Indeed, that is what I affectionately call my fine friends: Mr. Safflower, Lady Cottonseed, Sir Soybean, Captain Corn, Senorita Canola, Sargent Safflower, and Her Majesty Sally Sunflower. All a bunch of hoodlums.
Why do I hate these oils, so? They are just trying to do an honest days work, greasing your pan and delighting your salad.
Or are they?
Where did they come from? Why are they here?
The short version is: money. Lots of money is made from cheap, mostly GMO oil. It started with faulty science—research that vilified saturated fats. And then companies seized the opportunity to create products for “non-fat” appetites. Clever marketing slowly brainwashed the masses—after all, who doesn’t love a product that’s cheap and allegedly “heart healthy”! Plus convenient. It’s a panacea of modern technology—no more clogged arteries!! Government agencies adopted new dietary recommendations, as did the American Heart Association and other prominent organizations. Doctors jumped on the bandwagon. Nutritionists followed suit. And the Pied Piper drowned us all in an ocean of vegetable oil.
This dietary transformation from good fats to bad fats has been one of the most detrimental human experiments of all time and it’s not yet over; Americans have steadily become more obese and unhealthy as these oils have infiltrated every nook and cranny of the American diet. They have largely displaced the traditional oils and fats that kept people healthy. If only people knew how vegetable oil was made…
How this crap is made
Vegetable oils are derived from seeds and beans that have undergone extensive industrialized processing that changes them completely from their original state. Some version of this formula is used for most industrial oils:
- Grind seeds into a coarse meal.
- Pulverize meal with hammer mills or grooved rollers.
- Apply extremely high heat and pressure to force oil out of seeds (the high heat results in impurities that will need to be removed later).
- Use the neurotoxin hexane or other petroleum based solvent to extract any remaining oil.
- Boil oil to release hexane. (Note that not all the hexane is removed and the FDA does not require or perform its own testing for residues)
- Refine oil by heating and mixing in sodium hydroxide or sodium carbonate.
- This creates lye which helps remove the chemical taste. The lye is then removed through a centrifuge (heat/steam).
- degum oil using steam, water or acid.
- Bleach oil earmarked for cooking by filtering it through activated carbon clays. Oils meant to be refrigerated are chilled and filtered to remove waxes.
- Deodorize oil with steam and a vacuum to neutralize rancid smell. This removes color, odor, and bitterness.
- Add citric acid to inactivate trace metals.
- Hydrogenate oil (make solid at cold temperatures) if it is destined to become margarine or shortening.
- Add preservatives like BHT and BHA to prevent spoilage so that they can sit around forever!
Sounds tasty, right?
But isn’t all food processed? We don’t just squeeze oil out of an olive with our fingers, do we?
Well I do, but it’s one of my superhero powers. lol.
Almost all foods require some processing, but there’s a fundamental difference between traditional and modern processing. The former relies on techniques like fermenting and sprouting that enhance the nutritional content and digestibility of food. Or cold-pressing, which retains the integrity of the food. Modern processing requires harsh chemicals and high heat which degrade and destroy the nutrients and often create toxic substances.
So if in doubt, use the following rule of thumb: if it is made in a factory using stainless steel vats, a deodorizer, a de-gummer, and petroleum-derived solvents, don’t eat it.
What about butter?
Good question. Let’s look at how it’s made:
- Milk the cow.
- Let cream separate and skim it off.
- Agitate until it becomes solid. Hello butter! You sound like a real food!
What about beef tallow?
Beef tallow has been around since the paleolithic era—probably enough time for our bodies to adjust to it 😉 It is a real food with a smokin’ high smoke point and it’s as nutrient-dense as it gets. Plus—fun fact—it’s actually a healthy and effective skin cream.
Want some proof? This is the best movie I’ve seen since The Untouchables, so grab some popcorn and get ready to have your socks blown off:
I know, you were going to watch the paranormalStranger Things tonight. But I promise you, this is even stranger, and arguably more of a horror movie. So snuggle up with your demagorgon and let yourself be horrified.
We weren’t meant to eat this stuff
Imbalance. The body requires things called essential fatty acids (EFA) to build cells and make hormones. Our bodies can’t make them so we need to consume food containing Omega 3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, which are both polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). If you go to a hospital website, or ask most doctors, vegetable oils are a great source of PUFAs. But most health professionals have no training in nutrition and have not studied the science: our bodies function optimally when we get roughly the same amounts of Omega 3s and 6s. This homeostasis (physiological balance) enables healthy cell function, good lipid numbers, and insulin regulation. The standard Western diet provides about 20x as much omega 6s as 3s. This video, by the neuroscientist David Sevran-Schreiber, explains it well. Most vegetable oils are high in Omega 6, so our bodies are dangerously out of balance. That’s reason enough to avoid all vegetable seed oils like the plague. But it’s not the only problem.
Toxicity. All fats have a temperature at which they oxidize—that means they become rancid and toxic. Saturated fat is heat stable. PUFAs are not—they oxidize at low heat and also when exposed to light, and air. When they oxidize they turn into free radicals, damaging cell membranes, blood vessels, and DNA strands. During the lengthy manufacturing process I described, vegetable oils—which mostly contain PUFAs—are exposed to high heat multiple times. Then they are transported and sit on store shelves and then you cook with them. By the time you buy them, they have already oxidized. So you are consuming rancid, deodorized oil.
Inflammation. What happens next? Inflammation happens. It can clog arteries, causing heart disease. It can mutate skin cells, causing skin cancer. It can damage reproductive tissue resulting in cancers like endometriosis. Increasing evidence shows that disease starts with inflammation.
Here’s the scientific-jargon explanation: The more double bonds in a fatty acid, the more reactive it is. Saturated fats have no double bonds. Monounsaturated fats have one. Polyunsaturated fats have two or more. This means that they react with oxygen. This causes structural changes to our cell membranes and actually damages our DNA .
What exactly does vegetable oil do?
When your body is out of homeostasis, Omega 6 polyunsaturated fats become toxic to the liver; they cause immune dysfunction; are linked to mental decline and chromosomal damage; and they accelerate aging and skin diseases. Consuming a lot of polyunsaturates is associated with increasing rates of cancer, heart disease and weight gain.
Want to get some good PUFAs? Eat raw nuts and seeds and refrigerate them in a container that blocks light. Macadamia nut oil is loaded with nutrients and great for high-heat cooking. Also eat fish and fish oils.
A special shout-out for my favorite villains:
Canola: Canola oil deserves a special place in Hell for deceiving not only the general public, but also chefs, even at illustrious restaurants. You can’t imagine my dismay when I discover that honest, health-conscious restaurants with ethically sourced food are cooking their organic and pastured ingredients in toxic oil. Unfortunately, industry propaganda has changed people’s thinking: Monsanto and the Food Giants have been marketing this oil for years as the magic bullet: cheap yet healthy. In order to placate skeptical chefs, who consider olive oil to be the golden standard, they concocted a Canola-olive “blend” (mostly Canola with a few drops of olive oil) to make the transition easier (and easier on the budget). That is what almost all restaurants use today. The industry literature claims that Canola is great because it’s just like olive oil—mostly monosaturated fat—unlike Sunflower oil, which is mostly Omega-6s PUFA. But there is plenty to hate. Canola is close to my heart, so I devoted an entire blogpost to it, but here are the cliff notes:
- Derived from the poisonous rapeseed plant.
- Hybridized to remove its heart-damaging erucic acid.
- Heated to 500˚ during manufacturing.
- May cause Vitamin E deficiency
- Recent studies show link to Alzheimer’s Disease.
- 85% of the world crop is genetically modified
- Expeller-pressed non GMO Canola, while free of hexane, may still be heated, so hard to know if rancid or not.
Soybean: The largest US crop after corn, soybeans cover about a quarter of American’s farmland. More than 90% of the crop is genetically modified. It’s high in unhealthy polyunsaturated oil and Omega 6s. It’s likely to contain hexane residue, which is even in organic oil and soy foods. Organic soy comprises only 1% of this crop. More than half of the vegetable oil Americans consume is soy. Read all about soy.
Cottonseed Oil: Comes from a plant that’s not even edible—cotton. This is widely considered the world’s dirtiest crop. Cottonseed oil is made from the by-products of cotton production—cotton seed, stalk, leaves, burrs, twigs, even dirt. This Gin Trash is sold to food companies to process into cottonseed oil. It notably contains Aldicarb, which is acutely poisonous to humans and wildlife. Read more about it!
Safflower: Originally used as a fabric dye (and should have stayed that way), safflower is the highest in unstable polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). Safflower also lacks Vitamin E, which protects your body from oxidative stress. Safflower can cause allergies in people who are allergic to ragweed and sagebrush pollen. In high doses it can cause stomach cramps, nausea, and vomiting.
Sunflower: Easily found on a supermarket shelf near you (and maybe in your pantry), sunflower oil has all the flaws of the other oils and none of the benefits of the enormously healthy seed. There is a cold-pressed variety which is less toxic —it’s called extra-virgin sunflower oil (or cold pressed/high stearic/high linoleic). Cold-pressing is less lucrative because it doesn’t force all the oil out of the seeds, so only a fraction of sunflower oil is produced this way. While better than the standard kind, and also better than drinking motor oil, it is still a poor choice: it’s high in PUFAs and therefore unstable and not good for cooking. Eat sunflower seeds instead!
Corn: First available in the 1960s, most corn oil comes from genetically engineered corn. In 1996, corn was genetically modified again with a gene from soil bacteria called Bt which breaks open the stomachs of certain insects. This deadly toxin hurts our stomachs, too. It can trigger immune system responses like allergies, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and multiple sclerosis. Corn is the most heavily subsidized crop in the country—that’s right: the government pays companies to grow more corn, and they get paid even if the market is so saturated that the corn can’t be used and needs to be destroyed. Corn finds its way into most processed food (often in the form of high fructose corn syrup and corn by-products), which makes it cheaper to produce. More about corn.
Margarine: This synthetic food was created in a lab in France. It was apparently invented because Napolean III was looking for a cheap alternative to butter for French workers and his armies in the Franco-Prussian war. This foodstuff is made by hardening vegetable oils. It was hailed as a miracle food for a long time and used extensively in the baking industry. Research shows that partially hydrogenated oils, the main component of most margarine, increases blood cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.
How come the Mayo Clinic and other hospitals and nutritionists recommend vegetable oils?
Double-blind placebo studies, the gold standard of Western science, are not a good tool for understanding nutritional impacts. In studies that evaluate oil consumption, researchers typically test subjects’ triglyceride levels (a marker of heart health) in order to demonstrate that vegetable oil is better than butter at lowering cholesterol. Some studies have found that PUFAs (found in vegetable oils) lower the bad cholesterol levels called low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. But it turns out that PUFAs simultaneously decrease the good cholesterol levels called high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. When both outcomes are evaluated together, the overall impact is not a beneficial one.
Studies usually isolate one measure of health. Studies test for a specific narrow outcome, like the cardiovascular impact of caffeine—without considering the overall impact on health. We can’t separate our heart from the rest of our body, so what happens to the rest matters. What if eating vegetable oil reduces cholesterol but leads to inflammation which leads to cancer? It turns out that participants in these same studies with lower cholesterol also had higher mortality rates.
Studies are too short. The effects of eating bad food are cumulative—they lead to inflammation first, and eventually to disease. It’s almost impossible to find a direct link to the disease because there are too many variables. Nutritional research is notoriously difficult and does not lend itself to double-blind placebo studies: you can’t keep 10,000 people in a controlled environment for 20 years while the control group is isolated in a separate space.
Self -reporting is inaccurate. Most nutrition studies rely on participants to remember what they ate and other aspects of their lifestyle and to record it accurately in questionnaires. But memory is not reliable and study subjects may also claim to be compliant when they are not, so the results are inherently flawed .
There are financial conflicts of interest. Who do you think funds a huge majority of studies on food? Bingo—the food industry. They have a particular agenda and they hire scientists who will selectively interpret data in their favor. It is important to look for conflicts of interest in studies.
Good oils and Fats:
What makes a good oil? Well, most of them have a long track record and were used by traditional cultures. They are all made of real food and are minimally processed using methods that maintain the integrity of the original ingredients. Incidentally, our bodies are made of fats—specifically saturated and monounsaturated fats. This is true even if you’re skinny, people.
Olive Oil: The oldest known oil, olive oil was first made by Southern Europeans about 3,000 years ago. It is traditionally made by pressing the flesh of fresh olives. It’s great for sautéing and as a salad dressing. It is fairly resistant to high heat, which makes it less prone to breaking down. It primarily consists of healthy monounsaturated fats.
Coconut Oil: Coconut oil comes from the “white meat” of the coconut. High in saturated fats, this oil is shelf-stable, meaning it has a long shelf -life and will not deteriorate. It also remains stable at high temperatures. It contains MCT acid (medium chain fatty acid) known as Lauric Acid, which has antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties. It’s rich in the antioxidant vitamin E, preventing the oxidative damage which leads to disease. For very high heat cooking look for a steam refined version.
Animal Fat: Has been used since the dawn of humanity. Grass-fed beef tallow and poultry fat are great for cooking and the safest oils for frying. They contain a near-perfect balance of Omega 3s and 6s as well as the vitamin D that most of us are lacking. Beef tallow has the highest concentration of vitamin K of any oil or fat, which is considered the “lost vitamin” that kept our ancestors healthy.
Eating animal fat actually reduces your impact on the environment because the fat of the animal often goes to waste. Just make sure it’s organic and grassfed or you will be consuming a chemical cocktail; this is because toxins naturally accumulate in the fat of an animal. I collect the drippings and juice from cooking lamb and chicken and drizzle them over my vegetables—yum.
Avocado Oil. Nutritionally similar to olive oil, avocado oil is high in healthy monosaturated fat and oleic acid. It also contains lots of Vitamin A, E, and D, plus magnesium and antioxidants. The avocado fruit (yeah, it’s a fruit!) is packed with potassium and has more protein and fats than any other fruit. The oil appears to increase your body’s ability to absorb cancer-fighting cartenoids. It can also penetrate into our mitochondria, increasing energy levels and reducing the effects of aging. It may improve liver function and can reduce skin damage from UV as well as reduce wrinkles. There’s not a lot to not like!
Ghee: Used for thousands of years in the healing tradition of Ayurvedic cooking, ghee is mainly used in India and the Middle East. It is produced by fermenting milk and churning the resulting curd to separate out the fat. This fat is churned until it becomes butter. With a smoke point of 485˚, it can be used for high-heat cooking. It is naturally rich in anti-oxidative properties and boosts your absorption of vitamins A, E, and K. It contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which has been shown to reduce tumors and high blood pressure. It’s also a good source of DHA, another essential fatty acid shown to reduce heart attacks, cancer, and insulin resistance and to improve cognitive function.
Butter: Butter contains butyric acid, which is anti-inflammatory, it boosts energy and metabolism, and it’s high in CLA, which helps fight disease. Be sure to only buy grass-fed, which is packed with nutrients.
Red Palm Oil. Palm oil comes from the flesh of the palm fruit. It is controversial because most crops have led to deforestation and habitat destruction, especially in the Amazon. Look for a brand that is sustainably grown and harvested. Nutiva is one example. Don’t confuse with palm kernel oil.
Sesame. Should be extra-virgin. Use sparingly for low-heat sautéing. Full of good nutrients like B-6, zinc, magnesium, and calcium.
So what can I use my vegetable oils for?
- a) clean your tools
- b) make play dough
- c) lubricate your car engine
- d) coat your snow shovel—prevent snow from sticking to it!
- e) soften your baseball mitt
- e) grease the landfill so food slides down to the bottom
Still not sure you believe it? Want to know more?
This is a very comprehensive read on oils and fats. Probably more than you ever wanted to know and substantiated with more links than you’ll ever have time for.
If you want to know the history of cooking oil and the minutiae of manufacturing, check this out.
Or, here’s a fun read, written by a comedian, that basically sums it all up while disrupting the establishment.
And if you really don’t have any time, just watch this quick video clip.