With endless options available in the market, choosing a healthy cooking oil has become very difficult.

The conflicting stories about vegetable oils, refined oils, saturated fats, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats make it even more hard to make an informed choice.

In this article, our endeavor is to sieve through the various studies and bring out data points to help you select cooking oil best suited for Indian cooking.

Essential Fatty Acid

A human body is capable of making most of its fats except two essential fatty acids. These two essential fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (omega 3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (omega-6 fatty acid) Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids play an important role in the normal functioning of the tissues of the body including brain cells.

The ideal ratio of omega 6: omega 3 fatty acids helps to build immunity and prevent conditions such atherosclerosis joint pain, ulcerative colitis, inflammation and even breast cancer. Therefore, it is not only important to incorporate good sources of essential fatty acids but also to consume them in the right ratio. The omega 6: omega 3 ratios should not rise above 4:1.  This is something you need to keep in mind while choosing a cooking oil. 

Types of cooking oil

The dietary fats or oils come in different chemical structure. It is important to understand these differences and how they affect our bodies and health after consumption.

  • Saturated Fats
  • Trans fats
  • Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFA)
  • Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid (PUFA)

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are so named because they are saturated with hydrogen. This makes them stable even when heated at high temperatures. They are largely animal-based fats (ghee, butter, cheese, lard) but also found in oils like coconut and palm oil.  Omega 3 fatty acids are found in ghee, butter, and cheese but not to the same quantity as found in fatty fish and flax seeds.

Since the early 1970s, we have been told that saturated fats raise cholesterol in the blood and cause heart disease. However, recent research says otherwise. No experimental evidence has ever found a direct connection between heart disease and saturated fat.

Monounsaturated Fats (MUFA)

Monounsaturated fats have a single carbon-carbon double bond. They have two fewer hydrogen atoms compared to saturated fats and this structure keeps them liquid at room temperature. Like saturated oil, they are also reasonably stable at high temperatures.

Monounsaturated fats can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood which can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. The important sources of monounsaturated oils are olive oil, avocado oil, peanut oil, and sesame oil.

Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFA)

Unlike single carbon-carbon double bond of monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats have two or more carbon-carbon double bonds. The presence of more double bonds makes them unstable for cooking at high temperature.They get easily oxidized when exposed to high heat and release harmful toxic by-products.

PUFA oils are soybean, sunflower, safflower, canola, corn and cottonseed oil.

Trans fats

Trans fats are synthetic fatty acids. In India, we know them as Vanaspati Ghee. They are the byproduct of a process called hydrogenation where hydrogen atoms are added to liquid vegetable oil under heat and pressure to convert them into solids. This process increases their shelf life and prevents them from becoming rancid. Examples of trans fats are fake whip cream, fake butter spreads, margarine, and shortenings. 

Trans fats are bad for health. They block the production of prostacyclin in your body. Prostacyclin helps to keep your blood flowing smoothly. Lack of prostacyclin results in blood clots and increased risk of heart disease. Trans fats also lower the healthy HDL cholesterol and increase the unhealthy LDL cholesterol. They are also known to impair brain health and memory. If you need a healthy lifestyle, then it would be best completely remove them from your diet.

The Good, bad and ugly – vegetable oils

The subject of vegetable oils like soybean, canola, safflower, sunflower, peanut, and sesame is very controversial. While the proponents of heart health promote vegetable oils as healthy options because of their optimum content of MUFA and PUFA, the holistic health brigade debunk them as harmful to overall health and well-being. What is the truth?

The truth lies in the process of manufacturing. This is truer for those vegetable oils that were hitherto not used for cooking but because of the modern manufacturing process are now amenable to extraction. Refined vegetable oils like soybean, corn, canola, sunflower, and safflower are particularly bad for health. These oils are of recent origin and have a very skewed ratio of omega 6: omega 3. To take an example, in corn oil the ratio is around 49:1.

Further, the high content of omega 6 fatty acids in these oil increases systemic inflammation in the body. Because of hydrogenation process, they are rich in unhealthy trans fats. Many studies have found that hydrogenated vegetable oils drastically increase the risk of heart diseases.

Though traditional seed oils like groundnut oil and sesame oil do not suffer from above disability care must be taken that you buy minimally refined oils.

Importance of smoke point

Smoke point is the temperature at which a heated oil starts to smoke. At smoke point, oil starts to release toxic and unpleasant smoke as the molecular structure of the oil is broken down. Toxic and bitter compounds are formed during the process which affects the overall nutrition of the food cooked. As mentioned above MUFAs are more stable at higher temperatures than PUFAs.

Choosing a healthy cooking oil

Coconut oil

Demonized in past, coconut oil is presently considered a healthy cooking option. With 90 percent of saturated fats, it is a very stable oil for frying. Studies have shown that unrefined coconut oil does not pose any threat to cardiac health rather it improves HDL. Its strong flavor, however, would either endear or repulse you depending on where you come from.

Olive oil

Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats, vitamins, and antioxidants. It lowers cholesterol and risk of heart diseases and strokes. Though it is a stable oil care should be taken not to use virgin and extra virgin oils for frying purpose.

Peanut oil

It contains a right mix of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated fats. It is good for diabetes. Peanut oil has a high smoke point and neutral taste that makes it suitable for frying.

Sesame oil

It is rich in magnesium, copper, iron and vitamin B6. It is healthy as long as you don’t overheat it. The unstable polyunsaturated fats present in sesame oil is not suitable for frying.

Mustard oil

Low in saturated fat, mustard oil is monounsaturated fatty acid particularly erucic acid. As per FDA warning erucic acid is shown to cause nutritional deficiencies and cardiac lesions in test animals. But in certain parts of India mustard oil is widely used.  It has high smoking point hence good for frying. It is better to use an unrefined version of mustard oil. 


Like coconut oil, ghee got a bad rap because of its high saturated fat content. But recent research reveals that ghee actually decreases the risk of heart disease and can help in weight loss. It has vitamins A, D, E and K as well as butyric acid and CLA which are good fatty acids. With a high smoking point, it is good for frying as well.

The right way to go

As far as mixing and matching of edible oils go, using more than one oil at a time or rotating oils is a good idea. You can use a combination of saturated fats and monounsaturated fats depending on the cooking requirements. For example use virgin olive oil on salads, fry with coconut or peanut oil and give your daal a tadka with desi ghee. Avocado oil is also a good option but it is not widely available in India.

As a general rule avoid trans fats and industrial oils like soybean, corn, canola, safflower, rice bran and sunflower oil.

Also, try and buy cold pressed oils that use pressure instead of heat for extraction.