Quick: Name a healthy oil! Did you say olive? If so, you’re not alone. Most people rank this Mediterranean staple as the healthiest oil — and for good reason. Word has definitely gotten out about the benefits of its high antioxidant content and plant-based monounsaturated fats.
But for all its good-for-you vibes and sun-soaked glamour, this savory, deep-yellow oil isn’t the only healthy option on the block. Humble vegetable oil — yep, the generic-looking plastic bottle in the back of your pantry — has advantages of its own.
Granted, “vegetable” is a pretty broad category.
Vegetable oils can be derived from a dizzying array of plants, from pumpkins to grape seeds to sunflowers. But whereas olive oil generally comes (obvs) just from olives, vegetable oil is likely to be a mixture of oils, including canola, corn, soybean, palm, or sunflower.
So what’s the diff between vegetable oil and olive oil?
|a blend of plant oils, such as corn, sunflower, soybean, and canola
|dipping, sautéing, salad dressings
|baking, grilling, frying
|Vitamin and mineral content
|vitamins K and E, especially in extra-virgin varieties
|some trace micronutrients possible after processing
|minimal due to processing
Ready for an oily throwdown? We’re diving in to determine whether olive or vegetable oil wins for taste, health, and versatility.
Processing and flavor
Plants like corn, soybeans, and even olives aren’t exactly dripping with oil right off the stalk or tree. To fill a bottle with their oils, manufacturers put these plants through a process of extraction and refinement.
While both olive and vegetable oil blends must be heated and treated with chemicals to remove impurities, it takes quite a bit more effort (aka processing) to blend and refine multiple vegetables into a single oil. For that reason, vegetable oils require more processing than olive oils.
Research suggests that this amount of processing diminishes antioxidant content in veggie oils. It also blunts flavor. (Ever notice that vegetable oil doesn’t really taste like, well, anything?)
- Calories: 120
- Fat: 14 grams
- Protein: 0 grams
- Carbs: 0 grams
- Sodium: 0 milligrams
As for the specific types of fat in each, 1 tablespoon of EVOO contains 2 grams of saturated fat and 12 grams of unsaturated fat. The same amount of vegetable oil has 1 gram saturated and 13 grams unsaturated.
What a nutrition facts label can’t tell you, of course, is how processed a food is.
Processing of vegetable oils tends to remove naturally occurring anti-inflammatory compounds like polyphenols and tocopherols. Less-processed extra-virgin olive oils usually contain significantly more micronutrients, such as vitamins E and K.
We’ve gotta point out that, technically, olives are a fruit, not a vegetable — so comparing these two oils is a bit of an apples-to-oranges (or fruits-to-veggies) proposition. But oils made from olives and veggies do have things in common.
For one thing, they have similar smoke points (the temperatures at which oils begin to degrade, emitting harmful free radicals). Extra-virgin olive oil’s smoke point is around 390°F, while vegetable oil’s hovers just a bit higher at 400°F.
This means you can cook with the two in similar ways, like pan-searing and sautéing. (For higher-temp cooking, choose light olive oil. It can handle temps up to 470°F.)
Even in baking, both olive and vegetable oils have plenty of applications. In many recipes for muffins, cakes, and quick breads, you can use them interchangeably or even use a mix of the two. Just expect a stronger flavor if you choose olive oil.
As for your ticker, olive oil appears to have an edge over vegetable. A large-scale 2020 study found that higher olive oil intake was linked to lower risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease in both men and women.
The research on vegetable oils for heart health is a bit less clear-cut.
According to the American Heart Association, replacing saturated fats (like butter) with the unsaturated fats in vegetable oils significantly reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease — but some research has proposed that veggie oils high in omega-6 fatty acids could actually drive heart disease.
While we’re talking disease, cancer is worth a mention too. A 2015 research review on breast cancer found that, while vegetable oils weren’t associated with a higher risk of breast cancer, olive oil might go the extra mile and protect against it.
The likely explanation for these oils’ effects on disease comes down to one major factor: their ability to quell (or at least not promote) inflammation.
The jury is still out on whether vegetable oil blends are actually anti-inflammatory — though a 2014 review concluded that they didn’t increase inflammation. As for olive oil? Loads of research definitively supports its anti-inflammatory properties.
Besides oils from olives and veggie blends, there’s a whole lineup of other healthy plant-based fats just waiting to join your pantry’s roster. Any of these single-source oils makes for nutritious cooking, dipping, and more.
The “can” in “canola” stands for Canada, where this oil was developed in the 1970s. But don’t worry, canola oil isn’t created with test tubes in a lab. It’s derived from rapeseed plants.
A 2013 review suggests that canola oil could help reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and even improve insulin sensitivity.
Like the curvy guacamole-starters from which it comes, avocado oil is full of monounsaturated fats. These good-for-you macros are associated with healthy weight maintenance and lower levels of bad cholesterol.
The other bonus: A high smoke point of up to 480°F means you can use avocado oil for just about any type of high heat cooking.
Sunflowers aren’t just cheerful and pretty to look at — their oil is also high in vitamin E and mono- and polyunsaturated fats.
There’s some controversy over whether sunflower oil’s high omega-6 content is harmful in large doses. But the American Heart Association still lists this one among the healthiest oils.
Want more antioxidants? Research says sesame oil has ’em (and a nice ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids too). Try this Asian oil in stir-fries and noodle dishes or use it to add flavor to sautéed veggies.
Flaxseed or chia seed oil
With super high concentrations of the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid, flaxseed and chia seed oils make for heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory cooking. Just be sure to stash them in the fridge, since they oxidize quickly at room temp.
In a face-off between olive and vegetable oils, we’ve gotta admit, olive oil pulls ahead with its inflammation-busting antioxidants and minimal processing.
But even though it’s probably best to use olive oil more often than veggie oils, there’s really no reason you can’t use both.
Stocking your pantry with a variety of healthier vegetable oils like canola, grapeseed, or sesame gives you the freedom to cook with different flavors and at varying temperatures without sacrificing nutritional value.