We should all know by now that nature’s given us good fats and bad fats, and that opting to eat only the good variety can help prevent everything from cardiovascular disease to cancer. But before you double-dip your baguette in that rosemary-infused olive oil, keep this in mind: Nutritionists say that fat (even the heart-healthy kind) should make up only 20 percent to 35 percent of your total calories—the equivalent of about 5 tablespoons of oil a day. So while these culinary oils can contribute hugely to your health, use them sparingly. We asked nutritionists for their top choices among cooking oils and for some simple ways to use them. Here’s what they recommend.
Benefits: With a 78 percent monounsaturated fat content, olive oil helps regulate and optimize cholesterol levels by decreasing the bad (LDL) without affecting the good (HDL), says Kelly Morrow, RD, assistant professor of nutrition at Bastyr University in Seattle. (By contrast, polyunsaturated fats lower LDLs and HDLs; saturated fats raise LDLs; and trans fats raise LDLs and decrease HDLs.) What’s more, the polyphenols in olive oil—its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory plant compounds—keep LDL cholesterol from clumping and sticking to artery walls, which can lead to heart disease. Be sure to choose extra virgin varieties, which are least likely to be damaged during processing.
Try It: Drizzle a tablespoon on pizza before putting it in the oven, says Joanne Saltzman, founder and director of the School of Natural Cookery in Boulder, Colorado.
We Like: Olave Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil ($17.95 for 16.9 oz.; www.evze.com)
Benefits: Walnut oil’s omega-3s help fight inflammation in the body, which prevents blood clots, lowers stress, and decreases belly fat, says Sarah Krieger, RD, a dietician in St. Petersburg, Florida. Your noggin is roughly 70 percent fat, so getting enough omega-3s also keeps brain cells firing properly.
Try It: Substitute for butter in pastries, biscuits, and other baked goods. Or blend a little with some honey and drizzle over a scoop of vanilla ice cream for dessert.
We Like: Bija Organic Hydro-Therm Walnut Oil ($15.49 for 8.5 oz; www.florahealth.com)
Pumpkin seed oil
Benefits: Loaded with anti-inflammatory vitamin E (1 tablespoon meets 41 percent of daily requirements), pumpkin seed oil can help shrink an enlarged prostate, according to new research. The antioxidants in vitamin E and in unsaturated fats also support heart health and protect the body from free radical damage, which causes aging and cancer.
Try It: Use as a replacement for olive oil in pesto; pumpkin seed oil makes for a richer, nuttier version. Or dress bitter greens with pumpkin seed oil and sea salt for a simple, zesty salad.
We Like: Rapunzel Organic Pumpkin Oil ($26.02 for 8.45 oz.; www.rapunzel.com)
Benefits: The ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in hemp oil (about 4:1) matches the healthy ratio that our ancestors used to consume—before refined grains and highly processed foods threw it way out of whack (think 50:1 or higher). Most Americans should up their intake of omega-3s to offset our tendency to overeat omega-6-rich oils (corn and soy) that make up so much of the standard American diet.
Try It: Toss hemp oil and hempseeds with oven-roasted vegetables. Or drizzle a teaspoon on a baked potato instead of butter or sour cream.
We Like: Nature’s Way Hemp Oil ($12.99 for 8 oz; www.naturesway.com)
Benefits: Produced from the seeds of the thistle-like safflower plant, this oil can take some heat (unlike more delicate oils that can smoke and lose health benefits when cooked). Look for high-oleic types, which have more heart-healthy monounsaturated fats than regular safflower oil and are less likely to turn rancid. And always opt for unrefined varieties.
Try It: Deep-fry falafel or tempura, or use for stovetop popcorn.
We Like: Spectrum Organic High Heat Safflower Oil ($6.29 for 16 oz; www.spectrumorganics.com)
Benefits: Despite the rumors claiming that canola oil causes myriad health problems, many nutritionists love this variety because of its high monounsaturated fat content, which provides the same heart-health benefits as olive oil. For maximum benefit, choose a good-quality canola oil that comes from rapeseed plants that have been naturally hybridized to produce low levels of erucic acid, which has been identified in studies as a possible health-harming toxin.
Try It: Combine crushed chili peppers and canola oil in a glass container and let sit for a few days. Mix into stir-fries to add some kick to the dish.
We Like: Spectrum Organic Refined Canola Oil ($3.49 for 16 oz; www.spectrumorganics.com)
Benefits: A mainstay of Asian cuisine, sesame oil includes healthy doses of omega-3 fatty acids, but more than 100 times as many omega-6s. While this may seem unhealthy for most, the omega-6s in sesame oil help relieve skin disorders like eczema and psoriasis. The rest of us should limit our intake to no more than 1 tablespoon a day. Sesame oil is also a good source of lignans, a type of phytoestrogen that lowers blood pressure.
Try It: Toss 1 tablespoon of toasted sesame oil (which works better as a finishing oil) in cooked soba noodles and vegetables. Or combine 2 teaspoons of sesame oil and chili-garlic paste with 1/4 cup mirin wine and soy sauce for a simple chicken marinade.
We Like: Eden Toasted Sesame Oil ($5.90 for 10 oz; www.edenfoods.com); Eden Organic Extra Virgin Sesame Oil ($6.80 for 16 oz; www.edenfoods.com)
Choose the right oil for what you’re cooking
Every oil has a smoke point, the temperature at which it begins to smolder. Some oils can withstand more heat than others, but once they reach their smoke point they begin to lose nutrients (and health benefits) and start to release carcinogens. To avoid both problems, here’s a quick guide to help you decide which oil to use:
High heat (sautéing, frying)
Use: Canola, safflower (designated high heat), or sesame
Medium-high heat (sautéing at medium-high, baking)
Use: Walnut or high-oleic safflower
Low heat (sauces, salad dressing, sautéing at medium, finishing)
Use: Toasted sesame, olive, or pumpkin seed
No heat (finishing, dressing, supplement)
Use: Flaxseed or hempseed
Pamela Bond is a freelance writer in Eldorado Springs, Colorado.