Is Vegetable Oil Healthy? What You Need To Know About This Common Cooking Oil
Many of us grew up hearing that margarine was healthier than butter, avocado was "fattening," and that vegetable oil, as long as you didn't use a lot of it to cook your boneless, skinless chicken breast to serve with your (low-fat!) white pasta, was a healthy option. For dessert, you had a wide variety of fat-free cookies and reduced-fat ice creams to choose from.
Many of you reading this right now might also be rolling your eyes at the memory of all the unhealthy food we or our parents filled those shopping carts with. The nutrition world right now sometimes reminds me a little of the Woody Allen movie Sleeper, in which the protagonist, who's been cryogenically preserved, wakes up 200 years later, everything—including what foods are considered healthy—has changed.
I get asked a lot by my clients about vegetable oil: What: is the deal? Is it healthy? Unhealthy? What's even in it?
If you've ever stood in the grocery store feeling totally overwhelmed as you tried to choose between the various bottles of cooking oils, you're not alone. To help simplify your life, here's what you need to know about vegetable oil.
So what is vegetable oil, anyway?
Despite its name, vegetable oil doesn't actually contain a lot of vegetables. Typically, vegetable oil is a blend of different oils extracted from sources such as corn, peanut, rapeseed, safflower, soybeans, and sunflower seeds, among others. Have you ever looked at an ingredients label and seen something like, "sunflower or palm kernel oil" and been like, "How do you not know—isn't this a nutrition facts label?" That's an example of vegetable oil.
Vegetable oil has a neutral flavor, and, like other oils, it has about 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon. It tends to be inexpensive and used as a generic all-purpose oil.
Is vegetable oil healthy?
With all the wonderful options in the oil aisle, I typically counsel my clients to leave this one on the shelf. My No. 1 concern with vegetable oils is how difficult it is to truly know what's in there. For people with severe allergies to one or more of the potential ingredients, this can be a major risk.
While messaging around dietary fats used to look primarily at total grams of fat and how many of them were saturated, today, health care professionals generally look more closely at the amount of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and trans fats. Other important factors are the amount and ratio of two polyunsaturated fats: omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. It's not that these differences were completely unknown, but there was less of an emphasis on the nuances.
Then there is the fact that vegetable oil is highly processed refined oil generally made from extracting the oil via chemical solvents or an oil mill.
They also are typically high in omega-6 fatty acids. Again, though, without knowing the ratio of ingredients, you can't really know what the ratio is between saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fat, how much omega-3 fatty acids compared to omega-6 fatty acids. However, since most of the potential ingredients are high in polyunsaturated linolenic acid, you can tell you're getting a lot of omega-6, even if you're not exactly clear just how much.
Omega-3s are considered anti-inflammatory, whereas omega-6s, have been shown to have an inflammatory effect when we consume too much, setting the stage for tissue damage and disease. Aside from fueling inflammation, they've also been shown to inhibit the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3s. Unfortunately, the standard American diet tends to be high in omega-6 and deficient in omega-3 fatty acids. Some of the conditions associated with a high intake of omega-6 and low intake of omega-3 include obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, among others.
Because vegetable oil is used in so much of the processed food that makes up a large part of the standard American diet, it's a large contributor of omega-6 fatty acid intake. In addition to not using vegetable oil in home cooking, reducing your intake of processed foods can make a positive impact in regards to your intake of omega-6 versus omega-3 fatty acid ratio.
What are good alternatives to vegetable oil?
Switching from vegetable oil to a healthier oil for cooking at home is a great first step in the right direction. Two oils I love and frequently recommend are olive oil and avocado oil. Both are very high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and are versatile choices. Flavorful extra-virgin olive oil is a delicious option for use in salad dressings, sautéing, and roasting at temperatures below its smoke point of about 325 to 375 degrees F. Avocado oil has a neutral flavor and a higher smoke point of about 500 degrees F. Coconut oil and ghee are two others to try if you're looking for a rich flavor or for a fat that is solid at room temperature.
Increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acid food sources is another beneficial step you can take. Choosing animal-based sources like fatty fish (try wild salmon, sardines, and mackerel), grass-fed beef, and eggs or plant-based sources like flax, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Whichever oil you choose, make sure you take care of it appropriately. Typically, you want to purchase an oil in a dark bottle and to store it in a cool, dark place to help prevent the oil from going rancid.
The bottom line?
Nourishing sources of fat are important in the diet, and choosing a healthy cooking oil is a step you can take to promote health. Vegetable oil is not as wholesome as it sounds, with a hard-to-pin-down list of ingredients that can be risky for allergy sufferers and high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which promote inflammation. Choosing a healthier oil like olive oil or avocado oil and increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids can help you nurture your health through food.
Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN, is a registered dietitian, health coach, and writer with a passion for helping people streamline their wellness routine and establish a balanced relationship with food and exercise. She received her Masters of Science in Clinical Nutrition from New York University, and a dietetic internship at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. Her writing has been featured in Forbes and Shape. Her book, The Little Book of Game-Changers: 50 Healthy Habits for Managing Stress & Anxiety, offers simple hacks that help her patients and clients reach their goals and nurture their mental, physical, and emotional health, even when life becomes hectic.