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Lifestyle: How to choose a healthy cooking oil

Not all cooking oils are created equal. Find out which you should avoid, and which to consume.
Coconut oil, walnut oil, olive oil, canola oil. There are dozens of cooking oil choices—and many come with an array of health benefits or drawbacks.

You’re face-to-face with a vast array of cooking oils in your local grocery store.

To your left and right, bottles of olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil, peanut oil, canola oil, sunflower oil and walnut oil stretch for what seems like an infinite distance. Go ahead. Try to pick a healthy and suitable product. But wait. Are you frying? Baking? Do you want intense flavor? Low saturated fats?

The questions can multiply quickly. Fortunately, University of Minnesota Health Nutritionist and Dietitian Aida Miles is here to help you sort through the confusion. Miles serves with the M Health Weight Loss Management and Surgery program.

Did You Know? The Weight Loss Management and Surgery Program is a clinical service designed to help adult patients with a BMI of 30 or higher achieve a healthy weight through diet and activity.

Start by identifying what kind of cooking you plan to carry out. If you’re frying or using another high temperature technique, make sure you have an oil with a high “smoke point.” The smoke point is important, Miles said, because it is the point at which the heated oil begins producing a substance called acrolein. Acrolein is toxic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Oils with a high smoke point include avocado, sunflower and sesame oil, among others.

It’s also important to consider the type or types of fat found in different types of cooking oil, Miles said. Certain oils are higher and lower in mono-unsaturated, poly-unsaturated and saturated fats. Oils that contain saturated fats are solid at room temperature, and should be avoided because of elevated cholesterol levels. Oils with poly-unsaturated fats, like walnut oil or sunflower oil, are liquid at room temperature and can actually help reduce blood cholesterol levels, making them a healthier option. Finally, mono-unsaturated fats like canola or olive oil, which become semi-solid when refrigerated, can also improve cholesterol levels.

Oils with trans fats should be avoided at all costs, Miles said.

Miles keeps two types of oil at home: Olive oil for stir frying or salads, and canola oil for any other purpose except frying.

“If you cook with a lot of oil, use a variety that is not as expensive, like canola,” Miles said. “I work with a lot of people with limited incomes, and I would never recommend that they splurge on fancy oils.”