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Nutrition

Are Seed Oils Like Canola Bad for You? Experts Say They’re Okay — But These 2 Picks Are Better

If you're keen on keeping your seed oils, find out what to look for to maximize the health benefits

You may have heard from influencers on social media that you should throw away everyday oils like canola and sunflower. They say these pantry staples can wreck your health. But are seed oils bad for you?

These cooking oils have been used around the world for generations. You likely reach for canola oil to make stir-fries or mix sunflower oil in your salad dressing. Are these non-saturated fats causing inflammation and making us sick, as some people claim? Or can they be a healthy part of a balanced diet? We asked registered dietitians to get to the bottom of this hot-button issue.

What are seed oils?

“Seed oils are any oil extracted from the seeds of plants,” says Michelle Routhenstein, MS RD CDCES CDN, Preventive Cardiology Dietitian at EntirelyNourished.com and member of the Medical Advisory Committee for the National Menopause Foundation. Canola oil, soybean oil and sunflower oil are some of the most common. “They differ from other oils in their fatty acid composition, their generally neutral flavor profile and their smoke point,” says Routhenstein.

This neutral flavor profile means seed oils don’t contribute a strong flavor to your cooking like olive oil does. You wouldn’t want to bake a cake with olive oil, for example, unless you specifically wanted that flavor. The cakes you make with canola oil, however, will taste only of chocolate, vanilla or whatever other flavors you add. You can also use seed oils in recipes that call for high-heat roasting, frying and grilling because they don’t burn as easily as olive oil or avocado oil.

Historically, seed oils gained popularity in the mid-20th century as a healthier alternative to animal fats like butter and lard. Their high smoke points and neutral flavors made them a versatile choice in both home and restaurant kitchens. But the recent debates about their health effects may have left you wondering if seed oils are actually bad for you.

Are seed oils bad for you? The upsides

Despite the controversy, seed oils do offer some health benefits. They’re a rich source of essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, in particular, play crucial roles in our body.

In fact, people who use unsaturated fats like canola oil instead of saturated fats like butter have lower cholesterol, found a study in Nutrition Review. Canola oil has also been shown to have positive effects on glycemic control, blood pressure and cancer.

Routhenstein says it’s the fatty acid profile in seed oils that provides the benefits. “Linoleic acid (LA) is an omega-6 fatty acid found in various plant oils, such as sunflower, soybean and canola oil,” she explains.

Research suggests that linoleic acid deficiency may increase the risk of heart disease. That’s thanks to its role in maintaining heart health, including lowering LDL cholesterol and supporting cardiovascular function. Another study of omega-6 linoleic acid suggests that it can protect against inflammatory conditions. “Seed oils are also rich in vitamin E and phytosterols, which have antioxidant properties,” adds Routhenstein.

Read also: The Easy Cooking Oil Swap That Studies Show May Lower Cholesterol, Help Your Brain Stay Young and Reduce Inflammation

Are seed oils bad for you? The downsides

Close-up of a woman looking at seed oil at the grocery store, wondering if seed oils are bad for you
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Even if seed oils aren’t as bad as you may have heard, you still might want to limit them. Especially when you realize that most of the seed oils in your diet aren’t the ones you use in the kitchen, but the ones food companies use in their factories.

“The biggest health risks stem from how we usually consume seed oils — in heavily processed foods,” says Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and wellness expert and founder of Sam’s Plate. The problem isn’t so much about home cooking oil, where you can buy less-processed seed oils. It’s more about the heavily-processed seed oil found in the processed foods that make up a large part of our diet.

Cassetty says ultra-processed foods (UPFs) have an excessive mix of added sugars, salt, saturated fats and refined carbs that you don’t find at home or restaurant kitchens. “The majority of calories Americans eat come from these ultra-processed foods,” she says.

And the health risks associated with ultra-processed foods are well documented. Though the research doesn’t look specifically at seed oils, seed oils are a ubiquitous ingredient in UPFs. “Studies linking ultra-processed foods to health problems come out almost weekly at this point,” says Cassetty. One recent study links consumption of processed foods with an increased risk of death.

Balancing your omegas is key

Though seed oils, rich in omega-6 fatty acids, don’t directly cause inflammation, they can contribute to it when you eat too much of them. It’s all about the delicate balance of omega-6s, which are overabundant in most people’s diet, and omega-3s, which tend to be scarce. A small amount of omega-6s are a healthy part of your diet. But when you eat too much, you disrupt the balance of omega-6s and omega-3s.

“We eat a disproportionate amount of heavily processed foods made with omega-6 rich seed oils compared to omega-3 rich whole foods, such as walnuts, ground flaxseed, salmon and sardines,” says Cassetty. It’s this imbalance that increases inflammation in the body, according to Routhenstein and Cassetty.

What to look for in seed oils

If used in moderation, there’s no reason to ban your bottle of canola oil, especially if you choose that oil more carefully. Typically, the less refined (heat-treated, bleached) an oil is, the better it is for you. You can find cold-pressed, unrefined sunflower oil at specialty markets or online. The more heavily refined an oil is, the less polyphenols and antioxidants it will have.

“Anyone on social media who is fear-mongering about food should be unfollowed immediately,” says Routhenstein. “I am seeing more and more of a culture where we focus on what to avoid and never discuss what we need to add to the diet that will optimize our health and contribute to graceful longevity.”

2 healthier alternatives to seed oils and 1 to limit

Just because seed oils aren’t as bad as some people say doesn’t mean they’re the healthiest option. Both Routhenstein and Cassetty suggest using non-seed oils most of the time. Their top two picks:

1. Olive oil

“I’d suggest extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) as your go-to,” says Cassetty. “It’s the main oil used in the Mediterranean diet, and it’s associated with numerous benefits.” She says olive oil is rich in beneficial monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) and contains more than 30 different antioxidant phenolic compounds.

“These compounds protect your cells from the free radical damage and inflammation that instigate diseases and accelerate aging,” she adds. “Polyphenols also have prebiotic activity, so they nourish a diverse gut microbiome, which is a marker of a healthy gut environment. It’s nearly impossible to maintain good health without a healthy gut. Your gut microbiome plays a role in regulating mood, inflammation, immune functioning, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Seed oils don’t have these beneficial compounds.”

2. Avocado oil

avocado oil and cut avocado on cutting board, which is a healthier alternative to seed oils
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Routhenstein also recommends avocado oil. “It has a higher smoke point than olive oil, and it’s abundant in monounsaturated fats,” she says. “Given its higher smoke point, it retains its beneficial monounsaturated profile. Plus it minimizes the risk of harmful compound formation when cooking at high temperatures and potentially promoting better health outcomes.”

Use coconut oil in moderation

If you’re thinking of swapping out another oil for your seed oil, Routhenstein warns that one popular choice should be used only in moderation. “Coconut oil is 86% saturated fat, which is known to increase LDL and apoB levels, markers for potential plaque formation,” she says.

“The American Heart Association issued a presidential advisory stating that lowering dietary saturated fat and replacing it with polyunsaturated fat [such as canola oil] lowers the risk of heart disease,” says Cassetty.


Discover more health benefits of oils, plus ones to avoid:

What Happens If You Drink Olive Oil Everyday? Top Docs Share the Surprising Health Perks

Olive Oil and Lemon Juice: The TikTok-Trendy Duo That May Deliver Real Health Benefits

Hydrogenated Oils Can Raise Your Risk of a Heart Attack, Increase Insulin Resistance + Make You Feel Sad — How to Avoid Them

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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