsaturated fats (3 – 4%) so a great fat to cook with.

Olive Oil

Well-known for its heart healthy effects, olive oil is fairly resistant to heat. It can raise the good cholesterol and lower harmful cholesterol.

If possible, extra virgin olive oil is the best bet. It has much more nutrients and antioxidants than more refined offerings.

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Oils to avoid

Nut, peanut, seed and vegetable oils are all high in polyunsaturated fats and should be avoided for any high-heat cooking. Seed and vegetable oils in particular are highly refined and processed. A lot of these oils have been portrayed as ‘heart healthy’ by the media – ignore this. New studies link many of these oils with serious diseases including heart disease and several cancers.

Here’s what to avoid:

Flax oil
Soybean oil
Corn oil
Cottonseed oil
Canola oil
Rapeseed oil
Sunflower oil
Sesame oil
Grapeseed oil
Safflower oil
Rice Bran oil

To takeaway

Look for oils high in saturated or monounsaturated fats and avoid oils high in polyunsaturated fats. Your best oils for cooking are coconut oil, butter and olive oil. Don’t believe the on-pack health claims; avoid nut, peanut, vegetable and seed oils.

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