- Using vegetable oils for cooking is becoming increasingly associated with different health concerns.
- When choosing a substitute oil, it is important to consider the smoke point and oxidative stability of the oil.
- All oils have 3 types of beneficial fatty acids including MUFAs, PUFAs and saturated fats.
- Not all oil substitutes are suitable for all types of cooking.
- When trying to phase out the use of vegetable oil, select from unrefined, organic, cold pressed oils to get the most health benefits.
Vegetable oils are oils that have been extracted from different seeds, nuts or beans. The most common types include rapeseed (canola oil), corn, soybean, sunflower, and safflower oils among others. Now most people perceive these oils as healthy, perhaps because they have the word “vegetable” in them.
However, clear vegetable oils much like white flour, white sugar and white salt are nutrient devoid concoctions that go through different means of mechanical or chemical extraction. During the extraction process, different chemical solvents are used to distill, refine, bleach and deodorize the oils, all the while losing out on much of the nutrient benefits of the foods they are derivatives of.
In the final stages of preparation, preservatives are added to boost shelf life so what starts off as a whole food actually ends up as something quite the opposite. Instead of having a nutrient dense product, the end result is a processed, non-food product that can be damaging to health.
The healthy alternatives discussed here are
- Olive Oil – Check prices at Amazon
- Coconut Oil – Check prices at Amazon
- Avocado Oil – Check prices at Amazon
- Flaxseed Oil – Check prices at Amazon
- Sesame Oil – Check prices at Amazon
The best doctor gives the least medicines.
~ Benjamin Franklin
Health concerns of using vegetable oils
The ongoing debate about the health benefits and dangers of using vegetable oils makes it important to know how these oils may be affecting your health. While some oils contain healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, many others come with unhealthy trans fats or are processed with chemical solvents.
Some of the health concerns that come to the forefront with the use of vegetable oils include the following:
Disruption of the omega 3-omega 6 ratio
Processed seed oils like sunflower, corn, soybean and canola contain fairly large amounts of biologically active fats known as omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. 1 When consumed in excess these omega 6s do more harm than good in the body.
Also considered essential fatty acids, since the body cannot produce them, omega 6s should ideally be consumed in a certain balance with omega 3s. But when this balance gets disrupted with omega 6 consumption exceeding omega 3 consumption, issues like large scale, low grade inflammation start to happen in the body. 2
Having higher omega 6s and low omega 3s contributes to inflammation as omega 6s are pro inflammatory while omega 3s are anti-inflammatory. Omega 6s also get easily oxidized with light or heat exposure making them highly unfavorable to health.
Too much trans fats
Trans fats are unsaturated fats that are modified to be solid at room temperature. Theses fats are also the prime culprits for raising bad cholesterol or LDL levels while reducing good cholesterol or HDL levels. 3 This aspect alone can lead to a myriad of health complications with cardiovascular diseases at the forefront. Trans fats are also highly toxic and associated with other conditions like obesity 4, diabetes 5 and liver function. 6
Linked with cancer
Research indicates that heating up vegetable oils results in releasing high concentrations of chemicals known as aldehydes. This exposure has been traced to various health hazards including cancer. 7
In addition, some vegetable oils and their products contain BHA and BHT. These are artificial antioxidants that prevent foods from oxidizing and spoiling too quickly. These compounds also exhibit cancer causing activity in the body and are linked to other problems as well. 8
In contrast, other oils like olive, coconut and avocado are extracted by pressing the fruits. Although pressing does produce heat via friction, the heat is kept below 120 degrees F for the oil to be classified as cold pressed.
Such cold pressed oils are neither refined, deodorized nor processed. These oils retain much of their flavor, aroma and nutritional benefits making them a great option for cooking and baking needs.
Of the many diet and lifestyle factors identified as direct precursors to heart disease, eating heavily fried foods and the consuming excess polyunsaturated fatty acids from vegetable oils are well known. Interestingly, both causes are also directly related to oxidized cholesterol and fats.
Some experts see these oxidized cholesterol and fats, particularly from too many polyunsaturated vegetable oils and fried foods as one of the main culprits for increased heart disease. 9
Foods cooked in this manner and the oils used to fry them can increase cardiovascular disease risk factors. Vegetable oil that has been heated repeatedly causes extensive oxidation to occur chemically modifying the oil. This has been linked to poor cardiovascular health. Prolonged consumption of such repeatedly heated oil has been shown to increase blood pressure and total cholesterol, leading to atherosclerosis. 10
Such repeated heating of oil is not uncommon since it reduces the cost of food production.
Stability of cooking oils
When oils and fats get exposed to high heat, they can become damaged. In this regard, two properties of cooking oils should be kept in mind. The first is the smoke point or the temperature when fats start to disintegrate and become smoke. The second is oxidative stability or how resistant fats are to oxygen reaction.
When you cook with oil that gets heated beyond its smoke point, the process does more than contribute a burnt flavor to foods. It also destroys useful nutrients and phytochemicals and generates toxic fumes and free radicals that produce cancer causing compounds. 11
Vegetables oils in general have high smoke points ranging from 400- 450 F. This allows the refined varieties to be used for high heat cooking and frying purposes. But they come at the cost of industrial level refinement processes that get rid of compounds that do not tolerate heat well at the same time, it also nullifies much of the nutritional content.
The oxidative stability of vegetable oils is determined by the type of fatty acids in the oils. For instance, oils with higher levels of monounsaturated fatty acids or MUFAs resist oxidative breakdown much longer than others containing high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs. 12
Considering other substitutes
Not every oil substitute is suitable for every type of cooking or recipe. Some of the substitute oils have stronger flavors than others, while others may have low heat points making them unsuitable for baking or high heat cooking.
Summary of the best substitutes
|Oil||Type of use||Important figures
|Coconut oil||Baking, Deep frying, Sautéing||MUFAs 6%
Saturated fats 92%
Smoke point 350°F
|• Contains MCTs for rapid energy use instead of being stored as fat
• Long shelf life
• High smoke point
|• Too many saturated fats|
|Olive oil||Pan frying||MUFAs 77%
Saturated fats 14%
Smoke point 375-470°F
|• Rich in polyphenols and antioxidants
• Anti-inflammatory features
|• Depending on the type, not all varieties are suitable for high heat cooking.|
|Sesame oil||Stir frying||MUFAs 39.7%
Saturated fats 14%
Smoke point 350-410°F
|• High smoke point
• Authentic aroma
• Reduces blood pressure
• Improves digestive process
|• High omega 6: omega 3 ratio|
|Avocado oil||Grilling, Searing||MUFAs 71%
Saturated fats 12%
Smoke point 400°F
|• High smoke point
• Loaded with vitamin E
• Rich in oleic acid
• Reduces cholesterol
• Improves heart health
|• Expensive to procure|
|Flaxseed oil||Drizzling||MUFAs 18%
Saturated fats 9%
Smoke point 225°F
|• Packs a punch of omega 3s
• Lowers high blood pressure
• Cardio protective effects
|• Susceptible to quick rancidity
• Suitable for low temperature applications only
Extracted by pressing the olive fruit, its oil is available in different varieties. The variations depend on the level of processing involved in the manufacturing process. Olive oil which is handled the least has the most nutritive value. The less the processing, the better the quality of the oil.
Along with adding flavor and nutrition to meals, olive oil is also responsible for deterring major health concerns. People who use this oil as a regular component in their diet, such as those who follow a Mediterranean diet have been observed to possess better health and stronger immunity to certain degenerate diseases. 13 In terms of cooking with olive oil, research indicates that extra virgin olive oil is highly resistant to oxidation. 14
Since this oil has low polyunsaturated fatty acids, which tend to oxidize faster and a high presence of antioxidants that counteract oxidative damage, it is considered one of the best substitutes for vegetable oils.
The smoke point for extra virgin olive oil is at 410 degrees F. It is safe to use this oil for sautéing and frying over medium high heat. It is also used widely when preparing salad dressings.
This oil is considered one of the healthiest oils available since it contains healthy fatty acids and healthy saturated fats. Coconut oil is also easy to digest, generates energy for longer periods and increases metabolism.
Coconut oil also improves digestion because it helps the body absorb calcium, magnesium and fat soluble vitamins. The oil can also help improve bacterial balance and digestive health by getting rid of bad bacteria. It may also be beneficial in treating or preventing stomach ulcers. 15
To substitute coconut oil for vegetable oil, you do not need to change the amounts. Since coconut oil remains solid at room temperature, you will need to warm and melt it if the recipe asks for liquid oil.
Coconut oil also withstands heat fairly well so it is a good option for high heat baking and cooking. The fatty acid content in coconut oil is mostly saturated making it highly resistant to heat at high temperatures.
The one consideration to keep in mind is that this oil has a strong, vanilla-like flavor. It works well as an alternative in baked foods but may not work as well for other types of recipes.
Coconut oil has a smoke point of 350 degrees F. It is suitable for sautéing and baking. Some research shows that the quality of virgin coconut oil doesn’t deteriorate even after 8 hours of continuous deep frying, making it a superior option for this cooking method. 16
Flaxseed oil comes from the extremely nutritious and disease preventing seeds of the flax plant. The oil has a high omega 3 content in the form of alpha linolenic acid acid (ALA). Among its various health benefits, flaxseed oil can aid in weight loss, help fight cancer, 17 and boost heart health. 18
The best types of flaxseed oils are those that are organic and cold pressed. Ideally, the oil should be bottled in an opaque bottle to reduce oxidation.
However, flaxseed oil is not a heat stable oil. It should not be used as a cooking oil substitute for dishes that require high heat cooking. It is better for using in salad dressings and marinades. You can also drizzle it over grilled or roasted vegetables and other cooked foods prior to serving.
Another way to use flaxseed oil is to mix it with yogurt and cottage cheese which emulsifies the oil. This activity improves its digestion and metabolism by the body.
Flaxseed oil has a smoke point of 225 degrees making it suitable for use in salad dressings, smoothies and drizzling over cooked foods.
Avocado oil comes from the pressed pulp of the avocado fruit. It is made up of mostly oleic acid, which is a very healthy monounsaturated fat.
Avocado oil is a smart choice if you are looking for an oil that can naturally lower and maintain blood pressure. The monounsaturated fat content in avocado oil can have a beneficial effect on blood pressure when used in moderation. The same can also improve heart health and lower cholesterol. 19
Avocado oil has a high smoke point of 520 degrees and can be used for frying, searing, grilling, roasting, and baking. You can also use it in uncooked items like salad dressings and dips.
Sesame oil is rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats while being low in saturated fats. It is also a good option to cook with as it can take the heat with a smoke point of around 400 F. This makes it a suitable oil for cooking a variety of foods without releasing harmful substances or altering the chemical makeup of the oil. 20
This oil has a distinct cooking flavor and comes in both light and dark varieties. Of the two, the lighter varieties are more subtle and may be used for frying while dark sesame oil is used more for its flavor. Along with healthy fats, sesame oil is also an excellent source of vitamin E which can offer more health benefits by combating free radical damage.
To sum up, all cooking oils contain three types of fatty acids in different proportions. Of these, monounsaturated fats are favored over polyunsaturated fats while both are preferred over saturated fats. It is recommended that saturated fats be only consumed in moderation.
When looking for suitable substitutes, know that not all vegetable oil substitutes have to be other oils. In fact, other options like butter or lard can be used in cooking while applesauce or yogurt can be substituted for baking needs.
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