the oil dilemma

I have been pondering over this question: what is the best oil to use for various cooking purposes?

Oils contain fat, which is either saturated or unsaturated.

Saturated fats are abundant in ghee and oils that tend to solidify at room temperature like coconut oil. This means that their carbon-hydrogen backbone cannot take any more hydrogen atoms. Hence they are stable at high temperatures.

Oils from seeds like canola, olive contain unsaturated fats. Their carbon atoms have a potential to get “saturated” (oxidized) or bond more hydrogens. They are more unstable when heated and can form free radicals. Free radicals, we know are not good for the body, they are associated with cancers and other chronic diseases. Even a high amount of processing can lead to oxidation of these oils and thus produce free radicals.

Canola and olive oils have monounsaturated fats, which have a lesser tendency to form free radicals. Sunflower and safflower oils have polyunsaturated fatty acids which have a higher tendency to form free radicals when heated.

Another important factor is smoke point. Higher smoke points are better for tempering and sauteing. From the following table canola and safflower oils seem to be ranking high in smoke points but then we know that safflower oil may form more free radicals due to the presence of many unsaturated bonds. So, the best choice seems to be canola oil. Also, cold-pressed or extra virgin olive oil has a lower smoke point and should not be heated.

  Smoke Points of Fats and Oils

Vegetable Shortening (Hydrogenated) 325°F
Butter 350°F
Lard 375°F
Olive Oil 325°F – 375°F
Corn Oil 400°F – 450°F
Canola Oil 425°F – 475°F
Clarified Butter 450°F – 475°F
Sunflower Oil 450°F – 475°F
Soybean Oil 450°F – 475°F
Safflower Oil 475°F – 500°F


Experts in the field would tell you to stay away from genetically modified foods, as they are in the long term known to cause harm to the body. All corn, canola as well as vegetable oil (which is mostly soybean oil) in the U.S is genetically modified, unless labeled “non-GM”.

In Indian cooking we use oil everyday at least in small amounts. There are other seed oils too, which are unique to each cuisine. For example in South India, we need to temper with sesame oil to add flavor in some dishes (refined would be the way to go). In other parts of the country peanut, mustard oil are used (I have never tried those).

more smoke point data:

Sesame oil: unrefined- 350 °F; semi-refined- 450°F

peanut oil- 440 °F

So, then, do we turn to organic canola oil? That is what I have done, at least in part. I use it for everyday cooking, in small amounts, in combination with coconut oil and ghee (clarified butter) . Extra-virgin olive oil for salads.  And when I have to deep-fry, for religious occasions or those indulgent moments, I use regular canola oil, but throw the used oil away that very same day. It is going to produce more free radicals when heated the next day.

What about baking? For the same reasons stated above, I think the best choices are coconut oil and non-GM canola oil. There are many brands of coconut oil available, that have negligible smell, which makes them suitable to use everyday.


What is your choice of oil? Do you have more ideas and information to share? I would like to learn more…


Here’s a piece of information I got from my blogger friend Tanusree Roy, although refined canola oil is inflammatory, expeller-pressed organic canola oil has anti-inflammatory properties. Check this:

Sources and links:

Chapter “Basic Food Science” in “The Healthy Indian Diet” by Dr. Raj Patel et. al

16 responses to “the oil dilemma

  1. I have been wanting to switch to Non-GMO canola oil(just waiting to empty the current one). Where do you buy the Spectrum brand from? Whole Foods? I have been using coconut oil/sesame oil for many south indian dishes and ghee for tadka/north indian dishes( mainly for flavoring). For regular sauteing otherwise, I switched from canola to olive oil a few months back. I thought Olive oil would be lower risk than using GM-canola oil. What do you think abt this? Also what about corn oil? Is there an organic,safe non GMO corn oil that we can buy?The reason I ask this is because I use corn oil for deep frying(which i do very rarely). I always felt canola oil gave a weird flavor in deep frying.


    • The Spectrum brand is from Kroger. Olive oil seems to have a lower smoke point than canola, but I think for saute of onions etc. which will give out water and lower the temperature, may be it’s o.k. I’m not so sure about using it for tempering, though. I have not seen a non-GM corn oil. But I live in a small town 🙂 Maybe Whole Foods has it.


  2. Got the Spectrum Canola Oil today…thanks for introducing me to this! Also what brand of Sesame oil do you use? I have been using the Idayam brand from Indian stores all along, but they carry old stock sometimes. Looked at the Spectrum sesame oil at Kroger but that was unrefined.


  3. My first principle with oils is that whatever I use, I try to keep it under its smoke point. My tadkas are all done before the oil has started smoking but after it has started shimmering in the pan. This is just my rule of thumb and allows me to use any kind of fat, as I long as I’m aware of its characteristic.
    So for everyday cooking I use pure olive oil, which has a higher smoke point that xtra virgin. For strong flavors I use mustard oil (but I don’t let it smoke as most recipes suggest). I use ghee a lot too, for parathas and such, and often butter for Western cooking. Coconut oil for South Indian dishes.
    I tend to not like the overly refined oils. Also I never use hydrogenated fats like shortening. Their day has come and gone.
    Thanks for this informative article. I have bookmarked it.


    • That’s true. It is possible to avoid smoking oil if we do the tadka carefully. I have noticed too that smaller variety of mustard seeds take less time to pop, and we can add chillies and curry leaves that contain water and will immediately lower the temperature.
      I avoid hydrogenated fats too. Even if the label says zero trans fat, it is bound to contain some.
      thanks for your input, Aneela!


  4. I liked this article…. I feel that coconut oil and ghee are nowadays under appreciated. They likely have some medicinal and healings benefits (for example, my grandma insists that ghee should be added to a woman’s post partum diet) and may be included in small quantities on a regular basis.


    • yes, Vidya, that’s true. There is a revival of interest in coconut oil these days and in the ayurvedic benefits of ghee too. Some saturated fat is necessary for the body. thanks for your comment!


  5. My husband and I follow a no-oil plant based diet. We first heard about this diet at a healthy cooking class we took at Whole Foods Market and then read more about it in books like “My Beef with Meat”. This doesn’t me that we don’t eat fat, we just get our fat from whole foods like nuts and avocados. We’re not perfect at following this diet, it’s almost impossible to eat oil-free when eating out, but we do it maybe 90% of the time. I’m really sold on the health bennies of this way of eating. If you’re curious, here’s a link:

    I thought it was going to be impossible to cook and bake without oil, but I just had to learn how to do it. I know that a no-oil diet is not for everyone, but I just thought I’d share. Hope you’re having a great week! Celeste 🙂


    • I’ve watched the Forks over Knives and E2 kitchen Rescue Diet documentaries and have been very impressed by them. I did contemplate for a while about giving up oil in my almost vegan diet. But it is hard to make Indian food with absolutely no oil, and decided to think about it if I get heart disease! Thanks for your input, Celeste. It’s good to see you back after your vacation!


  6. Pingback: Did you know there are 2 types of Coconut Oil? (The Oil dilemma- part 2) | Eating Well Diary·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s