Ask Amelia Nutrition Tips

Using Different Kinds of Oils

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Question: I own every kind of oil there is: olive oil, extra virgin olive oil, canola, peanut oil etc, but I don’t know all of the differences, which is healthiest or when to use them.  Can you explain?

Answer: Below are some common oils and how to best use them.  But first, some oil basics:

  1. All oils are 100% fat, so every single kind has 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon.  So no matter what kind of oil you use, do so in moderation.
  2. Almost all oils are more heart-healthy than butter/animal fat, because they’re comprised of mostly unsaturated fat.  Whenever possible, swap out butter/lard for the better-for-you oils.
  3. You probably hear a lot about “Monounsaturated” and “Polyunsaturated” fats, the two kinds of unsaturated fats found in oil.  Every oil has a different ratio of these fats, so to make sure you get some of each, use a variety of oils in your kitchen (2-3 kinds is fine).
  4. Oils go “rancid” (they spoil & smell/taste bad) after a few months, so buy in small quantities unless you’ll be using them frequently.
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil— A good household staple. Great balance of mono and poly-unsaturated fats, mechanically pressed so not chemically refined, and great flavor.  Different brands/regions have different flavors, so experiment to find the ones you like best.  Use for drizzling, in salads and raw foods, or for cooking when you want added flavor.
  • Regular Olive Oil — Chemically refined (unlike virgin & extra-virgin) which means it loses some polyphenols (antioxidants), but much cheaper than extra virgin, so if you’re budgeting, use this one in cooking and extra virgin for salads/raw foods.  Very light flavor, so a good choice for people who don’t like the fruity/grassy taste of extra virgin.
  • Canola Oil — Another good household staple.  Has no flavor so it’s great for baking, Asian & Mexican cooking (when you want flavorless oil), and pan-frying.  Canola oil has gotten a bad rap, but don’t believe the hype.  Read here for info.
  • Vegetable Oil — Flavorless, high smoking point (so it’s good for frying) good for baking.  I’d choose canola over vegetable oil for the mono/poly fat ratio, but vegetable oil is cheap and popular.
  • Soybean Oil — No need to stock this in your kitchen, because it’s in pretty much every commercial/processed food we eat.
  • Palm Kernel Oil — This is what most processed/packaged food companies are now using in place of trans fats, which have become taboo.  Beware of products that have palm kernel oil, because 80% of it’s fat is saturated–worse than butter!
  • Safflower/Sunflower Oil — Flavorless, like canola or vegetable oil, and a good mix of unsaturated fats.  Low in saturated fat.  Good for same things as canola and vegetable oils.
  • Grapeseed Oil — Very light flavor and high smoking point, so good for many uses.  More polyunsaturated fats than most oils, which is good because most Americans don’t get enough polyunsaturated fats.
  • Peanut Oil — Light flavor and very high smoking point, so best oil for frying (not that I recommend frying as a cooking method!)
  • Sesame Oil — Intense sesame flavor, so a little goes a long way.  Fantastic for Asian sauces and dressings, because you don’t have to use much and therefore can keep the fat/calorie content of these dressings low.  One of my favorite recipes using sesame oil.
  • Walnut Oil — High in Omega-3 fatty acids, and delicious nutty flavor.  Use in salad dressings and when only lightly cooking something that you want to have lots of flavor.
  • Coconut Oil — The only oil that’s high in saturated fat (the bad kind) — it has twice as much saturated fat per tablespoon as butter!  This oil has been getting lots of hype lately, but I don’t know any nutritionists who’d recommend it.
  • Flaxseed Oil — Most people buy this as a supplement because they want more Omega-3 fatty acids.  Yes it’s healthy, but but in my opinion it’s better to eat fish, walnuts, and avocado for Omega-3’s, rather than add this oil to things you already eat (because unless you’re reducing calories and fat somewhere else in your diet, you’ll gain weight).

What I use: In my kitchen, I always have extra virgin olive oil (what I mostly use), canola oil (for baking, Mexican, Asian), sesame oil (for Asian dishes & dressings), and grapeseed oil (because it’s cheap and high in polyunsaturated fats).  I also keep butter on hand (gasp!) for occasional baking and spreading on warm, homemade bread 🙂

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  • katie
    May 11, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    This is getting bookmarked as a go-to list for oils. I always get mixed up on which one is good for what – Meels, you give great, totally useful and easily accessible advice. THANKS!!!! Sending love from Colombia!

  • physician assistant
    May 13, 2010 at 12:42 am

    Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!

  • Laura Pagels
    May 28, 2015 at 11:47 am

    Wonderful information to keep on hand. Thanks for posting.

  • Bill Fisher
    March 28, 2017 at 10:13 am

    I want an oil that is COMPLETELY TASTELESS so I can make my own salad dressings, and not have that awful oil taste. What is it, please. Please advise via e-mail, as I’ll probably never find this web-site, again. Thank you very much.

  • Amelia Winslow
    April 11, 2017 at 4:59 am

    Hi Bill,
    Canola, sunflower, and safflower oils don’t carry any flavor.

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