By Jeanine Natale

The notion of extracting the oil from food has been around for thousands of years. Long before it even occurred to anyone that oil and vinegar are two great tastes that taste great together, people began pressing oil from fruit, seeds, legumes, and grains. What we've learned since then is that certain oils allow us to augment our diets in ways that are both healthy and delicious. The specific oils we're looking at in this article are olive, avocado, canola, sunflower, grapeseed, sesame, coconut (really!), peanut, and corn oils.

Each of these nine oils contain both mono- and polyunsaturated fats. In addition to helping to lower cholesterol and possibly helping prevent medical conditions like heart disease, they contain beneficial ingredients like vitamin E and some omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, and also help other essential vitamins get to where they can do the most good for your body. Furthermore, both mono- and polyunsaturated fats have been shown to lower disease risk in general.

Some of these oils are becoming increasingly more available in a variety of different forms. You've probably heard of virgin or extra-virgin olive oil, and if you like to frequent tiny gourmet-type boutiques that offer indulgences for your tastebuds, it's likely that you've seen the words "cold-pressed" on many a fancy label. This refers to oils that have been pressed very carefully at low temperatures to ensure the most taste and the highest nutritional content. Conversely, refined versions of these oils have been derived from second or third pressings, then usually processed at a higher temperature—these will have lighter, more neutral flavors, a slightly longer shelf life, and just generally a lot less good stuff.

Here are some ways to get the best use of whichever oil you choose. Don't forget, the cold-pressed and extra-virgin varieties will be more expensive and are offered in smaller bottles, as they have shorter shelf lives. Also, lower cooking temperatures ensure more retention of the very things that make these oils good for you when used wisely. You should always avoid the smoke point, or temperature at which all oils begin to burn. (When oils reach the smoke point, this means most if not all of the beneficial elements have been burned away). Besides, it'll probably make whatever you're cooking taste terrible, not to mention how bad all that smoke is for your lungs.

As for serving sizes and or RDAs of these oils, remember that they are all fat. Always use them sparingly—a tablespoon of any of these oils is approximately 100 to 120 calories, with about 14 grams of fat.

Presenting Our Natural Nine
  1. Olive oil. High in oleic acid, olive oil has long been touted for its beneficial properties, with many studies showing that it can help to lower bad cholesterol levels and even aid in the prevention of heart disease. Use extra-virgin or cold-pressed varieties for drizzling on salads, bruschetta, or even a cool, freshly tossed tomato and basil pasta—the distinctly dramatic taste of a fine-quality olive oil pairs well with, oh, just about everything. In a "proper" Italian restaurant, it's what you'll be treated to when you're first seated, served with fresh bread and sweet balsamic vinegar. The lighter, more refined varieties are good for stir-frying, sautéing, and baking.
  2. Grapeseed oil. This light, much thinner oil is high in linoleic acid—an antioxidant that helps promote healthy skin and aids in lowering bad cholesterol levels. Easily found in any health food store, grapeseed oil has been used in Middle Eastern cooking for centuries. If your local market has a decent international foods aisle, you should be able to find grapeseed oil there. Use grapeseed oil in just about anything you want, as it takes to being heated very well; stir-frying, sautéing, and searing are all quick, easy, and delicious with grapeseed oil. However, the delicate nutty flavor of the extra-virgin and cold-pressed varieties are exquisite for dipping, drizzling over cold salads like hummus or baba ganoush, or accenting all kinds of dressings.
  3. Avocado oil. Vitamin E is spoken here. Avocado oil tends to be a bit more expensive than the other oils on this list, as it's still somewhat of a newcomer to the food scene, and you can find it mostly in those specialty/gourmet stores we mentioned earlier. Extra-virgin avocado oil has a delicious fruity, nutty flavor, perfect for dipping, drizzling, and accenting all kinds of dishes. It also happens to have, hands-down, the highest smoke point, topping out at 520° for the most refined variety. Searing, stir-frying, sautéing, baking—a touch of this light, flavorful, versatile oil will definitely do you good.
  4. Sesame oil. High in antioxidants and vitamin E, sesame oil has been studied for its role in helping to reduce high blood pressure and lower bad cholesterol levels.2 There are a wide variety of sesame oils made from toasted (dark brown oil) and untoasted (light yellow oil) seeds. All varieties take very well to high heat, which is great for searing, and (of course) excellent for stir-frying! However, it's got a very distinctive smell and flavor, so you should use it sparingly, almost as an accent flavor in any type of cooking or in uncooked dishes. Be warned: Most of the sesame oils used for stir-frying are actually soybean oil blends. Read the label carefully if you decide to explore this flavorful oil.
  5. Coconut oil. Another vitamin E powerhouse, coconut oil might just be put to better use outside your body than in it. It's the ideal oil to use in making chocolate candy, since it's solid at room temperature, but melts in the mouth.3 That being said, it's also much higher in saturated fat than any of the others we've mentioned, something many experts feel your arteries might prefer to avoid. Like sesame oil, coconut oil does have a very distinctive taste and a relatively high smoke point, which makes it great for stir-frying, searing, sautéing, and baking. Do some research, then use it wisely!
  6. Peanut oil. A common item in any food store, peanut oil has long been used for everything from salad dressings to deep-frying. It's naturally high in the antioxidants that help keep your cells functioning properly, and some commonly available varieties are fortified with vitamin E. Peanut oil is generally more highly processed and has a light taste, although there are currently some finer-quality cold-pressed peanut oils on the market. One caveat: If you 're allergic to peanuts, it's best to avoid this oil.
  7. Corn oil. Similar to peanut oil in taste and versatility, you can find corn oil pretty much anywhere, and it's a good option for those with peanut allergies. It's naturally high in omega-6 fatty acids, but there's some controversy surrounding corn oil due to the ongoing GMO (genetically modified organism) issue. There are a few specialty stores that offer a virgin corn oil made with non-GMO corn, but it's difficult to verify this claim, as regulations and quality controls vary rather widely both in the U.S. and abroad. That being said, you can use a fine-quality corn oil for anything from salad dressing to deep-frying.
  8. Sunflower oil. Vitamin E and good-for-you antioxidants are in abundance in sunflower oil. A lighter, thinner oil, sunflower oil has become increasingly popular, a choice motivated by the trend toward eliminating trans fat from use in restaurants and manufactured food products. The typical refined varieties are available anywhere, but there are also raw and cold-pressed sunflower oils available at health food stores and online.
  9. Canola oil. Naturally rich in antioxidants, specifically oleic acid, canola oil is made from the rapeseed plant, which is found mainly in Canada. Hence the name "canola"—a take on "Canadian oil, low acid" that sounds smoother and has a better ring to it than "rapeseed." This light, versatile, nearly flavorless oil has gained increasing popularity over the last decade due to its health benefits, but also because of the controversy over GMOs. Because of all this publicity, there has been considerable transparency regarding the regulation of canola oil sources and products. While canola oil is highly processed (like your basic-variety peanut, corn, and sunflower oils), it does retain its high monounsaturated fat content. Just be sure you read the labels carefully, and always go for the finer quality products.