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August 06, 2020 / Amy Height

Cooking With Healthy Oil Alternatives: Understanding Smoke Points

Soba noodle stirfry with green beans and egg

Choosing the right oil for the meals you’re making is not only key to amazing flavor, but also for getting optimal nutritional value out of the healthy dishes you create.

Cooking with healthy oil alternatives produces delicious results and may help with weight management, hormone regulation, and improved neurological, digestive, and skin health.

However, oils cooked to the point of overheating can start to decompose and become unstable, generating fumes and compounds that can be harmful to the body and affect flavor.

If oils start to smoke and burn, they can also pose a risk of causing a fire in your kitchen (or at the very least, setting off your smoke detector).

Since oils break down at different temperatures depending on their source, level of refinement, and how they’re used, it is helpful to understand smoke points of various common cooking oils. Read on to learn about which oils to use for your health, safety, and how to get the most flavor in your culinary creations.

Why Understanding Smoke Points is Important

Certain oils can tolerate heat better than others due to their chemical makeup. This is known as a smoke point, or the temperature at which an oil starts to smoke rather than shimmer, which may signal that it’s no longer ideal for cooking. You may also hear of the smoke point being referred to as the burning point, which can range from 325°F to over 500°F.

The smoke point is determined by the way a fat is extracted and processed. Most oils come from nuts and seeds and often go through a refinement process that leads to a higher smoke point and longer shelf life. The more processing, the lighter the oil and the more neutral the flavor. Vegetable or canola oil is a good example of neutral flavored oils. Yet, these wouldn’t be good choices on a salad due to their lack of flavor.

In contrast, unrefined, virgin oils tend to have a richer color and flavor but cannot withstand high heat. Extra virgin olive oil is a good example of an oil that’s ideal for raw dishes like salads, but can only tolerate low-temperature cooking. These oils also have a shorter shelf life and can actually go bad if left sitting in your cupboard too long.

Knowing these smoke points will help you find healthy oil alternatives that align with your cooking style and ensure you get the most nutrients from your meals.

Healthy Oil Alternatives

There are numerous oils to choose from when preparing meals, but some do offer more health benefits than others. Using the following list of healthy oil alternatives, you can quickly and easily identify which oils are best for your needs, their smoke points, and what benefits they offer you.

1. Olive oil

bottle pouring olive oil into a dish next to olives on a wooden table

Smoke point: Extra virgin is 325°F to 375°F, Virgin is 420°F, and Extra Light is 468°F.

Use for: Extra virgin is great for dressings and drizzling. Virgin and extra light olive oils are good for sautéing.

Health benefits: Contains vitamins E and K, and antioxidants.

2. Unrefined (or virgin) coconut oil

wooden spoon with unrefined coconut oil in frying pan on a wooden table

Smoke point: 350°F

Use for: Baking, frostings, and sautéing.

Health benefits: Rich in vitamins E and K, and iron.

3. Refined coconut oil

refined coconut oil in a glass saucer next to a coconut on a table

Smoke point: 400°F

Use for: Medium-heat cooking, stir-frying, baking.

Health benefits: Coconut oil is a source of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are a source of energy that can be metabolized effectively by the liver.

4. Refined avocado oil

glass dish full of avocado oil next to an avocado on a wooden table

Smoke point: 520°F

Use for: Deep-frying, sautéing, medium-heat and high-heat cooking, baking, and grilling.

Health benefits: High in vitamin E, potassium, and oleic acid.

5. Clarified butter or ghee

clarified butter in a metal spoon resting on a jar full of clarified butter

Smoke point: 450°F

Use for: High-heat cooking and drizzling on freshly grilled meat, seafood, and vegetables.

Health benefits: Good source of vitamins E and A, and antioxidants.

6. Sesame oil

glass jar of sesame oil next to a wooden shovel full of sesame seeds

Smoke point: 410°F

Use for: All-purpose, good for cooking, dressings, and sauces.

Health benefits: May help reduce inflammation and good source of calcium.

7. Hempseed oil

bottle full of hempseed oil next to a white bowl full of hemp seeds

Smoke point: 330°F

Use for: Drizzling and finishing, including dressings. Do not use for cooking.

Health benefits: High in omega-3 fatty acids.

8. Peanut oil

glass bottle full of peanut oil next to peanuts on a wooden table

Smoke point: 450°F

Use for: Deep-frying, pan-frying, roasting, and grilling.

Health benefits: Good source of vitamin E and phytosterols and low in saturated fat.

9. Flaxseed oil

wooden spoon full of flaxseeds next to a bowl full of flaxseed oil on a wooden table

Smoke point: 225°F (very low)

Use for: Drizzling and finishing, including dressings. Do not use for cooking.

Health benefits: High in omega-3 fatty acids and may help relieve constipation.

10. Grapeseed oil

Untitled design (95) (1)

Smoke point: 390°F

Use for: Sautéing, frying, and salad dressings.

Health benefits: High in polyunsaturated fats and vitamin E.

Other Oil Alternatives

While the above list offers a number of healthy oil alternatives to other cooking fats, there are a number of additional oils suitable for cooking. These include:

These oils fall under the large umbrella of “vegetable oils” and typically go through a rigorous refinement process, which strips them of valuable nutrients and flavor. Additionally, “vegetable” oil is often a combination of many plant-derived oils. When possible, it’s best to use one of the healthy oil alternatives for cooking and dressing, which typically retain more vitamins and nutrients and give your food the best flavor.

The Takeaway

Healthy oil alternatives are just one part of a well-balanced diet. If you’re working towards a healthy lifestyle, all your food choices are important. That’s where PlateJoy comes in.

Our personalized meal planning assistant gives you the freedom to pick and choose what you want, and what you don’t want in your meals. We can even tailor your menus to a vegan meal plan, gluten-free, Paleo, or any other personalized diet you desire. Sign up for your free trial and start reaping the benefits of your own personal meal plans.

Amy Height
Holistic Nutritionist @ From the Ground Up Wellness

Amy Height is the founder of From the Ground Up Wellness, a holistic nutrition practice where she specializes in plant-based nutrition and helping her clients combat food addiction. She completed her training at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, where she received her certification in the Health Coach Training Program. She is a triathlete and CrossFitter with a passion for all things outdoors. By night, Amy stage manages Broadway musicals and she frequently travels North America seeking out the best vegan restaurants and the best run courses. Follow her on Instagram or check out her blog for recipe and wellness ideas.

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