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Choosing the Best Oil

Learn the health benefits and ideal uses for the ones we recommend at the Ranch
Written by 
Rachel Meltzer Warren, M.S., R.D.N.
Updated on: 
March 1, 2015

Gone are the days when we looked down on the use of oil in our diets—thank goodness. It turns out that fat, the nutrient in oil, is crucial for building and maintaining the body’s cells and absorbing important vitamins, among other functions. It also helps us enjoy food, improving flavor and mouth-feel with every bite (just imagine a salad without it).

But before you drizzle and dip with abandon, it’s important to know that all oils contain around the same amount of calories—roughly 120 per tablespoon—so it’s wise to enjoy them in moderation. Be mindful of how much you’re using in order to reap the health benefits without adding unnecessary calories. Purchase expeller pressed or cold pressed oils, which are extracted without heat and preserve the most nutritional value. And store all oils in a dark cupboard, or even in the refrigerator, since exposure to light and heat can diminish their nutritional quality and flavor.

Here’s some guidance on Canyon Ranch’s favorite oils:

Olive Oil

This mainstay of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), which may help lower total cholesterol and “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Stick with extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO). It has the most flavor and antioxidants of any olive oil variety.

Best Use: Quality EVOO can be pricey and is best reserved for uses where you can appreciate its flavor—drizzled on veggies or fish, dipped with bread or as the base of an uncooked sauce like pesto.

Canola Oil

Made from seeds of the rape plant primarily grown in Canada (the word “canola” is a combination of the words “Canadian” and “oil”), this vegetable oil is a good source of the plant-based omega-3 fat alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). While the body converts only a small amount of ALA to the heart-healthy fats eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoix acid (DHA), the extra boost can still be a valuable addition to your diet—particularly if you don’t eat fish. We recommend choosing organic canola oil to avoid genetic modification. 

Best Use: Canola oil’s heat tolerance and neutral flavor make it a very versatile oil. It’s the best choice for cooking, especially high-heat cooking methods like stir-frying and sautéing.

Grapeseed Oil

This oil is extracted from the woody seeds of grapes, often as a byproduct of wine production. Its light, non-greasy flavor and high smoke point (higher than canola) make it a favorite among chefs. Grapeseed oil is comprised of mostly polyunsaturated fats, however, and is not as nutritionally strong a choice as olive or canola oils.

Best Use: Try it, in moderation, in high-heat recipes when you don’t want the taste of oil to take center stage, like tempura dishes or potato pancakes.

Coconut Oil

Pressed from the meat of the coconut fruit, this solid-at-room-temperature oil is a top food trend. While the oil is high in saturated fat, the form (lauric acid) is different from what’s found in animal foods like meat and cheese and doesn’t seem to have the same negative impact on cholesterol. Look for extra virgin coconut oil, which hasn’t been chemically treated and retains its light coconut flavor. Learn more about coconut oil and how to use it at our article What Are Some Good Ways to Cook With Coconut Oil?

Best Use: You can use it in place of shortening or butter, or to impart a mild flavor to roasted root vegetables.

Flaxseed Oil

This oil comes from the seeds of the flax plant. Like canola oil, flax is also high in the plant-based form of omega-3s, ALA. Choose flaxseed oil that is kept in a dark container in a refrigerated case; it’s extremely sensitive to warm temperatures and must be kept chilled in order to retain its health benefits. Purchase it in small containers, as it has a short shelf life.

Best Use: Try it in cold applications, like smoothies or salad dressings.

More: How Can I Get More Healthy Fats into my Diet?

Linus Pauling Institute
Mayo Clinic
The Olive Oil Source
University of Maryland Medical Center
About the author 
Rachel Meltzer Warren, M.S., R.D.N., is a New York-based nutrition writer, educator and counselor, and author of the The Smart Girl's Guide to Going Vegetarian (Sourcebooks).