Oil is an essential part of many recipes, whether it is used as a dressing, a cooking agent or to add body to a sauce, salsa or dip. There are many different cooking oils available and they vary in appearance, flavor and what they are best used for. Whilst oils, such as olive, coconut and sunflower, remain the most popular, there are an increasing number of options entering the mainstream. Vegans need to be careful when shopping to avoid hidden ingredients that are either derived from or tested on animals. Because food products are legally required to include an ingredient list, it’s generally easy to do your research on the spot and see if any of these terms pop up on the list. For all other products, you’ll probably want to do some research first to make sure what you’re buying is as expected.
For a vegan, the most important quality of any item of food, including an oil, is whether or not it is vegan friendly. Today, oils are among the most controversial health topics, partially because there are many opinions regarding which oils are good for us and which we should avoid. Overall all oils are either plant-, seed - or nut - based, but some producers use still use animal cruelty in order to produce them. If you’ve felt this confusion, fret no more, as I will be highlighting vegan friendly cooking oils that’ll improve your meals and your body. So, let’s take a look at the most commonly used cooking oils and see if they are vegan or not and if there is anything users should be aware of.
There’s a lot of alarmist information out there that can really scare vegans, but it’s important to apply common sense to avoid getting scared by false information. The modern industrial food, pharmaceutical, and chemical industries are motivated by profit, and the fact is that livestock management, even in the horrific conditions they experience in the factory farming industry, is not as cost effective as using plant-based alternatives or synthesizing chemical compounds in a lab. In many cases (but not all!), manufacturers will choose to use the botanical or synthetic option. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be vigilant; many animal-derived ingredients sneak into seemingly vegan products, and it’s important to educate yourself with accurate information.
All of the oils listed below have specifically been chosen for this list because they hold up extremely well in vegan baking and general baking applications. Oils that are good for baking have the following qualities:
You might be discouraged by the pricing of avocado oil, but you also need to remember that health perks are worth the few extra dollars. Luckily, there are different sizes of avocado oil bottles that are available for affordable prices. One of the properties of avocado oil that makes it ideal for vegan dishes is its high smoke-point. Furthermore, avocado oil allows you to prepare vegetables, make salad dressings, bake, and, most importantly, you will get a vitamin E supplementation, which comes as an antioxidant. Avocado oil is 100% vegan friendly and is very good for your health.
One of the best benefits of avocado oil is the great taste! Unlike many other overpowering strongly flavored oils, refined avocado oil is light, fresh and perfect for food. Avocado oil can be easily used in place of olive oil, coconut oil or sesame oil with delicious results. It also makes delicious condiments, salad dressings and marinade for vegetables. Simply swap avocado oil in equal parts for your next oil based recipe to taste the difference. Have you heard someone say that avocados are made of “good” fat? That smart person was referring to heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. These omega-9 fatty acids have been proven to help reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol, and are considered an important part of a healthy diet. These fatty acids also have benefits for hair and skin, because they soak through tough outer cell walls to moisturize from the inside out.
While it’s true that you are what you eat, how you cook your food can be equally as important. When we cook, especially at high heats, the oils we cook with can burn and break down on a chemical level. Once the oil’s chemical structure begins to break down, it can become toxic and dangerous for human consumption. Yuck! Don’t panic, there's good news! Each oil has a different temperature the breakdown process begins, called the smoke point. Avocado oil has the highest smoke point of cooking oils, from 240 – 260 degrees, making it by far the safest oil for high heat cooking. Virgin oils are the least safe for cooking as they have an extremely low smoke point. For example, virgin avocado oil has a smoke point of 175 degree.
When you think of avocados, your mind may first travel south towards guacamole, but this delicious fruit is a heavy hitter when it comes to nutrition. Avocado oil is rich in vitamins A, B1, B2, D and E – all great for things like your cells, waistline, skin and even hair, but it doesn’t stop there. Lutein, a powerful antioxidant found in avocado oil, helps to keep our eyes young by preventing age-related eye diseases like cataracts. Avocado oil has also been shown to be effective against damaging free radicals that can cause major damage to our bodies on a cellular level.
Coconut oil is a popular oil choice that’s preferred by many people, especially those who stick to a vegan diet. One of the properties that makes coconut oil good is the fact that it contains saturated fatty acid, which is responsible for enhancing its stability to heat. The oil is also a perfect immunity-boosting solution, and for those who don’t want to keep oils in the refrigerator, this is a good choice because coconut oil is not affected by oxidation.
Coconut oil is very different from most other cooking oils and contains a unique composition of fatty acids. The fatty acids are about 90% saturated. But coconut oil is perhaps most unique for its high content of the saturated fat lauric acid, which makes up around 40% of its total fat content. This makes coconut oil highly resistant to oxidation at high heat. For this reason, it is very suitable for high-heat cooking methods like frying. Coconut oil is relatively rich in medium-chain fatty acids, containing around 7% caprylic acid and 5% capric acid. Epileptic patients on ketogenic diets often use these fats to induce ketosis. However, coconut oil is not suitable for this purpose as it has a relatively poor ketogenic effect. While lauric acid is often considered a medium-chain fatty acid, scientists’ debate whether this classification is appropriate.
Coconut oil is semi-solid at room temperature and it can last for months and years without going rancid. The fats in coconut oil can also boost metabolism slightly and increase feelings of fullness compared to other fats. It is the only cooking oil that made it to my list of superfoods.
Olive oil is a unique oil for a vegan diet because it is among few that are extracted by a fruit. The oil contains a large amount of healthy and flavorful compounds that include volatile aromatic elements such as esters and terpenes; pigments such as chlorophyll; and several antioxidants, including phenolic compounds and carotenoids. The process of making olive oil includes taking almost-ripe olives and grinding them to form a paste, which is then allowed to stay untouched for the oil to squeeze out. The first extraction is what is referred to as “extra virgin oil.” Similar to many healthy oils for vegan meals, olive oil contains a high amount of monounsaturated fats and a low amount of saturated and polyunsaturated fats, making it a stable choice for a vegan diet.
Studies on olive oil show that despite having fatty acids with double bonds, you can still use it for cooking as it is fairly resistant to the heat. Make sure to choose quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It has much more nutrients and antioxidants than the refined type. Plus it tastes much better. Keep your olive oil in a cool, dry, dark place, to prevent it from going rancid.
Keep in mind that oils are usually composed of different types of fatty acids. For example, olive oil is 73% monounsaturated, 11% polyunsaturated and 14% saturated. Because olive oil is high in antioxidants and vitamin E, it provides significant natural protection from oxidative damage. Olive oil is very stable overall, even under extreme conditions like deep frying. The smoke point of an oil is the temperature at which it starts to degrade and produce visible smoke. While it’s difficult to determine an oil's exact smoke point, a range can provide a good estimate. Some sources put the smoke point of olive oil somewhere around 190–207°C.This makes it a safe choice for most cooking methods, including most pan frying. Not only is it an excellent cooking oil, but it is also one of the healthiest.
There are many nut oils available and some of them taste awesome. However, they are very rich in polyunsaturated fats, which make them a poor choice for cooking. They can be used as parts of recipes, but do not fry or do any high heat cooking with them. The same applies to peanut oil. Peanuts technically aren't nuts (they're legumes) but the composition of the oil is similar. There is one exception, however, and that is macadamia nut oil, which is mostly monounsaturated (like olive oil). It is pricey, but I hear it tastes awesome. If you want, you can use macadamia oil for low- or medium-heat cooking.
On the other hand, peanut oil is a good source of vitamin E, an antioxidant that has many health benefits like protecting the body from free radical damage and reducing the risk of heart disease. Peanut oil is high in monounsaturated fat, making it a popular choice for high-heat cooking.
In addition to providing heart-healthy fat, peanut oil contains phytosterols. These plant compounds block the absorption of cholesterol from food, reducing the amount of cholesterol that ends up in your blood. Both unrefined and refined peanut oils contain more phytosterols than extra-virgin olive oil — another common source of monounsaturated fat. Peanut oil has a high “smoke point” —the temperature at which the oil begins to break down, which may cause an unpleasant odor or taste. Peanut oil has one of the highest smoke point of cooking oils, from 240 – 260 degrees, making it by far the safest oil for high heat cooking.
Sesame Oil is a flavorful choice for savory cooking, especially sautéing tofu, vegetables, and stir fries. Toasted sesame oil has a richer, more intense flavor than cold-pressed and un-toasted varieties, and is an awesome option for true sesame lovers! Sesame oil is rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids and antioxidant vitamin E, and thus may help mitigate against hypertension and certain types of cancer, and improve overall cholesterol profiles. Peanut Oil is also an excellent choice for sautéing and stir fries, adding a delicious flavor and richness to vegetables, tofu, and tempeh dishes. With a high smoke point, peanut oil can also be used for frying. It’s is a good source of vitamin E, and is high in mono- and poly-unsaturated fats.
Much of what we have said about olive oil also applies to sunflower oil and yes, it is also vegan. This is great news, especially given so many food products, for example crisps, are fried in sunflower oil. Sunflowers are relatively new to European shores, having arrived from North America in the 16th century as a decorative bloom. As such, mass production of sunflower oil is far less established than that of olives, although its production now far outstrips that of the Greek staple.
Sunflower oil is produced not from the fruit of the plant, as is the case with olives, but from the seeds produced by flowering Helianthus annuus (to use the horticultural name). Much of the sunflower oil used in the west is refined, meaning the oil is extracted using solvents and relatively high temperatures (approximately 150 degrees Celsius). This has some benefits but much of the flavor is lost, along, some argue, with many of the health-giving compounds.
Cold pressing on the other hand is a more traditional method still commonly used in the Caucasus, for example. This method essentially squeezes the oil out using pressure and is sometime called “expeller-pressed” oil. Whilst the mechanical pressure causes friction and some heat, the process is undertaken at a much lower temperature than with solvent extraction, thus the more unstable, delicate compounds and flavors are retained. Sunflower seeds themselves are an excellent source of vitamin E, a great way for vegans to get protein and also contain good levels of iron and B vitamins. Whilst much of the nutrient value is lost when the oil alone is consumed, sunflower oil remains a relatively healthy option, especially if we are talking about an unrefined product.
Industrial seed and vegetable oils are highly processed, refined products that are way too rich in Omega-6 fatty acids. Not only should you not cook with them, you should probably avoid them altogether. These oils have been wrongly considered "heart-healthy" by the media and many nutrition professionals in the past few decades. However, new data links these oils with many serious diseases, including heart disease and cancer. Avoid the below mentioned oils:
Corn oil - Like soy and palm, corn has a consistent big demand in the market. This is because it is easier to cultivate and is much cheaper than other oils in general. Corn oil is vegan in general but is not healthy. Genetic modification of corn crops can also risk contamination of animal genes.
Palm oil - It is derived from palm fruit, which grows on African oil palm trees. In principle, palm oil is vegan, but many vegans choose to avoid the oil, because they argue that extraction of palm oil exploits animals and causes them pain and suffering, something vegans avoid
Canola oil and Rapseed - Canola and Rapseed oil does not include any animal ingredients. It is a light vegetable oil derived from rapeseed plant. Canola oil does not have a great flavor which may have limited its use to cooking and baking. The association of rapeseed plant with Monsanto is another reason why vegans are uneasy with canola oil.
Cottonseed oil - Cottonseed is a less commonly known oil made of cottonseeds. Untreated cottonseed oil is actually toxic and often used as a pesticide. So it needs refinement before it's ready for human consumption. Cottonseed oil is vegan as it's typically free from animal ingredients. Cottonseed oil is high in polyunsaturated fat which can help lower LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and increase HDL (“good” cholesterol). But, it's also high in saturated fat, which has the opposite effect on cholesterol and increases the risk of heart disease.
Grapeseed oil - These fats tend to react with oxygen at high heat, forming harmful compounds and free radicals. Because grapeseed oil is incredibly high in polyunsaturated fats, it really is one of the worst oils you could possibly use for frying.
Anything That's "Partially Hydrogenated" - This can be anything, like partially hydrogenated vegetable and soybean oil. Hydrogenated oils and fats are extra-saturated and can increase "bad" LDL cholesterol and decrease "good" HDL cholesterol. They're typically found in processed foods and snack items with a longer shelf-life, so double-check those, too.
Safflower oil - Safflower oil may contribute to heart health in other ways too. The unsaturated fats in safflower oil can thin the blood and make platelets less sticky. This might help prevent blood clots that can lead to heart attack and stroke
Rice bran oil - Rice Bran Oil has a balanced amount of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated fats. It is also considered a heart-friendly oil that can help improve your cholesterol. "Rice bran might help lower cholesterol because it contains the right amount of oryzanol which is an antioxidant.
One study also looked at common vegetable oils on food shelves in the U.S. market and discovered that they contain between 0.56 to 4.2% trans fats, which are highly toxic. It's important to read labels. If you find any of these oils on a packaged food that you are about to eat, then it's best to purchase something else.
To make sure that your fats and oils don't go rancid, it is important to keep a few things in mind. Don't buy large batches at a time. Buy smaller ones, that way you will most likely use them before they get the chance to damage. When it comes to unsaturated fats like olive, palm, avocado oil and some others, it is important to keep them in an environment where they are less likely to oxidize and go rancid. The main drivers behind oxidative damage of cooking oils are heat, oxygen and light. Therefore, keep them in a cool, dry, dark place and make sure to screw the lid on as soon as you're done using them.