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Food/Nutrition Columnist Author: Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN - Food and Nutrition Columnist - Last Updated: Sep 7, 2017 - 10:06:33 PM

Oils – Are They All The Same?

By Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN - Food and Nutrition Columnist -
Feb 24, 2014 - 12:04:50 AM

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( - Using a moderate amount of oil is a healthy habit, but sorting out all the oils available at the supermarket can be daunting. All plant oils are made up of different types of fats - saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Each variety of oil has some of each fat but the oil will be classified by the predominant fat in the oil.

The more saturated fat in oil the thicker or more semi-solid it will be. Good examples are coconut and palm kernel oil. Saturated fat is less health promoting because it increases your risk for heart attack and stroke. We are encouraged to swap foods high in saturated fat with foods that contain more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. The same holds true for oil. Select oils with more monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat and less saturated fat. Almost all plant oils are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats which are heart healthy choices.  All plant oils are trans fat free.

Oils with high smoking points can handle heat and are good for frying. Those with low smoking points are better for salad dressings, drizzles or dips. Once oil is heated beyond its smoking point it begins to break down, creates irritating smoke, and loses its flavor. It can also ignite. Any oil that smokes should be discarded.

Let's take a look at the oils found on the supermarket shelf to help you decide what to buy and how to use each type.

  • Canola has a high smoking point and a light flavor which makes it useful for almost any cooking purpose. It contains heart healthy omega-3 polyunsaturated fats which are also found in fish oils. It comes from the rapeseed plant and was first produced in Canada, hence the name Can - for Canada - and ola - for oil.
  • Flaxseed is rich in heart healthy omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. It is a good vegetarian alternative to fish oil. Flaxseed oil has a very low smoking point, just slightly above boiling water, so it is better used as a drizzle or to make salad dressing.
  • Avocado has a lovely green color and a buttery nutty flavor. It is made up of over 70% monounsaturated fat with a moderately high smoking point. It can be used for stirfrys, sautéing and salad dressing.
  • Peanut has a very high smoking point making it useful for deep fat frying. It is high in monounsaturated fat and contains vitamin E.
  • Walnut is high in alpha-linolenic acid that converts to omega-3 polyunsaturated fat which makes it a heart healthy choice. With a low smoke point it is better used to flavor salads.
  • Coconut has a sweet flavor but it is higher in saturated fat than most oils. It is semi-solid at room temperature making it a good shortening or butter substitute for baking. Some believe coconut oil is good for us because of the type of saturated fat it contains. There is no strong evidence to support its health value and most experts do not recommend coconut oil for routine everyday use at home.
  • Corn is an all-purpose cooking oil with a high smoking point and a mild flavor. It is high in polyunsaturated fats.
  • Sesame has a sweet nutty flavor and toasted or dark sesame oil offers a stronger more intense flavor and aroma. It goes well in Asian dishes and is rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
  • Pumpkinseed has a dark amber color and a rich nutty flavor. It is best used as a drizzle to finish a dish or in salad dressing.
  • Grapeseed is a byproduct of wine making. It is rich in monounsaturated fat and has a high enough smoking point that can be used for cooking or for salad dressing.
  • Sunflower is rich in polyunsaturated fats with little flavor and a light color. If refined it can be used for cooking. Unrefined it will break down at cooking temperatures.
  • Olive is rich in monounsaturated fat and can be used in both cooking, baking and for dressings. Extra virgin has a fruitier flavor and stronger aroma. Light olive oil is not lighter in calories, but lighter in color and flavor making it a better baking choice.
  • Palm can be extracted from the palm fruit, much like squeezing olives for oil; or it can be extracted from the kernel or seed. Palm kernel oil is higher in saturated fats and low in polyunsaturated fats. Palm fruit oil has equal amounts of saturated and polyunsaturated fats.
  • Vegetable is the all-purpose kitchen stand-by, usually made from a blend of soybean plus other vegetable oils. It has a neutral taste and good tolerance to heat.

Oil can be unrefined or refined.  Refined oils are extracted from clean oilseed by a solvent extraction to produce a clear oil, free from rancidity and foreign matter. Refined oils can be used for baking, sautéing, stir frying and oven cooking. If the oil you buy has a bland neutral flavor and is pale, it has been refined.

Unrefined oils are processed by cold-pressed and expeller-pressed methods. They are often called salad oils and are better used for dressings, marinades and low heat baking. They should not be cooked at high temperatures. Unrefined oils have full-bodied flavors that can dominate a recipe. They are more prone to spoilage so it is wiser to buy small amounts.

© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of the nutrition counter series for Pocket Books with sales of more than 8.5 million books.

Look for:

The Diabetes Counter, 5th Ed., 2014

The Fat and Cholesterol Counter, 2014

The Most Complete Food Counter, 3rd ed., 2013

The Calorie Counter, 6th Ed., 2013

The Complete Food Counter, 4th ed., 2012

The Protein Counter, 3rd Ed., 2011

The Ultimate Carbohydrate Counter, 3rd Ed., 2010

The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, 2008

Your Complete Food Counter App:

For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to:


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