What makes for a good cooking oil? There are many factors to consider: the cooking temperatures it can withstand, the taste it brings to your food, and of course the refining process that produces it and how that impacts the fat content for human health. While the foodies among us usually know multiple oils from their own elbow, some people keep one bottle of cooking oil and use it as an all-purpose oil for frying, flavoring, baking, making sauces, and sometimes even utility purposes (like getting a too-tight ring off your finger). In those instances, canola oil vs. vegetable oil is like saying red vs. crimson, how much difference could there be? We have the distinctions and details below.
The Facets of Oil
When it comes to choosing between types of oil, these are the three main aspects to consider:
- Smoke point: An oil’s smoke point is the temperature at which the oil begins to break down and become unhealthy; some oils can withstand high heat better than others.
- Fat content: Healthy fats are natural fats like those found in fish and avocado, while trans fats and saturated fats can harm your cholesterol levels.
- Taste: Even an unhealthy oil in moderation might be worth a unique flavor in some kitchens, so it’s always a consideration to keep in mind when talking about the oils we eat.
What are healthy oils? The healthiest oils are usually the most natural oils (translation: the least refined). We’ll start by comparing canola oil vs. vegetable oil to clarify their differences, and then place various canola and vegetable oil alternatives on that spectrum.
Canola Oil vs. Vegetable Oil: What’s the Difference?
Here’s the breakdown you’re looking for, the difference between these two cooking oils, and their health properties.
First up: is canola oil healthy? Canola oil is derived from the seeds of the canola plant, aka the rapeseed plant, and is considered one of the healthier oils due to its low levels of saturated fats and high levels of healthy monounsaturated fats.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have been shown to improve cholesterol levels and ratios (“good” HDL vs. “bad” LDL cholesterol), which lowers the risk of heart disease and stroke. In comparison, saturated fat (found in animal lards and palm oil—those oils which become solid at room temperature), when consumed above 10% of your calories a day, can raise your cholesterol levels and lead to cardiovascular diseases. This is why the American Heart Association advocates for eating foods that are higher in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats than saturated fats for a heart-healthy diet.
Due to its ability to withstand various temperatures, you can use canola for a variety of recipes, and it’s a common favorite across the United States.
Are vegetable oils healthy? Vegetable oils include oils that are extracted from seeds, like soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, and, yes, rapeseed oil too, from which we get canola oil. The vegetable oil you buy at the store can be a mixture of many kinds of oil that can be classified as vegetable oils in general.
Generic vegetable oil has a pretty neutral flavor and is relatively inexpensive, but its health benefits vary between brands and regions due to the plants used for oil manufacturing and the way their seeds are processed. Vegetable oil, like canola oil, can withstand high temperatures pretty fairly, but with a hodgepodge of so many different oils, it’s more difficult to control the amount and types of fats in your food. The polyunsaturated fats in vegetable oil can also easily oxidize, so be sure to keep them stored in a cool, dark location and only expose them to short amounts of heat below the smoke point.
Other Healthy Vegetable and Canola Oil Alternatives
So canola oil is a vegetable oil, but vegetable oil can be a medley of many oils. What are the other options? Here are a few common plant-based oils that are most valued for their health benefits so you can decide for yourself.
- Avocado oil: While this oil is more costly than the others, it also has a very high smoke point, which makes it ideal for searing and for baking. High in monounsaturated fats, it can easily be drizzled over salads for the benefits of its healthy fats, and used for roasting veggies.
- Coconut oil: Coconut oil is fantastic at helping to reshape your ratio between HDL and LDL cholesterol levels and is often used by those on ketogenic or fasting diets for weight loss and energy. Its smoke point is in the medium range however, so it’s better for low-heat cooking like sautéing.
- MCT oil: MCT stands for medium chain triglycerides, and they are actually derived from coconut oil to make a more concentrated substance. The digestion of MCT oil can give people energy to run on without having to consume the calories of a full meal, which is why it’s used to increase energy levels while fasting, and for athletes on strict diets. It also makes a great low-calorie base for salad dressings.
- Sesame oil: With a good balance between mono and polyunsaturated fats, sesame oil is only appropriate at low heat (and it’s better cold), but it’s still a valuable type of oil to keep on hand for its flavor profile.
- Grapeseed oil: Another medium smoke point oil, grapeseed oil is particularly high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (73% according to the Cleveland Clinic). However, since that fatty acid spike is due to omega-6 fatty acid content, it’s important to make sure you up your intake of omega-3 fatty acids to keep those ratios in the healthy range as well.
- Peanut oil: Special among these oils for its unique flavor and resveratrol content, peanut oil also has a higher smoke point and a worthwhile flavor profile for stir-frying and baking.
- Extra virgin olive oil: A king among oils, EVOO (as it’s abbreviated) is cold-pressed, delicious, heart-healthy, and perfect for low- to medium-heat cooking. Olive oil is so good for your body overall that you can use it to help moisturize your skin and treat your hair, as well as to dress and cook your food.
How to Store Cooking Oil
Before we go, let’s take a moment to speak about how best to store these various oils. Different processing techniques and plant compounds make for different safe storage requirements, and the last thing you want is to pull down a bottle only to find out that it’s oxidized and gone rancid. You’ll most likely know rancidity by the unpleasant taste and smell, but too much exposure to oxidation can lead to consuming increased numbers of free radicals, harmful entities that cause cell damage and have been scientifically linked to chronic inflammatory conditions and even certain cancers.
Store your cooking oils in a cool, dry place: not directly beside or above your stove, and not in full sunlight or on a window sill. You can wrap any clear glass oil bottles in aluminum foil to keep them from being exposed to light and oxidized. Store infrequently used bottles in the back of the refrigerator where they’re guaranteed to keep cool and be far from sunlight.
As for oils with floating herbs and veggies—that garlic and tomato essence may taste good, but those aspects of your oil are a favorite hiding place for bacteria. Use these oils quicker than you would typical cooking oils. In general terms, most cooking oils are best within the first three months, so while buying in bulk may not be wise, you can buy smaller portions of many different oils to really explore their individual potentials.
Cooking Oils Are a Real Smokeshow
Having a variety of oils in your pantry for different cooking and baking recipes is good, but having a variety of healthy fats in your diet is even better. Don’t stop here: there are nut oils to explore too, and a nearly endless number of combinations and recipes to enjoy.