Soybean, safflower, sunflower, olive, peanut and corn oils. Given all the choices and all the slick claims, the trip through the oil aisle can be tricky for health-conscious shoppers. And now comes canola, high in monounsaturated fats and lower in saturated fats than any oil on the market.

From a health and cooking standpoint, is it worth making a switch?

The first thing to remember is that no vegetable oil contains cholesterol and that they all are about equal in calories (120 per tablespoon). Secondly, all oils are fats. Thus, since health authorities are recommending that Americans' number one dietary priority be to reduce total fat, no matter which vegetable oil you buy, the idea is to use it judiciously.

"If you still eat a high-fat diet, it {canola} won't be your saving liquid," said Nancy Wellman, president of the American Dietetic Assn. As for people who have really cut back on fat, added Wellman, "the relative differences between oils isn't that critical."

The number two dietary recommendation for Americans is to eat less saturated fat.

In that sense, "canola has a nice profile," said James Cleeman, director of the National Cholesterol Education Program at the National Institutes of Health.

So, too, however, do other vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, et al. Animals fats such as butter and beef fat, or tropical vegetable oils such as coconut and palm have far more saturated fat than any of these traditional vegetable oils. But when it comes to a comparison between canola and, say, safflower or soybean oil, how much difference in saturated fat is there? And is it enough to matter?

If you used two tablespoons of canola oil a day instead of the same amount of safflower oil, you'd save about a gram of saturated fat, said Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group. If you used canola to replace two tablespoons of soybean oil, you'd save 2 1/2 grams of saturated fat.

"It's not a huge difference," said Liebman, "but it doesn't mean it's no difference." Liebman stressed that the savings are small compared to cutting down on the foods that contribute the most saturated fat to the diet, such as meat, cheese and whole milk. But "it's also true that every little bit counts," she added.

While most health experts would agree that canola and other nontropical vegetable oils are preferable because they replace saturated fat, what gets more complicated is whether that replacement should be a monounsaturated or a polyunsaturated oil. Canola oil is monounsaturated.

"The evidence that one is better than the other is equivocal," said Robert Nicolosi, professor in the department of clinical science at the University of Lowell, and a member of the nutrition committee of the American Heart Assn.

Indeed, in recent months, a number of studies questioning the heart-healthy benefits of olive oil (a monounsaturated oil) versus polyunsaturated oils have perpetuated the rifts between scientists on the subject.

Cleeman said he doesn't believe there's enough scientific consensus to recommend one type of oil over another. "It's the substitution from saturated fats that's important," he said.

As for which oils are preferable in certain types of recipes, most liquid vegetable oils -- with the exception of olive -- are virtually tasteless and can be used interchangeably in baking, saute'ing, stir-frying or any other preparation. (While many cooks seem to prefer peanut oil for stir-frying, Shirley Corriher, an Atlanta-based cooking teacher, says that it really doesn't matter. The practice got started here because it is used in the Orient, but the type of peanut oil sold there is not refined like ours and has a true peanuty flavor, according to Corriher.)

As for whether canola has any special characteristics, "our experience is that you can use canola for any purpose you use other oils," said Robert Norrish, spokesman for Procter & Gamble, which makes Puritan Oil, a pure canola product.

Olive oil, on the other hand, does impart a fuller flavor than the other oils and should be saved for salad dressings, drizzling over tomatoes or other preparations where the oil is a featured ingredient.

As for price, olive oil can be anywhere from two to five times as expensive as other vegetable oils. Depending on the brand, canola oil is either slightly higher than some other vegetable oils, or lower. (Last week, a Bethesda Safeway was selling a quart of Puritan Oil for $2.79, Crisco soybean oil for $2.59, Mazola corn oil for $2.67 and Hollywood safflower oil for $3.49. Safeway's house brand canola oil was less expensive than all of them, at $2.39. On the other hand, Pompeiian olive oil was $6.99 a quart, Bertolli was $6.58.)

Whichever you chose, here are a few tips on how to use less oil:

To cut down on the amount of salad dressing, make sure the lettuce is completely dried. Corriher said that water dilutes dressing and prevents it from properly adhering to the leaves.

To cut down on the amount of oil in salad dressing, don't use more vinegar. Either dilute the dressing with water or add a little wine in its place, Corriher suggests.

Recipes often call for saute'ing in more oil than is necessary; use only the amount that's needed. Or, eliminate oil completely when saute'ing by using stock, vinegar or juice instead. Add the liquid as you need it, not all at once.

Instead of saute'ing onions or celery that will be added to soups or stews, steam them in the base of a vegetable steamer.