by Jeremy Michaels
There has been a lot of questions about what fats and oils to use for cooking for health. It makes sense; after all there is a lot of confusion about fat in general. And with the increasing hype over “heart healthy” vegetable oils and their sky-rocketed consumption level, it’s no wonder people have questions about these highly over-recommended products. So let’s talk vegetable oils: What are they? Why you should avoid them? And what are the best fats and oils for cooking?
Ready? Let’s do this.
Vegetable Oils: What are they really?
Vegetable oils are oils that have been extracted from various seeds. The most common include rapeseed (canola oil), soybean, corn, sunflower, safflower, peanut, palm, etc. Unlike coconut oil or olive oil that are extracted by pressing, these new-fangled oils have to be extracted in very unnatural ways.
A non-traditional food with a questionable short history
Unlike traditional healthy fats (butter, olive oil, lard, etc.) our industrial vegetable oils are a very new addition to the “food world”. In fact, they were practically non-existent until the early 1900s. But with the invention of certain chemical processes and a need for “cheap” fat substitutions, the world of fat hasn’t been the same since.
Consider that at the turn of the 20th century that amount of vegetable oils consumed was practically zero. Today the average consumption is 70 lbs a year per person.
Of course that number jumped dramatically once the campaign against saturated fats and cholesterol took its public rampage. (Hint: Cholesterol and Saturated Fat are essential to good health.)
Even today, despite the fact that heart disease and cancer continue to rise at an alarming rate while butter consumption is down (and vegetable oil consumption is at an all-time high), people are still believing the hype and buying this very non-traditional, non-healthy unnatural processed food-like products.
Vegetable oils: an unnatural process from the start.
Before we talk about the process by which vegetable oils are made, let’s first look at one of best traditional healthy fats: Butter.
Butter is a simple process that comes when cream separates from milk. This is a natural process that only takes a little patience. Once the cream and milk have separated, all you need to do is skim off the cream and shake it until it becomes butter.
Now let’s compare that to the production of canola oil. Here’s an overly simplified version of the process:
Step 1: Find some “canola seeds.” Oh wait, they don’t exist. Canola oil is actually made from a hybrid version of the rapeseed: most likely genetically modified and heavily treated with pesticides.
Step 2: Heat the rapeseeds at unnaturally high temperatures so that they oxidize and are rancid before you ever buy them.
Step 3: Process with a petroleum solvent to extract the oils.
Step 4: Heat some more and add some acid to remove any nasty wax solids that formed during the first processing.
Step 5: Treat the oil with more chemicals to improve the color.
Step 6: Deodorize the oil to mask the horrific smell from the chemical processing.
Of course, if you want to take your vegetable oils one step further, just hydrogenated it until it becomes a solid. Now you have “margarine” and “trans fat” (a deadly hydrogenated fat)
Why Are Vegetable Oils Unhealthy?
Hopefully at this point you can see how NOT real these oils are. And in my book, “not real” is reason enough to avoid them. So how can they continue to be marketed as “heart healthy”?
Along with the continued myth about saturated fats and cholesterol, these oils are promoted as healthy because they contain monounsaturated fats and Omega 3 fatty acids. And that’s what advertisers focus on to draw you into the fake health claims. But it definitely doesn’t paint the whole picture.
Without going into extreme detail here are the many problems with vegetable oils:
- The polyunsaturated fat issue: Vegetable oils contain very high levels of polyunsaturated fats. But did you know that the fat content of the human body is about 97% saturated and monounsaturated fat? Our body needs fat for rebuilding cells and hormone production. And it can only use what we give it. Polyunsaturated fats are highly unstable and they oxidize easily. These oxidized fats cause inflammation and mutation in cells. That oxidation is linked to all sorts of issues from cancer, heart disease, endrometriosis, etc. Polyunsaturated fats are bad news.
- The omega-6 fatty acid issue: There’s a lot of hype about Omega-3’s and how healthy they are. But what often gets neglected is the fact that it’s more about the ratio of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats that are critical to good health. You must balance the two. Vegetable oils contain a very high concentration of Omega-6 and these fatty acids oxidize easily. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce inflammation and protect against cancer. Unbalanced levels of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats have been linked to many types of cancers and a host of other problems. And, as you’ve probably guessed, most Americans are high in Omega-6 fatty acids and low in Omega-3’s. But people keeping buying into labels on vegetables oils that say “a good source of Omega-3s” without realizing that they are really just making the imbalance even worse.
- All the other bad and unhealthy stuff: Beyond the unnatural levels of polyunsaturated fats and Omega-6 fatty acids, there are all the additives, pesticides, and chemicals involved in processing these oils. Many vegetable oils contain BHA and BHT (Butylated Hydroxyanisole and Butylated Hydroxytoluene). These artificial antioxidants keep the food from spoiling too quickly, but they have also been shown to produce potential cancer compounds in the body. And they have been linked to things like immune system issues, infertility, behavioral problems, and liver and kidney damage. Oh yeah, and many vegetable oils come from genetically modified sources (GMOs). In a nutshell, these oils are extremely unhealthy. They’ve been linked to reproductive problems, low birth rate, hormonal issues, obesity, mental decline, liver problems, and the biggest problems of our day: cancer and heart disease.
The Following Are Oils To Avoid Completely
- Canola oil
- Corn oil
- Vegetable oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Sunflower oil
- Safflower oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Rapeseed oil
- Soybean oil
- Rice bran oil
- Sesame oil
- Peanut oil
- Margarine (trans fat)
- Shortening (trans fat)
- Any fake butter substitutes such as ghee
What Oils To Use?
The following are natural healthy oils and are good in moderation. However you must know which oils are for high heat cooking, medium heat cooking and/or for dressings and non-heat cooking purposes. All the oils below are considered to be “healthy fats” and have many health benefits. Most of them are high in heart healthy saturated fat, monounsaturated fat and both Omega-3s and Omega-6s fatty acids. Some are high in polyunsaturated fat like the unhealthy vegetable oils but are good for non-heat cooking purposes in moderation.
- Coconut oil (considered to be the healthiest cooking oil)
- Olive oil (considered to be the healthiest oil for dressing/non-heat purposes)
- Hemp oil
- Red palm oil
- Walnut oil
- Avocado oil
- Flax oil
- Chia oil
- Macadamia Nut oil
- Brazil nut oil
- Fish oil
Simply skipping those unhealthy vegetables oils in the grocery story isn’t too hard. But keep in mind that most processed foods contain these oils. Salad dressing, condiments, crackers, chips, frozen foods, breads, etc. check your ingredients. Don’t buy them. In fact, just skip processed foods altogether and you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble. The key to good health is avoiding processed food.
However It’s hard to avoid these unhealthy vegetable oils completely if you are eating out, and I personally try not to stress about the occasional night at a restaurant. Just keep these bad boys out your kitchen.