Which oil is best for cooking? Extra virgin olive oil vs coconut oil.


After an interesting conversation among a few of my dietitian colleagues over the weekend, I was encouraged to share my views on this ever so popular topic, which oil is best for cooking?

Those of you who know me by now, hopefully have realised that I tend to like to weigh up both sides to an argument around the inclusion or exclusion of a particular food, and then find a happy medium when drawing a conclusion. I find this ensures we are sitting on the safe side of practices, whilst still being aware of the potential new information and health claims that are increasing in evidence to argue the case of the ingredient inclusion in the diet.

So after sitting quietly watching a range of health advocates or self proclaimed experts push the coconut oil case to a new extreme of biased, I thought it was time to weigh in on a few facts and make reference to some of the claims I keep hearing.

1. Coconut oil has a higher smoke point than olive oil and therefore doesn’t turn rancid or oxidise when you cook it at high temperatures.

2. Coconut oil is higher in saturated fats and therefore is more heat stable than your other oils.

3. All saturated fats are more heat stable and therefore should be used for cooking, this claim also encompasses butter, lard and ghee…and includes claims around them being “natural”, containing fat soluble vitamins, and not being high in the ever so deadly omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids.

which oil is best for cooking? extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil?

just one example of a coconut butter/oil

Alright, so just to make one thing clear from the word go, I am not anti-coconut oil, and I am not opposed to someone using a tablespoon of butter here and there…I do however want to clarify a few things in support of sticking with the forever acknowledged benefits of olive oil, and the reason why you can obtain these benefits even when you are cooking (and incase you don’t want every single thing you cook to have a tinge of coconut flavour with it!).

For todays discussion, I also want to clarify that I am referring to high quality extra virgin olive oil rather than olive oil in general, this is due to it having a slightly different set of antioxidants present, which actually effect its heat stability.

which oil is best for cooking? extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil?

Regular olive oil which is not the focus of todays article.

which oil is best for cooking? extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil?

extra virgin olive oil and its health benefits

Extra virgin olive oil is predominantly made of mono-unsaturated fats, which are more heat stable and less likely to go rancid than your poly-unsaturated fats (which are often the predominant fat type in many of the cooking oils people compare coconut oils use to).

Virgin and extra virgin olive oil also contain a range of antioxidants, including tocopherols and phenolic compounds; These antioxidants actually help protect the oil from oxidising when it is heated.  Once over a particular threshold however, they can be damaged, and the benefits they could have provided are destroyed. From my research, polyphenols are more heat resistant that tocopherols (I’m yet to find a credible article with an exact temperature to make reference to, hence the lack of specificity on my behalf) .

The tocopherols, which are often grouped together and collectively termed Vitamin E, work their magic as antioxidants by reacting with the free radicals that are formed as a result of the poly-unsaturated fatty acids being heated, and unstable products becoming present.

This reaction between the unstable free radicals and Vitamin E, results in more stable products being formed, and prevents the oxidative chain reaction that otherwise could take place (which again is the general argument against consuming heated polyunsaturated fat rich oils).

Another example of an extra virgin olive oil

Another example of an extra virgin olive oil

So as you can see, the mono-unsaturated fatty acids, and the antioxidants that are present in extra virgin olive oil, are already playing a big part in their protection from being unstable when cooked.

After a lot of internet scanning, I decided to go with this table of smoke point values for common oils and fats, to ensure that I was using a source that even my paleo coconut loving fans would respect, marks daily apple (For those that are on the other side of the nutrition world, these smoke points did seem to reflect most of the tables I found elsewhere anyway).

which oil is best for cooking? extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil?

which oil is best for cooking? extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil?

Now, for further assessment, I went and tried to clarify what approximate temperatures are classified as high, medium and low on a stove top, to ensure that we are all clear on the actual temperatures that are commonly used in home cooking.

Most information drew the same conclusion, that a medium to high heat was around 375  – 400  degrees Fahrenheit or around 200 degrees Celsius. The type of pan or pot you select to cook with will ultimately effect how much heat is transferred to the oil and food that you are cooking with, but lets stick with these numbers as a base.

Most of the articles that discuss the heat stability of oils, refer to shallow fried and deep fried foods, as well as place a focus on longer duration cooking times (i.e the oils being exposed to high heats for an extended period of time, rather than just a couple of minutes). It should be noted that shallow frying foods expose the oil to more air, and for longer, than some other modes of cooking with oil; and that deep frying food often results in the oil being heated and then cooled multiple times (at least that is often the case when eating out as opposed to at home) which comes with its own set of negative health effects.

If you look at the numbers in the table regarding smoke points, and we take into consideration the actual temperatures that people use at home for cooking, you can see multiple things:

1. Coconut oil does not sit higher than the high quality extra virgin olive oil in regards to smoke point, and,

2. The smoke point of high quality extra virgin olive oil does not seem to be below the medium to high heat cooking temperatures that people are using anyway.

So with this in mind, I draw my personal conclusion:

You can cook with a high quality extra virgin olive oil.

I think there are a few extra suggestions that should accompany this conclusion however too:

1. Don’t put your stove top up to a super high heat, just keep it on a medium heat.

2. Try not fry your food for multiple reasons, heat stability of the oils merely being one factor; For example, why not just bake your meat or vegetarian patties to have as a burger or with a salad and avoid this whole dilemma?

3. Fats oxidise as they are exposed to air and light, therefore storing your oil in a cool and darker part of your pantry, rather than on the bench top, can also assist in maintaining the freshness of the oil, and preventing unnecessary oxidation.

An example of where not to store your olive oil

An example of where not to store your olive oil

4. Use a non stick pan and perform most of your heating prior to adding a bit of oil for flavour closer to the end of the heating process; this way you are not exposing the oil to heat for such an extended period of time.

5. Mix it up and use some of the other oils; Why not sometimes use the other super high mono-unsatured fat oil, avocado oil?

Avocado oil is rich in monounsaturated fats and has a high smoke point

Avocado oil is rich in monounsaturated fats and has a high smoke point

Avocado oil nutrition information and claims around it being useful for high heat cooking.

Avocado oil nutrition information and claims around it being useful for high heat cooking.

So there you have it, Travelling Dietitians thoughts on which oils to cook with.

I am aware that you will lose some of the nutritional benefits of the extra virgin olive oil through the heating process, however as a whole, it certainly isn’t “toxic”, and you still would be benefiting from the mono-unsaturated fats that it has to offer, and know that you are not going to have every piece of meat or vegetable (or whatever it is that you are cooking) taste like coconut (and this being said by someone who actually really does like coconut!).

I hope this article proves useful to you and is clear,

Feel free to pass it on the next time someone asks you about cooking oils,

Until my next post,

TD x

About The Author

Kara Landau aka "Travelling Dietitian" is an Australian Accredited Practicing Dietitian based in New York City. She is a world explorer, healthy foodie, social butterfly, and barre class lover. When she isn't trying new cuisines, researching new product innovations in the health food space, or speaking to the media on behalf of her food industry clients, she can be found quietly conjuring up her next idea in how to make this world a healthier and better place.

6 Responses

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  3. Derek

    Isn’t there a dispute between whether smoke point is a valid indicator of heat stability? I though I read somewhere that heat stability was independant of smoke point. Have you ever heard that argument?

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