We have all heard the message that we need to reduce our fat intake. Fat is the most calorie dense nutrient we can eat with each gram providing 9 calories, while carbohydrate and protein each provide 4 calories per gram.

While we need to be careful with our intake of fat it cannot be eliminated completely. So what is the best oil to choose when we are faced with the wide selection available in the supermarket today?

The answer to the question partly depends on how you are planning to use the oil. Each oil will have different flavour and cooking properties.

In addition to the considerations of how an oil tastes and cooks it is worthwhile weighing up some health facts first. No matter what cooking oil you choose it is still one hundred percent fat and therefore energy dense. If you need to watch your weight try to keep any oil to a minimum in your cooking and food preparation. Even ‘light’ or ‘extra light’ olive oils are still one hundred percent fat, the term ‘light’ refers to how they have been processed and their resulting flavour or colour.

Some fats are healthier for your heart than other fats. All fats are made up of a blend of different fatty acids: saturated, trans, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Fats will be made up of a blend of these fatty acids but one will generally be more dominant than the others.

Your cholesterol level can be affected by the different fats you eat in your diet. Fats high in either saturated or trans fats will lead to higher cholesterol levels. Cooking fats with a high saturated fat content tend to be butter, dripping, lard, cremelta as well as palm oil and coconut oil.

Fats which are higher in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats are better for your cholesterol level as they help to lower your bad cholesterol which gets deposited on your artery walls. They also help to increase your good cholesterol which acts to help clear the fatty deposits on your arteries. Vegetable oils such as safflower and sunflower oils are high in polyunsaturated fats, while olive oil, canola oil and avocado oils are high in monounsaturated fats.

When you are choosing an oil to buy consider how you are going to use it. It is better to choose an oil where the source is clearly stated in the name such as corn, safflower, olive. The use of generic terms such as “salad oil’ or ‘cooking oil’ can refer to a product made from a blend of oils, they may have a higher saturated fat level.

For general cooking choose an oil with a neutral taste so that it does not overwhelm the flavour of the food. Oils such as regular olive oil, canola, rice bran are good choices.

Where higher temperatures are needed such as frying you are best to choose an oil with a high smoke point. The smoke point refers to the temperature where the oil starts to smoke and discolour. Suitable oils include canola, grapeseed and peanut oil.

For salads choosing an oil with a distinctive flavour can add interest. Oils such as extra virgin olive oil, avocado or some of the speciality oils such as walnut or hazelnut are good choices.

Flax seed oil can also be good for salad dressings. This oil is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have a role in keeping the arteries more flexible and reducing inflammation in the arteries. Flaxseed oil needs to be kept refrigerated, and is not suitable for heating so is ideal for salads.

All oils will go rancid with time so can not be stored indefinitely. So unless you are a real gourmet cook it is unlikely that you will need a vast array of oils in your pantry. Choose an oil that will best meet your day-to-day cooking and food preparation needs. While oils impart important flavour to our foods try to use them in small amounts for the sake of your health.


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Fiona Boyle is a registered dietitian and nutritionist. She runs a private practice and gives nutrition advice to individuals and families to help meet their health needs and personal goals.

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