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Coconut, olive and vegetable oils: Which is healthiest?

We cut the grease to find out which oil reigns supreme

A woman at the grocery store comparing cooking oils
A woman at the grocery store comparing cooking oils

Fat is no longer the ‘naughty F-word’ of the health and wellness industry. Experts debated for years whether fats were beneficial or harmful; however, we now know conclusively that fats are vital for good health. But which one should we use for what, and are all fats and oils created equal?

When it comes to ‘coconut oil vs olive oil vs vegetable oil’, a quick search online reveals a profusion of articles claiming each of these oils is either a miracle food or the worst thing you could possibly consume.

The big debate: olive oil vs. coconut oil vs vegetable oil

We cut through the grease to find out whether coconut, olive or vegetable oil is best for us and whether there are any fats or oils we should avoid. Let’s start by looking at each of these three oils in detail.

Extra-virgin olive oil

Olive oil has a delicious flavour, making it a great option for sautéing vegetables, dipping fresh bread and drizzling over salads and dips, such as hummus.

“Extra-virgin olive oil has been shown to be the standout oil in terms of nutritional value and health benefits,” says Live Life Get Active National Nutrition and Wellness Manager Jazmyn McKinnie. Live Life Get Active is a nib foundation-supported charity that offers free wellbeing and nutritional programs to help address obesity, diabetes and mental health issues in Australia.

“(Olive oil) is a staple in the Mediterranean diet, which is a healthy eating pattern many communities within the Mediterranean follow,” Jazmyn says. “The people in these communities are amongst the healthiest people in the world, with some of the lowest rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease.”

Related: Heart disease prevention: The health benefits of a Mediterranean diet

A woman pouring cooking oil into a pan

Coconut oil

Coconut oil is packed with flavour, meaning a small amount goes a long way. Hailed as a ‘superfood’, the hype surrounding coconut oil has been hard to ignore over the last decade.

“Coconut oil is good in the fact that it hasn't undergone a lot of processing – it has come directly from coconut flesh – however, it is very high in saturated fat, so it should be used sparingly,” Jazmyn says.

Saturated fats make up 92% of coconut oil, which is a higher percentage than butter. Saturated fats can increase LDL cholesterol in the blood, so shouldn’t be eaten too often to minimise your risk of developing heart disease.

Related: Healthy cholesterol levels in Australia

Vegetable oil

Vegetable oil is extracted from various types of seeds, grains and nuts. Most vegetable oils on the market are a blend of canola, corn, soybean, safflower, palm and sunflower oils. Vegetable oil’s comparatively low price makes it popular in many professional kitchens.

“Although vegetable oil is low in saturated fat and high in healthier fats like polyunsaturated fat, it has still undergone quite a bit of processing using chemicals and heat, which turns it into a shelf-stable oil,” Jazmyn says. Shelf-stable oils can be stored ‘on the shelf’ safely at room temperature, rather than having to be refrigerated.

Which oil is best for cooking?

To maximise your health benefits, choose extra virgin olive oil. It’s produced from the pressing of good quality olives and contains monounsaturated fats, one of the heart-healthiest fats you can choose. Uncooked olive oil also has a high amount of antioxidants, which help prevent free radical development, thereby lowering the risk of cancer.

“You will get the most nutritional value from extra virgin olive oil when it is unheated,” Jazmyn says. “Incorporate a tiny bit of raw olive oil on your salads or veggies to see the biggest health benefits.”

In saying that, some oils are better for certain types of cooking than others, so you may want to have more than one type in your cupboard.

There are two properties of cooking oils that matter most: smoke point and oxidative stability. Smoke point is the temperature at which the fats break down and turn into smoke, while oxidative stability is how resistant the fats are to reacting with oxygen.

To minimise your exposure to potentially harmful and carcinogenic compounds, aim to cook only with fats that are stable at high heat.

“Smoke point is usually the indicator of what makes the best oil for cooking at high temperatures,” Jazmyn explains. “The smoke point is when the oil is heated high enough to start to break down and lose its health benefits and quality.”
Vegetable oil has the highest smoke point, but Jazmyn says recent evidence suggests it's the stability of the compounds within the oil when heated that may determine the healthiest oil for cooking.

“Extra-virgin olive oil has recently been shown to be the most stable and retain the most antioxidants when heated at a high temperature,” Jazmyn says.
Both vegetable oil and olive oil are ok to cook with, however. “Vegetable oils are good for stir-fries and any other high-temperature cooking; extra-virgin olive oil is a good allrounder.”

As for coconut oil, its high smoke point means it can be used for frying and other high-heat cooking. “Coconut oil has a very distinct flavour that may not always complement the meal you are cooking, but may be used with some dishes when the flavour suits,” Jazmyn says.

If you like baking, coconut oil also makes a delicious (and vegan-friendly) substitute for butter in most cakes and biscuits. Just don’t make them too often!

Go easy on oils

“Moderation is the key with all oils (including healthy oils) because of their high fat content,” Jazmyn warns. “It’s extremely energy-dense and high in calories – one serving size of oil is about half a teaspoon, so it's best to use it sparingly.”

Whenever possible, limit your intake of foods that are high in saturated fat – like oils – and when you do use them, opt for polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as vegetable oil and extra virgin olive oil.

Are there any oils you should avoid completely?

Rather than avoiding anything completely, Jazmyn suggests minimising our intake of saturated fats, such as those in coconut and palm oil. “If in doubt, go for extra virgin olive oil!”

Some vegetable oils, such as soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil, and safflower oil, contain omega-6 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat. When choosing a vegetable oil to add to your pantry, be sure to do your bit for the environment and choose one that contains sustainable palm oil.

“It’s important to consume a variety of healthy fats in your diet,” says Jazmyn. “Make sure you include other sources of healthy fats alongside oil, such as nuts, seeds and fatty fish like salmon and tuna.”

For more food facts, expert advice and recipe ideas, check out The Check Up’s dedicated nutrition section.