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Coconut, olive and vegetable oils: Which is healthiest?

5 minute read
Woman in the supermarket trying to figure out which oil is healthiest - olive, coconut or vegetable

It’s the ‘naughty F-word’ of the health and wellness industry – fat – and for years, people have debated whether it’s beneficial or harmful.

Do a Google search on ‘coconut oil vs. olive oil vs. vegetable oil’ and you’ll find a plethora of articles - some claim that each of these oils is a miracle food while others are warning that it’s the worst thing you can consume.

So, we reckon it’s time to cut through the grease and figure out whether one oil really does trump the rest.

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

People like to categorise nearly everything into good vs. bad, but when it comes to oils, it’s not that black and white. Like many other foods, oils possess both healthy and unhealthy elements.

It’s important to remember too, that with technological advances and as we learn more about health, some common beliefs about fat and oil that were held in the past have now been proven false – so try and look at the more recent studies when doing your own research.

To help you decide which oil to use, we’ve put together some of the pros and cons of each.

What you need to know about each type of oil

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, you should only cook with fats that are stable at high heat.

Here are some important facts to consider before deciding which oils to add to your diet and pantry.

Coconut oil

Coconut oil’s high smoke point makes it ideal for frying and roasting – think baked potatoes or anything fried.

If you like baking, coconut oil makes a delicious (and vegan-friendly) substitute for butter in most cakes and biscuits.

Coconut oil does get a bad rap because it contains a high amount of saturated fat. However, this oil is packed with flavour, meaning just a small amount goes a long way in creating delicious meals.

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.

Recently, there has been some debate about whether olive oil is healthy or not for high temperature cooking. Some sources put the smoke point of extra virgin olive oil somewhere around 190-207 degrees Celsius. This makes is a safe choice for most cooking methods.

The health benefits of extra virgin olive oil have been touted for years. Extra virgin olive oil is produced from the pressing of good quality olives and contains monounsaturated fats, one of the heart-healthiest fats you can choose.

For an olive oil to be labelled extra virgin, the International Olive Council (IOC) says it must meet certain chemical criteria and be free from taste defects as determined by a sensory panel trained to IOC standards.

Additionally, uncooked olive oil has a high amount of antioxidants, which help prevent free radical development, thereby lowering the risk of cancer.

Vegetable oil

Vegetable oil is oil that 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. Making it a more stable oil for cooking and great for most types of cooking.

Vegetable oil’s comparatively low price tag makes it popular in many professional kitchens. At home, you could use it for stir-frying, frying, and baking. Try using it in recipes that involve dunking food in a big pot of boiling oil, such as fried chicken, hot chips and doughnuts.

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. If you’re keen to find out more about eating a sustainable diet, check out our article: Eat for the planet: 4 quick ways to climate hack your diet.

Bottom line: which oil is best for you and why?

When asked which oil is the healthiest, most of us default to extra virgin olive oil but although this oil has a number of health benefits, it is best to use a variety of different types.

Each oil has its own benefits and uses, so before reaching into the pantry, consider what you’ll be using the oil for and let that help you decide.

For the best cooking results when baking with low-temperatures or preparing salad, opt for an unrefined oil, such as extra virgin olive oil. For high temperature baking or frying, reach for a refined oil, such as canola oil, regular olive oil or refined coconut oil.

And when it comes to oil, moderation is key. The Australian National Guidelines advises that oil is a ‘discretionary food’ – this means it isn’t a necessary part of your daily diet, because most of us consume enough fats without the addition of extra oil. 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 like vegetable oil and olive oil.

For more food facts and recipe ideas, head to our nutrition page on The Check Up.

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