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Understanding cooking fats and oils

Choosing margarine

The more liquid the margarine is, the less hydrogenated it is with less trans fatty acids.

Margarine is a better choice than butter.

Soft margarines are better than hard ones. Buy trans fat-free margarines if possible.

How to choose cooking fats and oils

There are so many cooking fats and oils on the market, choosing which one to use can be difficult. Which ones are the most healthy for you when used in moderation?

  • Choose liquid oils that are high in monounsaturated fat. Choose canola, olive and peanut oil.
  • Choose soft (tub) or liquid margarines (such as Benecol®, Smart Balance® or Take Control®). Look for margarines that contain no trans fats.

Sources of cooking fats and oils

Knowing the source of cooking fats and oils is as important as knowing how they are made.

Saturated fats are mostly found in animal products such as butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream, lard and fatty meats. They are also found in some vegetable products, such as coconut, palm and palm kernel oil. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. They can raise your cholesterol.

Unsaturated fats come from both animal and plant products. There are two types:

  • Monounsaturated fats come from seeds or nuts such as avocado, olive, peanut and canola oils. Monounsaturated fat, in the right amounts, may reduce total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, the bad cholesterol. They are liquid at room temperature.
  • Polyunsaturated fats come from vegetables, seeds or nuts such as corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, cottonseed and sesame seed oils. Polyunsaturated fats can help lower cholesterol, if you use them in place of saturated fats. They are liquid at room temperature.

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats. They include flaxseed, flaxseed oil, soybean, soybean oil, canola oil, walnuts and fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, herring and trout). They help to lower triglycerides.

Trans fats are made when vegetable oils are processed (or hydrogenated) into shortening and stick margarine. Sources of trans fats include snack foods, baked goods and fried foods made with “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” or “vegetable shortening. Try to limit foods made with these ingredients. Trans fats can raise your cholesterol.

While some fats are healthier than others, limit added fats and oils to three to six teaspoons per day. Include fats used in cooking, baking, salads, and spreads on bread.

Comparing cooking fats and oils

The chart below lists the amount of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in one tablespoon of various fats and oils.

In general, the lower the saturated fat and the higher the monounsaturated fat content, the healthier the fat or oil will be.

Fat or oil Fat gramsMonounsaturated
fat grams
Saturated fat
fat grams
Almond oil14 10 1 3
Olive oil 1410 2 2
Canola oil 148 1 4
Peanut oil 14725
Lard (pork fat) 136 52
Chicken fat 136 4 3
Sesame oil 146 2 6
Beef tallow 135 7 1
Palm oil 145 7 2
Cocoa butter 145 8 1
Corn oil 144 2 8
Butter 134 8 1
Soybean oil 144 2 8
Sunflower oil 143 2 9
Flaxseed oil 143 1 10
Cottonseed oil 143 4 7
Walnut oil 143 2 9
Safflower oil 142 1 11
Palm kernel oil 142 12 0
Grape oil (grapeseed oil)142110
Coconut oil 141 12 1

Note: Numbers were rounded.

Source: Allina Health's Patient Education Department, Helping Your Heart, fourth edition, cvs-ahc-90648; Allina Health's Patient Education Department, Understanding cooking fats and oils, nutr-ahc-12725 (9/05); USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference (Release 14); National Sunflower Association; Flax Council of Canada
Reviewed by: Allina Health's Patient Education Department
First Published: 06/30/2003
Last Reviewed: 02/23/2011