Healthiest Cooking Oils to Lower Cholesterol

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If you're following a low-cholesterol diet, it doesn't mean you need to forgo cooking with oil. The key is to choose the right oil for your recipe.

This article discusses the different types of cooking oils and the qualities of each. It will help you understand which oil is best for a salad, stir-fry, or baking, and which oils to avoid for better health.

A man deciding between cooking oils
Noel Hendrickson / Digital Vision / Getty Images

Types of Healthy Fat in Oils

Heart-healthy oils like canola, corn, olive, peanut, and sunflower oils contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. They help to lower harmful low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and raise healthy high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Each has its own unique flavor, as well as properties that are better suited to different types of cooking and individual recipes.

Using a range of oils in your diet can help to give you a variety of healthy nutrients.

The two types of oils here are named on the basis of their chemical structure:

  • Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) have one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends MUFAs make up 15 to 20% of total daily calories. These fats are found only in plants and are a good source of vitamin E.
  • Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) have more than one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule. They are found in plants and fish such as salmon. PUFAs have vitamin E and high levels of omega-3 and/or omega-6 fatty acids, essential for brain function and cell growth.

Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats that help reduce inflammation and prevent plaque in the arteries. Good sources of omega-3s include avocado, canola, flaxseed, olive, peanut, sunflower, and walnut oils.

There are two main factors to consider when choosing the best cooking oil for the job:

  • The first is the overall health benefit of the oil, and how it fits into a heart-healthy eating plan and lifestyle.
  • The second is how the oil will perform when used in cooking or certain recipes. A big part of this second quality is how well the oil holds up under heat.

Smoke Point

An oil's smoke point, also called flashpoint, is the temperature at which the oil begins to produce smoke. It is a sign the oil is breaking down and may release free radicals and chemicals that can harm the body and give food a burnt or bitter flavor.

Extra virgin olive oil, for example, has a relatively low smoke point. It is great on salads or for light sautés but becomes rancid when used for deep frying. Safflower oil, on the other hand, has a high smoke point and is a good choice for frying.

Healthiest Oils

Most oils are a combination of MUFAs, PUFAs, and saturated fats. Choosing those that are low in saturated fatty acids (SFA) and high in unsaturated fats can help to lower cholesterol levels.

Fortunately, there are plenty of heart-healthy options to choose from:

  • Avocado
  • Canola
  • Corn
  • Grapeseed
  • Flaxseed
  • Olive
  • Peanut
  • Rice bran
  • Safflower
  • Sesame
  • Soybean
  • Sunflower

This list of heart-healthy oils includes nontropical vegetable oils that contain less than 25% SFA and a mixture of MUFA and PUFA fats. These oils are liquid at room temperature and they usually become thick and cloudy when refrigerated.

Low-Cholesterol Cooking Oils
Type MUFA PUFA SFA Smoke Point Uses
Avocado Oil 65% 18% 17% 520°F Can withstand high heat for searing, browning, and frying. Also good at lower temperatures.
Canola Oil 62% 31% 7% 225°F–450°F Expeller-pressed oil can withstand high heat for frying, while refined oil is good for medium heat such as baking, oven cooking, or stir frying. Unrefined canola oil should only be used in low or no-heat recipes. 
Corn Oil 25% 62% 13% 350°F–460°F Unrefined corn oil can withstand low to medium heat for light sautéing, sauces, and baking, while refined corn oil can be used at higher temperatures, like stir-fries.
Grapeseed Oil 17% 73% 10% 421°F Good for medium-high heat such as baking, roasting vegetables, and stir-frying, and can also be used in low- or no-heat recipes.
Flaxseed Oil 65% 28% 7% 225°F Do not heat this oil. It is great for no-heat cooking including salad dressings, dips, marinades, and smoothies.
Olive Oil 78% 8% 14% 320°F–400°F Refined olive oil can withstand medium-high heat such as roasting vegetables. However, extra virgin olive oil should only be used at medium-low heat or cooler. Ideal for light sautéing, sauces, and salad dressing.
Peanut Oil 48% 34% 18% 320°F–450°F Refined peanut oil can be used over high heat such as stir-fries, but unrefined peanut oil can only withstand a medium-high heat for sautéing. It can also be used in dressings and dips.
Rice Bran Oil 44% 34% 23% 450°F Refined rice bran oil can withstand the high heat of frying and can also be used at lower temperature or in no-heat recipes.
Safflower Oil 12% 79% 9% 225°F–510°F Refined safflower oil can withstand high heat of frying, but unrefined oil should only be used in no-heat recipes like dressings and dips.
Sesame Oil 41% 44% 15% 350°F–450°F Refined sesame oil can handle high-heat dishes, like stir-frying and deep frying, but unrefined sesame oil can only handle medium heat such as light sautéing and sauces.
Soybean Oil 25% 60% 15% 450°F Can withstand high heat for deep frying, but is also acceptable for any temperature cooking including salad dressing. 
Sunflower Oil 79% 7% 14% 225°F– 411°F Unrefined sunflower oil should only be used in no-heat recipes, such as dressings and dips. Refined sunflower oil can handle higher heats for searing, browning, and frying.

Avocado Oil

Avocado oil is mostly MUFA and has many uses. Its high smoke point makes it a good choice for high-heat cooking and frying. The neutral, buttery, and nutty flavor can also be enjoyed in salad dressings, marinades, and dips. Avocado oil is cholesterol-free.

Canola Oil

A good source of both MUFA (and some PUFA), canola oil's medium-high smoke point makes it a good option for baking, cooking in the oven, and stir-frying. It is high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid. Canola has a mild taste, and can be used in salad dressings, marinades, and dips. Canola oil is also cholesterol-free.

Corn Oil

Another cholesterol-free option, corn oil is a good choice for light sautéing, sauces, and baking. It has a light taste and is less expensive than other oils. In addition, research shows that corn oil can help to lower LDL nearly three times more than olive oil.

Grapeseed Oil

This PUFA oil has a mild taste and medium-high smoke point. It is a good option for baked or oven-cooked dishes and stir-fries. It's also high in vitamin E, with proven health benefits and heart-healthy properties. 

Flaxseed Oil

Packed with omega-3s, flaxseed oil is a nutritional powerhouse with many health benefits, including better heart health. Due to its low smoke point, flaxseed oil is only appropriate for no-heat cooking.

Its light and earthy flavor can be an acquired taste but it's delicious drizzled over vegetables in place of butter. It also may be mixed into salad dressings or added to smoothies. For best quality, opt for refrigerated cold-pressed flaxseed oil in an opaque bottle.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is a good source of vitamin E and antioxidants called polyphenols. It is widely used in Mediterranean cooking due to its rich flavor, versatility, and heart-healthy benefits. Research shows eating 1 1/2 tablespoons (20 grams) of olive oil each day may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

Olive oil has a medium smoke point and can be used for sautéing, frying over medium-high heat, and in salad dressings. Choose extra-virgin olive oil varieties that are not overly processed.

Extra-virgin olive oil is an especially good choice for heart health. Olive oil plays a central role in the Mediterranean diet, which is often recommended by experts for its overall health benefits.

Peanut Oil

A good source of MUFA, peanut oil sometimes is used for deep frying due to its high smoke point. In addition to its MUFA fats, it also has no cholesterol.

Though many people have serious allergic reactions to peanuts, highly refined peanut oil is not considered an allergen and is used in commercial food preparation.

Rice Bran Oil

Rich in vitamins E and K and beneficial phytosterols, rice bran oil is one of the healthiest oils around. A meta-analysis of 11 studies found rice bran oil lowers LDL cholesterol by about 7 mg/dl while also increasing HDL cholesterol levels by 7 mg/dl.

Rice bran's nutty flavor and high smoke point make it a good option for stir-fries or deep-fried dishes, as well as low-heat preparation.

Safflower Oil

A popular heart-healthy oil with a delicate flavor, safflower oil comes in a few different forms. High-linoleic safflower oil is high in PUFAs and has a low smoke point. This means it should be used in unheated dishes, such as dressings and dips.

High-oleic safflower oil is high in MUFA fats and has a high smoke point that makes it suitable for frying. Research shows safflower oil can improve cholesterol levels, reduce blood sugar, and even promote weight loss.

Sesame Oil

Often used in Asian and Middle Eastern dishes, sesame oil has been shown to be better than olive oil for cholesterol levels. Sesame oil comes in different blends.

Light sesame oil, made from raw sesame seeds, has a mild flavor. It can be used instead of canola or vegetable oil, and withstands the high heat of frying. Oil extracted from toasted sesame seeds has a nuttier flavor but a lower smoke point. The darker the oil, the more flavorful it is.

Soybean Oil

A versatile oil with a high smoke point, soybean oil has a neutral taste and can be used for everything from salad dressings to deep frying. Soybean, a PUFA oil, is rich in vitamin E and phytosterols.

People allergic to soy should be careful with cold-pressed varieties of soybean oil. In highly refined soybean oil, however, the protein allergens have been removed and research suggests it does not prompt an allergic response.

Sunflower Oil

A mild oil with little taste, refined sunflower oil can be used for high-heat cooking. The unrefined oil should only be used in no-heat recipes. Look for high-oleic sunflower oil, which has been shown to lower cholesterol levels.

If you are following a low-cholesterol diet, you'll want to avoid some high stearic/high oleic varieties of sunflower oil. Check to be sure it does not contain stearic acid, which is a saturated fat.

Vegetable Oil Blends

Oils labeled simply as vegetable oil are different types of oils blended to improve the properties of the individual oils, raise the smoke point, and increase shelf-stability. These are highly processed oils.

The health benefits of vegetable oil blends depend on the type of oils used in the mix. Check the ingredients list to confirm that only healthy oils are in the blend.

Oils to Avoid

There are some types of oil that should be avoided on a low-cholesterol diet.

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are those that are solid at room temperature. They can boost the amount of fatty deposits in blood vessels. Butter, shortening, lard, and hard-stick margarine all have high levels of saturated fat. They should be avoided in a low-cholesterol diet.

Hydrogenated Oils

Hydrogenated oils are processed for the sole purpose of prolonging shelf life. This means hydrogen is added to the chemical structure of the oil. As the level of hydrogen increases, so does the texture and concentration of saturated fats.

This process also creates harmful trans fats that can raise unhealthy LDL and lower healthy HDL. Vegetable shortening is a prime example.

Tropical Oils

Refined coconut oil has grown in popularity due to its neutral taste and relatively high smoke point (450 degrees F). But it is 87% saturated fat and raises LDL levels.

Palm oil may be slightly better with 50% SFA but should be considered a no-no for those on a low-cholesterol diet. That goes double for palm kernel oil, which is near 85% SFA.

Summary

Cooking with your heart health in mind means making choices about which oils to use, and which benefits they offer. There are many kinds of MUFA and PUFA oils that provide nutrients and can help you maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Avoid saturated fats, hydrogenated oils, and trans fats that may harm your health.

A Word From Verywell

Taking the time to learn about different kinds of cooking oils is a smart step towards a healthy lifestyle. The many kinds of oils may seem confusing, but by learning the names and checking the labels, you will know which oils offer you and your loved ones the best health benefits.

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