Is Corn Oil Healthy? A Deep Dive Into Its Nutrition Profile
In the past decade, healthy fats have made a monumental comeback. But there's still some confusion about which fats are healthy and which ones aren't, especially when it comes to cooking. Olive oil gets a lot of praise, but what about other cooking oils, like corn oil?
Let's dig in to the nutritional value of corn oil to find out whether it fits into a healthy diet.
What is corn oil?
Corn oil is an industrial seed oil that's made from the seed (or kernel) of corn.
Like the vegetable (or grain, depending on when it's harvested), corn oil has a golden yellow hue. Some say corn oil has a slightly buttery flavor, but for the most part, it's very neutral. This makes it a popular choice in packaged and processed goods.
There's a lot of processing involved to make corn oil. Typically, the oil is mechanically and/or chemically extracted and then refined (e.g., using a solvent like hexane), according to holistic registered dietitian Michelle Shapiro, R.D., of Michelle Shapiro Nutrition LLC.
"During mechanical (physical) extraction, the germ component is separated from the kernel during the milling process to produce flour. The leftover germ is dried and then pressed using a hydraulic or screw press (i.e., "expeller-pressed"), to yield the liquid oil portion. To isolate the oil from physical contaminants, the product is washed with a chemical solvent, usually, hexane, which is evaporated to yield the oil itself," she says.
After the physical extraction comes a chemical refining process. The goal here is to remove any unwanted contaminants that negatively affect taste, odor, shelf life, and/or smoke point (among other things). Shapiro explains that chemical refining involves six main steps1: degumming, neutralization, washing/drying, bleaching, dewaxing, and deodorizing.
All this processing comes with a major downside. "Though the purpose of the extraction and refining process is to remove undesirable compounds from the oil, it may also remove desirable compounds such as certain vitamins or antioxidants," Shapiro says.
Some of these compounds may include beneficial fatty acids and antioxidant-rich color pigments.
Since corn oil has a high smoke point (450 degrees Fahrenheit2), it's frequently used in cooking and frying. "You may find it in salad oils, frying oils, margarine, or foods containing these ingredients," Shapiro says.
Here's the nutritional breakdown of 1 tablespoon of corn oil, per the USDA3:
- Calories: 122
- Fat: 13.6 grams
- Saturated fat: 1.75 grams
- Monounsaturated fat: 3.75 grams
- Polyunsaturated fat: 7.44 grams
- Vitamin E: 1.94 milligrams
Corn oil4 contains 28% monounsaturated fat, 53% polyunsaturated fat, and 13% saturated fat. Breaking it down even further, corn oil contains 52% omega-6 and 1% omega-3 polyunsaturated fat.
"Both omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats are essential for our bodies to function; however, the ratio of each is very important to consider," says Shapiro. The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is likely around the 2:1 range, she notes, but the average American diet contains a ratio of 20:1. "This means that we are consuming too many foods rich in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats, and not enough sources of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats."
If you do the math, corn oil contains an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of around 50:1, meaning it has a more unfavorable fat profile compared to a more balanced option like olive oil.
It contains vitamin E.
Some of the vitamin E in corn oil is lost during the refining process, but a tablespoon still contains close to 2 milligrams. This is about 13% of what people 14 years and older need for the day5.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin that acts as an antioxidant in the body. It protects cell membranes6 and shields your body from damage caused by free radicals. It also protects your skin7 from sun damage.
However, Shapiro points out that corn oil is not the only food with this nutrient. And some better sources are less processed. "There are other foods8 that can provide you with an even higher amount of vitamin E per serving such as sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts, and peanuts," she says.
It provides essential fatty acids.
Corn oil also provides essential fatty acids9. One of these is linoleic acid, which plays a role in keeping your skin, cell membranes, and immune system healthy.
Because of its fatty acid profile, some studies have shown that corn oil can lower LDL cholesterol in some instances. One study10 compared corn oil to coconut oil and found that corn oil was better at normalizing cholesterol levels, for example.
What's unhealthy about it?
It has an unfavorable lipid profile.
One of the biggest downsides of corn oil is its unfavorable lipid profile (higher proportion of omega-6 to omega-3 fats) that can cause proinflammatory effects11 in the body, according to Shapiro.
"Considering the majority of Americans do not consume nearly enough omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, it is important to note that corn oil may contribute further to this issue," she says.
It's genetically modified.
Corn oil is also stripped of many of its nutrients and antioxidant compounds during its extensive refining process. Not to mention that over 90% of the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified.
"Because this technology is relatively new, we currently do not have long-term data to determine its potential health effects over time," says Shapiro. "The environmental impacts of GM crops are not entirely known either, though the process of cross-pollination may cause damage to other organisms12 that thrive in that environment."
It's produced via monocropping.
Genetic modification isn't the only environmental concern of corn oil. "Corn is also typically farmed using the process of monocropping, or growing the same crop each year on the same land, as opposed to the traditional practice of rotating the types of crops grown each year," says Shapiro. "Environmentally, [monocropping] can have harmful effects over time. The soil can easily become depleted of nutrients, requiring more fertilizers and pesticides over time."
It may contribute to insulin resistance.
Emerging research—a handful of animal studies—has found that corn oil may contribute to insulin resistance.
One preclinical study13 showed that corn oil could trigger insulin resistance and reduce locomotor activity (motivation and learning) in mice. Another showed that corn oil could trigger insulin resistance14 to the same degree as saturated-fat-rich oils, like lard.
So, is corn oil healthy?
So, what's the bottom line? Is corn oil good or bad for health? The answer really depends on how you're using it, but with the way it's used today, most experts, including Shapiro, recommend reaching for something else instead.
While corn oil isn't intrinsically bad, it's highly processed and often used in unhealthy preparations like frying. Like popular vegetable oils such as canola oil, it's also high in over-consumed omega-6 fatty acids. Over time, eating a lot of it can become pro-inflammatory and do more harm than good.
It's also not a great choice for the environment. Because most corn is genetically modified, it brings up the issue of unwanted cross-pollination. There's also the concern of monocropping, which can have harmful effects over time.
Corn oil vs. other ingredients.
If corn oil isn't the best choice, then which oils and/or cooking fats should you use instead? Let's compare corn oil to some of the most popular options.
Corn oil vs. olive oil
Olive oil (particularly EVOO) is beloved by health experts everywhere—largely because of its favorable fat profile and the fact that there's a lot of scientific evidence to back up its health benefits.
According to Jessica Cording, R.D., olive oil contains antioxidants and other health-promoting compounds that have proven health benefits. It also has more monounsaturated fatty acids15, which help reduce LDL and increase HDL.
The only downside is olive oil has a slightly lower smoke point and a stronger flavor that might not lend well to certain dishes or baked goods.
Corn oil vs. butter
Butter got a bad rap in the '90s, but it's been making a comeback16 in recent years.
Butter is 63% saturated fat, 26% monounsaturated fat, and 4% polyunsaturated fat. While the high saturated fat content might make you raise an eyebrow, there's emerging evidence that it may not be as bad as once thought. That doesn't mean you should slather all your meals in butter, but it does mean that, in moderation, it can be a healthful addition to your diet.
Like olive oil, butter has a 350-degree smoke point, so it can be used for moderate-heat cooking.
Corn oil vs. vegetable oil
Vegetable oils are derived from plant sources—the most common being soybeans, rapeseed/canola, corn, sunflower, and palm. The vegetable oils in grocery stores are typically canola or soybean oils, or a combination of both.
Like corn oil, these oils have an unfavorable fatty acid profile and can promote inflammation when consumed in excess.
Corn oil vs. canola oil
Canola oil and corn oil are similar in a lot of ways. Both oils are high in polyunsaturated fats and provide vitamin E. They're both neutral-tasting and very highly refined.
Cording recommends using all refined oils, including canola oil, less often. If you're looking for a healthy, neutral-tasting oil, she suggests avocado oil, which also has a higher smoke point.
Is corn oil good for weight loss?
According to Shapiro, you want to focus on quality as much as quantity when it comes to weight loss. "Eating high-quality, nutrient-dense foods provides the body with ample nutrients to function at optimal levels. This contributes to improvements in levels of inflammation, hormones, hunger cues, and mood," she says. Because of that, corn oil may not be your best fat choice for weight loss.
She recommends healthier fats found in olive oil, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines) instead.
Is corn oil saturated or unsaturated?
Corn oil contains some saturated fats, but it's mostly unsaturated. Its fat content breaks down like this: 28% monounsaturated fat, 53% polyunsaturated fat, and 13% saturated fat.
While consuming corn oil here and there isn't a big deal, it shouldn't be your go-to cooking oil. It does offer some nutrients, like essential fatty acids and vitamin E, but at the end of the day, the bad outweighs the good here. If you want a healthy cooking oil, our top picks are olive oil and avocado oil.
Lindsay Boyers is a holistic nutritionist specializing in gut health, mood disorders, and functional nutrition. Lindsay earned a degree in food & nutrition from Framingham State University, and she holds a Certificate in Holistic Nutrition Consulting from the American College of Healthcare Sciences.
She has written twelve books and has had more than 2,000 articles published across various websites. Lindsay currently works full time as a freelance health writer. She truly believes that you can transform your life through food, proper mindset and shared experiences. That's why it's her goal to educate others, while also being open and vulnerable to create real connections with her clients and readers.