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Oils are not created equal

20 March, 2020
Healthy oils

If you’re looking for your meals to be a little more nutritious, delicious, and heart-healthy, you can start by making an informed choice about which oil to cook with or drizzle on your salads and vegetables.

A word about fat

We all need fat in our diets. The words ‘fat’ and ‘oil’ are often used to mean the same thing. We tend to think of fat as solid at room temperature and oil as liquid. Most unsaturated fats are liquid, and most saturated fats are solid. There are some exceptions like margarine and avocado, olive oil and nut-based spreads. To manufacture margarines or turn oils into solids,  hydrogen is added

So, does it matter which oil or fat we use in cooking? In a word, yes.

There are three main types of fat used in cooking or the production of pre-prepared foods in Australia:

  • Unsaturated – largely liquid, for example olive oil, canola oil, sunflower, rice bran and grapeseed to name a few
  • Saturated - often solid at room temperature, like butter and coconut oil (or cream and milk)
  • Trans fats – processed fats found naturally in small amounts in butter, some vegetable oils and margarines. Within the food supply, common foods containing high amounts of trans fats are meat pies, pastry, sausage rolls, flavoured popping corn, croissants and scones

Unsaturated fats can lower your risk of heart disease and help keep cholesterol within safe levels. Saturated fats do the opposite. They can increase your risk of heart disease and raise levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL). Then there are trans fats. They’re unsaturated, sure, but they act like saturated fats so they’re also likely to increase your risk of high cholesterol and heart disease.

For optimum health benefits when cooking, use less saturated, more unsaturated, and try to avoid trans fats altogether.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

The all-time oil champion and cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet is olive oil, especially the extra virgin variety. Extra-virgin olive oil is unrefined, unsaturated and one of the healthier oils you can choose for your health.

  • Predominantly made up of monounsaturated fat, high in both omega-6 and omega-3 fats.
  • Contains high levels of antioxidants like polyphenols.
  • It’s great brain food.

Extra-virgin olive oil is nutritious, readily available and offers numerous health benefits. One study found that cooking a classic sofrito sauce (tomato pasta based sauce) with olive oil can actually help extract more polyphenols from the vegetables used in the preparation.

Cooking with olive oil

You can cook with Extra Virgin olive oil at standard cooking temperatures (120°C–200°C). High quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil has a reasonably high smoke point, around 200°C –210°C. Recent research conducted in an Australian oil specialist laboratory has found that Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil (AEVOO) is the safest and most stable oil to cook with.

Coconut oil

The information around coconut oil has chopped and changed more than a frittata through a blender. Its initial surge came with claims that it was (yet another) superfood with amazing properties that went beyond simply consuming it. As time has gone on, the myths have been shed and the science has been better explored.  So, can we give it the tick of approval now?

Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, higher even than butter or beef, which should put it firmly in the ‘avoid’ camp. However, those who support the consumption of coconut oil point out that it’s especially high in one saturated fat, namely lauric acid, which can boost HDL cholesterol levels (the good sort).

Who’s right? We turned to the Dietitians Association of Australia for advice.

“Overall, the current evidence shows that coconut oil simply does not stack up against healthy unsaturated fats (like those found in olive oil) that lower the bad stuff whilst increasing the good stuff too.”

And the Harvard School of Public Health takes the same approach, cautioning against high intakes of coconut oil.

Cooking with coconut oil
If you do use coconut oil, use it sparingly and only occasionally. Coconut oil has a high smoking point, so it can withstand higher heat than olive oil before it starts to smoke.


Like coconut oil, butter has been in and out of favour for years. Fans of butter claim it’s better for you because it’s ‘natural.’ You may also have read recent advice from the Heart Foundation that healthy people can now eat full fat dairy.

Be warned. That advice doesn’t apply to butter.

Butter contains 50 percent saturated fat and 4 percent trans-fat, so it’s definitely not a health food. Consume too much and you’ll increase your levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) which can clog your arteries and make heart disease more likely.

If you use butter in cooking, use it sparingly. And if it’s natural that appeals, try substituting it with a 100% nut butter, avocado or tahini.

Cooking with butter
Butter has a much lower smoke point than oils like olive or canola, which means it can burn easily. If you love the taste of butter and can’t bear to go without, try using olive oil for cooking and add a smidge of butter at the end.

Vegetable oils

Got to be good, they contain vegetables, right? Not necessarily. Vegetable oils contain unsaturated fat, yes, but the catch-all term ‘vegetable oil’ could include whatever oil the manufacturer deems fit to include - soy, palm, safflower, corn, canola or a blend. Vegetable oils are generally refined and processed (sometimes using chemicals) so they contain fewer nutrients than olive oil.

The other possible health concern with ‘vegetable’ oils is that they contain high levels of omega-6. Our bodies need both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids but some studies have suggested that too much omega-6 may contribute to chronic inflammation and increase the risk of chronic disease. The studies aren’t conclusive though, and others suggest there are no adverse risks. Lastly, some hydrogenated vegetable oils may also contain trans fats.

The exception is avocado oil. It’s highly nutritious, contains unsaturated fats, can be unrefined, has no strong flavour and a high smoke point. The downside is it’s expensive.

Cooking with vegetable oils
Use avocado oil if you can afford it. If not, canola oil contains the least amount of saturated fat. It also has a high smoke point.


It’s been touted as the answer to high cholesterol and maligned as a highly processed, artificial product since margarine was invented back in the 1860s. What’s the current view?

Plant and vegetable-based margarines are lower in saturated fat than butter and they contain less trans fats. In the past there were concerns over the process that made the product spreadable – hydrogenation – because it increased levels of saturated fat and added trans fats. Modern processing methods are far healthier.

Some margarines claim to lower cholesterol, but you’d have to consume at least 5 teaspoons a day to see any benefit.

So, plant-based margarines do offer some health benefits. Be sure to look for margarine that is plant-based and non-hydrogenated.

Cooking with margarine
You can substitute butter with margarine in most recipes.


All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.


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