By now, going fat-free is an archaic diet mantra. We all know the difference between healthy and unhealthy fats, and that adding fat to your diet has a trove of nutritional value. But there are nuances based on chemical composition of oils that can determine key health benefits, and risks, to using various oils in our diets.
Two of the healthiest oils out there are avocado and olive—both cold-pressed whole food–derived fats. But does one outshine the other? We’ve enlisted nutrition experts to give us the lowdown. Ahead, we break down the differences between avocado and olive oils, so you can make the best choice for your dietary needs.
All About Oils
Some of the most unhealthy oils out there are vegetable oils, says Lee, particularly “harmful industrial vegetable oils such as canola, soybean, corn, and sunflower, which are ubiquitous in processed snack foods and salad dressings.”
On the other hand, healthy oils are wildly beneficial. “Fats and oils from whole foods and other high-quality sources can steady our metabolism, keep hormone levels even, nourish our skin, hair, and nails, and keep the body functioning well,” says Lee. You also want to be wary of any oil that’s been refined (marketing lingo for processed), which messes with an oil’s composition and adds unhealthy by-products to your food.
“Not all oils and fats are created equal,” says Lee. “Heavily processed, hydrogenated trans fats and oils that are used in prepared packaged foods can be extremely damaging to the body by causing inflammation and oxidative stress.”
Poon underscores the importance of using quality, unrefined oils. “You want to look for brands that grow and harvest their plants with integrity, cold-press their oils, and make a truly unrefined product,” she says. “Avoid refined avocado and olive oils, as they are processed using high heat and chemicals.”
Lee notes that eating the right oils can help our bodies better absorb the healing properties of foods. “Healthy fats, like those found in avocado and olive oils, help with the absorption of essential fat-soluble nutrients in your meals,” she says.
What Is Avocado Oil?
Made from the fruit of an avocado, this oil is cold-pressed. Poon explains, “Avocados are harvested, de-pitted and de-skinned, and then mashed together. Later the oil is separated from the rest of the product, cold-pressed, and bottled for you to pick up at the market.” Avocado oil is, according to Lee, “rich in oleic acid and antioxidants. It’s excellent for brain and skin health, as well as being an anti-inflammatory.”
Poon notes that although there’s less research available about the health benefits of avocado oil, its composition of oleic acid and phytochemicals indicates that avocado oil can help support cardiovascular health. She points to a recent study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that indicates avocado oil can prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease in mice.
When choosing an avocado oil, opt for an organic variety, and make sure it’s “unrefined and cold-pressed,” according to Poon. Additionally, she says to make sure your avocado oil is green in color, as “yellow coloring indicates that the oil has been refined.”
Avocado oil has a smoke point of about 520 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Poon, which indicates it is an ideal choice for high-heat cooking. Avocado oil has the highest smoke point of most conventional fats and oils, next to safflower and rice bran oils.
What Is Olive Oil?
Olive oil is derived from cold-pressing olives. “Olives are harvested and mashed,” says Poon. “The oil is then separated, and then high-quality extra virgin olive oil goes through a cold-pressing process.” We’ve known about its health benefits forever. As such, you probably have a bottle of olive oil in your pantry right now.
But what makes it so great? “Olive oil is mostly composed of oleic acid, a mono-unsaturated fat which has been linked to cancer and cardiovascular disease prevention and is a powerful anti-inflammatory,” says Poon. She continues, “Olive oil also contains plant compounds called polyphenols that have been shown to deliver anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Research also demonstrates that they may have therapeutic benefits that support immune, heart, and brain health and may slow down the growth of some cancers.”
Lee concurs, adding that “high-quality extra virgin olive oil should be a staple in everyone’s pantry. It’s an excellent option that’s high in healthy monounsaturated fats, is anti-inflammatory, and can help lower bad cholesterol. It has been used for centuries around the Mediterranean and has become famous for its potential life-extending properties.”
As Lee points out, some olive oils are more beneficial to your health than others, and paying a premium price for high-quality extra-virgin olive oil is worth it for those looking to reap a trove of benefits from incorporating oil into their diets.
Poon elaborates, explaining that “extra-virgin is a designation that means that the oil is unrefined. This is the best olive oil out there.” She adds that she takes it up a notch, opting for “a high phenolic olive oil, which carries more potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. High phenolic olive oil can be pricey, but it delivers incredible antioxidant powers.”
Olive oil has a smoke point of 325 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Poon. Lee says that “it can still be used to sauté and for more moderate-heat roasting and baking. It’s also great raw.”
One key difference between avocado and olive oils is flavor profile, making their use largely subjective and depending on personal preference.
The other key difference is the smoke point. Every cooking oil, or fat for that matter, has a smoke point. A smoke point is exactly what it sounds like: the temperature at which an oil begins to smoke in a pan. When a fat is heated past its smoke point, it starts to break down and can release free radicals into food. “Smoke point refers to the concept that when oils are heated they degrade and cause potentially dangerous by-products,” explains Poon. Oils with lower smoke points, therefore, start to break down their fat components faster, which can compromise the integrity of your food and can also leave food with a burnt taste. Therefore, when cooking in high heat, it’s best to find an oil that has a higher smoke point.
However, Poon points to a 2018 Australian study that suggests smoke point is not the sole determinant of oil degradation. According to the findings of this study, stability of an oil can often predict potential breakdown on an oil when heated. “In this study, olive oil was slightly more stable than avocado oil when heated,” Poon explains. In other words, the chemical composition of olive oil yielded low levels of polar compounds and oxidative by-products when heated to smoke point.
These findings indicate that the difference in smoke points between avocado and olive oils might be negligible.
When to Use Which
Because both avocado and olive oils are both excellent sources of healthy fats, you can’t really go wrong with either. However, there are some key differences on when to use which for optimal health benefits. “Which one you choose depends on the flavor profile you are looking for and your cooking method,” explains Poon. “I prefer to use avocado oil for cooking and extra-virgin olive oil for cold applications, such as salad dressings or toppings.”
The Final Takeaway
Bottom line, as Poon notes: “Deciding between olive oil and avocado oil is really a matter of preference,” she says. The two oils have different taste profiles, and you may prefer one over the other for different methods of cooking. I personally prefer avocado oil for higher-heat cooking.”
Poon also has a word of advice—even when consuming healthy fats: “No matter how healthy, oils should be used in moderation because of their fat content—you can overdo it on healthy fats too.”