The 6 Most Sustainable Vegetable Oils for Your Kitchen

As people become more aware of the need for sustainability, many are trying to make better decisions about what they buy for their homes – but change can be intimidating. From chemical-laden cleaning products to cosmetics, many environmental hazards lie in wait across the supply chain. And while people hem and haw about changing brands for some products, they often overlook everyday food staples – like cooking oil.   

We've examined several popular cooking oils for this roundup to identify the best sustainable option for your everyday cooking needs. Of course, sustainability often comes down more to farming practices than the actual crop, so your mileage may vary.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Most kitchens have olive oil on hand, especially since it's incredibly popular for roasting vegetables. As long as you purchase organic, olive oil can benefit the environment. According to one study, olive oil presents many opportunities to become even more sustainable and perhaps even a carbon sink. In some countries, olive oil is poised to become part of a circular production system.

Coconut Oil

Many people appreciate coconut oil for not needing pesticides, and farmers must collect it entirely by hand rather than using gas-guzzling machinery. At best, virgin cold-pressed coconut oil can be a low-impact product.  

However, as demand has increased, coastal mangroves have begun to be destroyed to make space for coconut plantations. According to The Independent, increased coconut oil farming has destroyed the habitats of many tropical species, and farmers can be abused or employ abusive practices. Therefore, doing as much up-front homework as possible on the brand is a good idea.  

Avocado Oil

Avocado oil can be produced sustainably, especially using organic practices. Some US companies prioritize good ethical and environmental practices. Unfortunately, the international avocado supply chain is largely unregulated, leading to ecological problems. When possible, buy organic to avoid pesticides. Also, purchase avocado oil harvested from smaller farms, which are less likely to chop down trees to start significant plantations.

Sunflower Oil

Although planting and collecting sunflower oil does not cause significant water, air, or land pollution, it consumes large volumes of water. Furthermore, it has a somewhat higher emissions rating than other vegetable oils. Processing sunflower oil also needs a significant amount of energy. Therefore, if you decide to use sunflower oil, we highly advise you to choose organic to guarantee the farmers use no pesticides.

Canola Oil

Canola oil is contentious cooking oil, and some condemn it for being genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant, and often requires the use of potentially hazardous hexane during processing. Nevertheless, canola oil that is cold-pressed and organic has almost no adverse environmental effects. In fact, it has the lowest emissions of every popular cooking oil – a fact recognized by the FDA.

Palm Oil

Although many palm oil-based goods claim to be "sustainably harvested," they are often sourced from palm oil farms that employ major deforestation initiatives. Nevertheless, oil palms are the most land-efficient oil crop and can be sustainable when cultivated in a way that does not engage in deforestation.

Key Takeaways
  • No Solutions, Only Tradeoffs – Sustainability is complicated, with environmental, economic, social, and health concerns. However, each oil can meet your goals in limited circumstances, so do your homework to find one that checks the box you're looking to focus on.
  • Low Processing – An excellent general rule is to buy relatively unprocessed oils. Extra virgin olive oil is a solid example because it has not been heated or treated during production. Of course, unprocessed oils do not last as long, so they are not great to buy in bulk.
  • Regulations – Oils produced in North America tend to be regulated much more closely than products from other countries. When in doubt, it may be easier just to buy something certified organic from the US or Canada – there is a lower likelihood of unfair labor practices and egregious environmental issues.