Did you know that fats are essential nutrients that are fundamental to how the body functions? In fact, fats are integral to cell structure and also are included in hormones that control muscle contraction, immune function, blood clotting and blood pressure. Additionally, when it comes to healthy eating, there are some vitamins (A, D, E and K) that require fat to be fully absorbed and usable in the body.
The fat in nearly all foods is a mixture of fatty acids—saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. You want to choose fats that are unsaturated more often. Unsaturated fats are oils—they are plant-based and liquid at room temperatures. These types of fats are considered a better nutrition choice because of the positive effects they have on cardiovascular health.
It can be a challenge to know which oils to use when cooking. You want to make healthy choices, but you also want your food to turn out delicious. Here is a brief primer on how to choose the right oils, along with detailed descriptions of the most common oils you’re likely to use.
 The Smoke Point of Cooking Oils
When it comes to choosing an oil, it’s important to know an oil’s smoke point, which is the temperature at which heated the oil begins to produce smoke and burn. When this happens, it causes the healthy components of the oil to degrade into damaging free radicals. Because each type of oil has a different smoke point, certain oils are better for different types of cooking techniques. The higher the cooking temperature (frying, for example), the higher you want the oil’s smoke point to be to prevent it from burning.
Refined Versus Unrefined Cooking Oils
Cooking oils are extracted from plants, nuts and seeds. This extraction can be from the use of pressure (also known as cold-pressing) or processing using mechanical, thermal and/or chemical processes. The refinement of an oil can change both the flavor and the smoke point. The more refined the oil, the higher the smoke point. The less processed the oil is, the more flavorful the oil will be.
 Types of Oils
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO): An unrefined and unaltered oil extracted from olives

Nutrition: A very high monounsaturated fat composition. Additionally, EVOO contains hydroxytyrosol, which is a phytonutrient that protects vascular health.
Flavor: Intense olive taste, fruitier flavor and low acid
Smoke Point: Low (around 325 degrees Fahrenheit)
Cooking: Use for lower-heat cooking or in baking to substitute for butter. Best in salad dressings or dips where the flavor can take center stage.

Olive Oil: Blend of EVOO (usually around 10%) combined with refined olive oil

Nutrition: A high monounsaturated fat composition
Flavor: Mild, lighter and less olive-like flavor
Smoke Point: Medium (ranging from 400-450 degrees Fahrenheit)
Cooking: Use it for low- to medium-temperature cooking, such as sautéing and stir-frying.

 Canola Oil: A refined oil extracted from the seed of a yellow flowering plant called a rapeseed

Nutrition: A high composition of both mono- and polyunsaturated fats
Flavor: Very light; allows the flavors of the food to shine
Smoke Point: Medium smoke point (around 425 degrees Fahrenheit)
Cooking: Works well for medium-temperature cooking such as sautéing and stir-frying.

Nut/Seed Oil (such as walnut or pumpkin): Unrefined oil extracted from nuts/seeds

Nutrition: A high composition of polyunsaturated fats. Additionally, both walnut and pumpkin oils have a high linolenic acid content, which converts to omega-3s to support heart health.
Flavor: A rich nutty flavor
Smoke Point: Very low (around 320 degrees Fahrenheit)
Cooking: Best when not cooked at all or only at very low cooking temperatures. Instead, use it to add a tasty flavor to salad dressings and marinades.

Peanut Oil: A refined oil made from peanuts

Nutrition: A high composition of both mono- and polyunsaturated fats
Flavor: A strong peanut flavor and aroma
Smoke Point: High (around 450 degrees Fahrenheit)
Cooking: Ideal for frying foods or making popcorn. Also, great to use when you want to give a slight peanut flavor to food.

Avocado Oil: A refined oil made from the fruit of an avocado

Nutrition: A very high composition of monounsaturated fats
Flavor: A delicate, buttery and slightly nutty flavor profile
Smoke Point: Very high when refined (around 520 degrees Fahrenheit)
Cooking: Versatile; can be used in both high-heat cooking or as a finishing oil on salads

Coconut Oil: A refined oil made from the meat of a coconut

Nutrition: A high saturated-fat ratio
Flavor: A slightly sweet coconut flavor
Smoke Point: Low to medium (around 350-400 degrees Fahrenheit)
Cooking: Most commonly used in baked goods, but can lend a delicious coconut flavor to sautéing or stir-frying.

Learn more about healthy eating with Nutrition for Sports, Exercise and Weight Management.