Oil is a fairly common ingredient when it comes to meal prep. It’s a type of fat. And contrary to what we once thought, an essential part of the diet.  The oils we use typically come from a plant or animal and can bake or fry foods. Or, you can use them without heat to add flavor. But not all oils are not equal.

Each oil coming from its own unique source gives it different properties. They work at different temperatures, have different nutrients, and different shelf-lives. Choosing the right one depends on a variety of factors, but how it affects your health should be one of them.

Nutrients and components

Edible fats and oils are mainly comprised of triglycerides, which are three fatty acids attached to a glycerol. Different types have different fatty acid chains. You might have heard of some these before, like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

In general, fats are saturated, mono-/polyunsaturated, or trans. The most important ones to limit are trans fats. While trans fats are unsaturated, they are usually artificial. They have been banned by the FDA because it’s been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, weight gain and stroke, while diminishing memory.

Saturated fatty acid chains contain only single bonds. This allows them to pack together tightly making most of them solid at room temperature. Coconut oil, milk, butter, and grass-fed beef are good saturated fats to have in your diet. They are not associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Palm oil and conventionally raised animal fats are not as good. They may contribute to heart disease by raising “bad” cholesterol.

Unsaturated fats are quite common and contain numerous types. But most conversations tend to focus around omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Both are essential in our diet, but limiting omega-6 may be beneficial. While a number of studies have found that omega-6 doesn’t directly cause inflammation, there is evidence that excess omega-6 can inhibit omega-3.

We need about an equal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in our diet. Too much omega-6 may inhibit the actions of omega-3. The average American gets 14-25 times more omega-6 than omega-3. Limiting oils high in omega-6, as well as increasing intake of omega-3, can help bring this ratio back to a healthier level.

Temperature and shelf-life

Oils exposed to air, different temperatures, and even light can spoil or go rancid. Not only does it smell and taste bad, but the nutrients are lost and it is no longer safe to eat. Make sure your storing your oils and fats properly. Keeping them tightly sealed, out of sunlight and at the right temperature will ensure they last as long as possible.

When cooking with oils, pay attention to the smoke rate. When heated too high, oils go rancid and are no longer fit to eat. A simple rule of thumb is that the lighter the color of the oil, the higher its smoke point.

Here’s a handy reference image from cleanprogram.com.clean oil cooking guide

Choosing the right one

About 20-35% of your daily calories should come from fats and oils. Selecting healthier varieties help balance your omegas and avoids the negative effects from trans fats. But be careful. Fats have more calories per gram than carbohydrates. So don’t over do it.

The healthy oil you choose will primarily depend on what you’re making. For frying or baking at high temps, choose an oil with a smoke rate over 400° F. Olive oil is best used for low temperature cooking. Never heat flax, nut, and seed oil as it will likely destroy the nutrients. They’re best for making your own salad dressings or adding some extra flavor.

Buying all of the healthy oils at once might break your food budget. Start with just a few different types. Getting avocado and olive oil gives you high and low heat versatility. Or try coconut oil. It’s typically a lower price and useful for things other than cooking like skin moisturizing.

It might be difficult to get a handle on cooking with new oils at first, but it’s worth it. It takes time to learn so don’t get discouraged if you mess up a dish or two. You might even enjoy the new flavors different oils add.