As someone whose job involves writing words on the internet, I’ve received my share of negative comments. But perhaps one of the most intense moments in my career is what I will call the Great Canola Oil Incident of 2016. I wrote an article about cooking oils, and the nutritionist I interviewed for the piece mentioned canola oil—and the Internet was swift to take sides. I discovered that canola oil is incendiary, and not just at 400 degrees Fahrenheit (ba dum ching). So it is with a small amount of hesitation that I turn my attention, once again, to the topic of cooking oils. Specifically, how worried should we be about the cooking oil used in restaurants?
When you go out to eat, your food is probably cooked in an industrial oil like soybean, canola, corn, or cottonseed oil. “They are inexpensive, are quickly produced, don’t have distinctive flavors so they won’t alter your dish, and can be used for a variety of foods,” says Amy Shapiro, RD, Daily Harvest‘s nutritionist. They also have a high smoke point, she says, meaning that they can be cooked at very high heats before they start to burn and smoke. “Nicer places might opt for olive oil as a finishing oil on salads or appetizers because it has a nice taste,” Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, adds.
Canola and other industrial oils have a bad reputation, and for good reason—they “are made under high heat which oxidizes them, creating harmful byproducts that are unhealthy for us,” Shapiro says. “This process [creates] trans fats which are very unhealthy, as they tend to lower our good cholesterol and increase our bad cholesterol levels. Read: not heart protective.” The oils are potentially inflammatory due to their high omega-6 fatty acid content. Many of these industrial oils are also derived from GMO crops and while research has generally found GMOs to be safe, many experts and consumers prefer to steer clear. Most experts prefer olive oil, coconut oil, or ghee instead since these oils don’t have the above-mentioned downsides.
Looking for a healthier cooking oil? Let us re-introduce you to olive oil:
However, Shapiro emphasizes that having these types of oils once in a while “isn’t terrible.” (So don’t start spending sleepless nights thinking about every time you’ve ever eaten at a restaurant.) She adds that “likely the benefits of the social aspects [of eating out] help to balance out the negatives.” Rizzo agrees that the occasional meal out isn’t cause for concern. “The restaurant chef likely uses more oil than you would at home, which can make the calories higher than you would normally eat,” she says. But that alone shouldn’t deter you from enjoying a meal out with friends.
The only people who should be concerned about a restaurant’s cooking oils are those with food allergies, says Shapiro. In those cases, she says you should absolutely ask about what cooking oils are used, “since they may contain allergens such as peanut oil or seed oils.” Similarly, people with a gluten sensitivity or allergy should double-check with the restaurant about their cooking practices, since frying oils in particular are often used over and over again—”so something dipped in breadcrumbs can be fried in the same oil as potatoes,” she says. Rizzo adds that people with a history of serious disease, like heart disease, should also be mindful about their industrial oil intake.
TL;DR: Out of all the things in the world to be anxious about—climate change, low-rise jeans coming back into style, etc—if you’re an average, healthy person, consuming a bit of canola oil on occasion while eating out isn’t really one of them.
Need more healthy tips for eating out? Dietitians share the healthiest orders at P.F. Chang’s and Chipotle.