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Your guide to cooking oils

articles Feb 28, 2024

Coconut or Olive? Butter or Margarine?

The debate continues to rage however we do know that choosing the right oils can be a tricky task given that different oils suit different temperatures and impact your health in different ways.

Why do we need fats and oils?
It is well established that oils rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are needed for regulating blood cholesterol, by decreasing LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol) and triglycerides and increasing HDL (‘good’ cholesterol) in the blood. Having a little bit of fat in your diet is important for hormone regulation and also to support the health of your cells.

An interesting fact to know is that polyunsaturated fats are the only fats that are deemed ‘essential’, meaning that unlike monounsaturated and saturated fats you must eat polyunsaturated fats from food as your body is unable to make them. Polyunsaturated oils can be found in walnuts, pine nuts, brazil nuts, salmon, sardines and mackerel as well as chia seeds, linseed and tahini. These oils are best consumed in their whole forms as opposed to being processed into cooking oils as such, as polyunsaturated oils are the most unstable and break down at very low heat.


Top 3 Cooking Oils to use in Your Kitchen

When it comes to using oils in the kitchen, you need to know what dish you are going to use it in. All oils have 'smoke points' which is the temperature when the oil begins to burn and is no longer deemed chemically stable. It will also taste awful!


Extra virgin olive oil is predominantly made up of monounsaturated fats but also has a range of antioxidants called tocopherol (fondly known as Vitamin E) and phenols, which help to make the oil more heat stable and less likely to go rancid compared to polyunsaturated fats.

Olives are mechanically pressed to produce the highest quality and hence the first press is what gives EVOO its strong flavour (and antioxidants!). It is always best to choose a high quality EVOO as inferior types have been processed which reduces it's shelf life and overall stability.

Because it has such a fresh flavour, EVOO is great on cold dishes (i.e bread, dressings for salads, marinades) and contrary to popular belief, EVOO CAN be used to stir fry, grill, roast, saute and barbecue as the heat you use in the kitchen will not ruin the oil (unless you burn it!). The only thing EVOO is not good for is deep frying as this level of heat is too high and will cause instability in its structure. I find it is also not ideal in baking as it's flavour can be too strong and your blueberry muffins will taste a bit odd.


Rice bran oil is extracted from the germ of rice grains. Again, it has a high smoke point, is high in vitamin E and plant sterols (that are beneficial for heart health), and is relatively low in saturated fat (20%). It's not a bad option to have instead of sunflower oil and can be used in all types of cooking due to low flavour and high stability.


Coconut oil is now widely used as an alternative and is extracted from coconut flesh. It is typically used in Indians and South Asian cuisines but is now popping up in various savoury and sweet treats as an alternative as it solidifies at room temperature and is being heralded as a 'superfood' due to it's high stability against heat. Due to it's strong flavour, caution needs to be used in cooking (unless you like the taste of coconut with your steak).

Unlike tree nuts, coconut oil is high in saturated fats (~93%) which are typically known as ‘bad’ fats. Saturated fats are more stable against oxidation and heat (much like butter, lard and ghee). However, not all saturated fats act the same and the fat in coconuts (lauric acid) is not used in the body in the same way as saturated fats found in animal products. It is this attribute that has contributed to coconut oil's popularity yet it is important to note that coconut oil does not provide any other vitamins or minerals and still needs to be used sparingly - just like any other type of fat.


To be honest, I used to advocate for margarine. Now I tend to recommend butter for those who are fit and healthy with a tag line of 'in moderation'. For those who have heart disease risk factors (high cholesterol) and/or are heavy users (those who have bread with their butter!), I suggest an oil-based spread from a nut or olive source instead, as butter is high in saturated fats and is associated with increased risk of increased LDL cholesterol levels in the blood.

The beauty of butter is that due to it's more full flavour, you tend to use less compared to margarine which is milder (and so you add more) which defeats the purpose of spreading in moderation. If you are also trying to lose weight, this can also be counterproductive to your efforts as all fats and oils are energy-dense, so a little goes a long way in terms of calorie intake.

For more information about the types of fats, check out the National Heart Foundation's website for more details.

*Content included on this site is prepared as general information only. It is not advice and should not be substituted for personal advice which takes into account your individual health, financial or other circumstances.