Which cooking oil is the healthiest? A chef’s guide

Oil on spoon

Which cooking oil is the healthiest? A chef’s guide

When doing my weekly shop at the supermarket, I always seem to spend around five minutes slowly browsing the oil shelf. As you’re probably aware, there is usually a dizzying selection – different vegetables, different presses and, very importantly, different prices. The cheapest might set you back a quid, while some premium olive oils can be marked as high as £25.

So, it’s best to know what you’re buying into before you make your choice. Here’s my lowdown on the most popular oils on the market, how I use them in my recipes and what health benefits they really have – hype aside.

What is olive oil best for?

I absolutely adore olive oil – for me, it is the king of oils. The smooth, peppery elixir made by pressing whole olives provides a spectrum of goodness. Here are some of the key health-boosting compounds in olive oil:

  • Polyphenols, which can improve brain function, prevent heart disease and aid digestion.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids, which are monounsaturated fats that are beneficial for the brain and eyes, and may lower the risk of heart disease.
  • Vitamin E, which is an essential nutrient that helps to reduce inflammation and maintain a healthy immune system.

There are a few rules I live by. I always have two olive oils on the go. One cheaper olive oil, which sits next to my stove and I use for light sautéing, baking and rubbing into fish, meat and vegetables for roasting.

And I have another olive oil, which is usually an organic, cold-pressed version that I reserve for drizzling over salads or blitzing through dips – essentially, I don’t cook with this. You’ll see the most health benefits when using olive oil raw in this way.

Olive oil is also delicious to bake with and goes really well with flavours such as orange, honey and almond.

I wouldn’t use olive oil for deep-frying or shallow-frying at very high temperatures as olive oil has a lower smoke point than other oils and has the potential to destabilise and become carcinogenic at lower temperatures than its vegetable counterparts.

Top tip: Top up on vitamin E through a high-quality daily supplement.

Are vegetable oils bad for you?

As butter consumption was on the decline in the early 1970s (more on that below), the consumption of vegetable oil was on the rise. Vegetable oil can refer to any oil that comes from a plant source – yes, even from fruit such as avocado. Other, perhaps more common, examples include sunflower and rapeseed.

Vegetable oils can sometimes come with a bad reputation, but when used the right way in the kitchen, they don’t have to be. But what’s the difference between them?

Sunflower oil

Sunflower oil is one of the most commonly used vegetable oils – available pretty much everywhere. When I am deep-frying or browning meat over a very high heat, I’d use this. It contains high amounts of vitamin E, an antioxidant known for its skin-healing abilities.

However, it does contain high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which if consumed in excess may lead to high levels of inflammation, so using in moderation is advisable.

Avocado oil

Avocado oil would come under this umbrella term. However, it is unrefined like extra-virgin olive oil but has a higher smoke point, meaning it can be used for higher-temperature cooking. It’s pretty expensive – so use sparingly – and does contain some vitamin E, as well as healthy monounsaturated fats.

Rapeseed oil

Now this is a pretty diverse vegetable oil. Just like olive oil, a cold-pressed rapeseed (sometimes known as canola) oil can be enjoyed drizzled over salads or used to make dips and sauces, such as mayonnaise. This is one of my go-to uses for it.

But owing to its high smoke point of 204°C, it can also be used when frying, roasting, baking and so on. It’s also lower in saturated fat than any other oil options, making it a great everyday choice.

Should I be cooking with butter instead of oil?

What’s your comfort food? An entire tub of ice cream? An entire tube of Pringles? Mine is *drumroll* bread and butter.

At some point in the 1970s, butter became the enemy of the nutrition industry. But as you’re probably aware, nutritional guidance – and food trends – change constantly over decades. It could be argued that butter is back in fashion. So, should you be cooking with it?

I’d say, if you like butter, go for it. But I’d recommend buying a higher-quality, organic, grass-fed butter. As cows that eat grass consume much more of this essential fatty acid than their hay-chomping counterparts, such butter is richer in omega-3 fatty acids. These compounds are essential for heart, brain, eye and lung health.

According to the Journal of Dairy Science, butter from grass-fed cows is packed with five times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than regular butter from grain-fed cows. CLAs are a group of fatty acids that may promote heart health.

Butter is 60-80% fat, so everything in moderation, guys. A little tip – if you’re lightly sautéing a piece of fish or sweating down some leeks and garlic, you can use butter but my advice would be to add a drizzle of olive oil, too. Butter burns very easily, but the addition of olive oil will prevent this.

In conclusion…

Not all calories (and fats for that matter) are created equal. The quality of calories can have different effects on the body, so my advice would be to consume any fat in moderation and go for high-quality fats wherever you can.

For me, extra-virgin olive oil still does reign supreme and this is consistently backed up by scientific consensus.

Read more nutrition tips from Ollie here, alongside more health advice from our panel of experts.

Ollie Downey

Ollie Downey

Recipe Developer

Chef and Recipe Developer, Ollie Downey – also known on Instagram as @olsfood – is passionate about making balanced eating at home as simple as possible and open to all. With his knowledge as a chef and love for delicious and healthy cooking, he’ll be highlighting the staple foods and supplements you need in your kitchen to keep your nutrition on track, while also sharing inspiring recipes you can try for breakfast, lunch and beyond.