Q: I am looking for more alternatives to butter for cooking. What are some healthier choices?
A: When you’re cooking or baking, choose a fat that’s liquid instead of solid at room temperature. Replacing solid fat (mainly saturated fat) with liquid fat (mostly unsaturated fat) is linked to a lower risk of heart attack and death from heart disease.
To be clear, all fat — whether it comes from seeds, nuts, meat, milk, olives or avocados — contains a mixture of different fatty acids, the basic building blocks of fats. However, butter, lard, coconut oil and palm oil contain mostly saturated fatty acids. Most plant-based oils, on the other hand, consist predominantly of unsaturated fatty acids, which include both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
If you’re wondering whether any one of those liquid, plant-derived oils is superior to the others, the answer is no. Many experts recommend olive oil, which is a key component of the heart-friendly Mediterranean eating pattern. But there are many healthy oil options.
Olive oil is often a favorite choice to replace butter on bread, and it’s a common ingredient in salad dressings. Olive oil is also fine for cooking, but if you’re looking for a more neutral flavor, canola oil is a good alternative. Both of these oils have relatively high amounts of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat.
The FDA has approved a new qualified health claim for oils containing at least 70% oleic acid. Manufacturers of these oils can use product labels stating that “supportive but not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that daily consumption of about 1 1/2 tablespoons (20 grams) of oils containing high levels of oleic acid may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.” They’re also required to clarify that to achieve this benefit, these oils “should replace fats and oils higher in saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.”
In addition to olive and canola, other oils eligible to make this claim include high-oleic versions of safflower, soybean, sunflower and algal oil. In recent years, scientists have bred plants that produce even higher amounts of oleic acid. Oils that contain more monounsaturated oleic acids won’t break down as quickly when heated to high temperatures. They also have a longer shelf life than oils with more polyunsaturated fatty acids.
In 2017, regular soybean oil (the most widely used oil in the United States) also received an FDA qualified health claim that’s nearly identical to the more recent claim granted for high-oleic oils. Soybean oil, along with canola, walnut, and flaxseed oil, contains alpha linolenic acid — the main vegetarian source of essential omega-3 fatty acids.
(Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)
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