Plant-based poison you eat every day
Finding your sweet spot in the ever-changing world of nutrition — which appears to be ruled by gurus and (fad-)diets, a touch of science, and plenty of anecdotes — is challenging. Articles, much like the one you are currently reading, will say one thing. The comments, your neighbors, or that one guy at the grocery store will say the opposite.
And then there’s cultural gravity, warping everyone’s individual perspective. Your upbringing plays a central role in your relationship to food, your diet, and, as a result, your health. What you ate as a kid, how your grandparents prepared spaghetti, or what your dad said about kale — it sticks. And so does the lie that “butter and animal fat are bad, but vegetable oil is healthy.”
Vegetable oils are one of the most critical drivers for our current lifestyle disease epidemic. Firstly, consuming too much vegetable oil is likely to disturb the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. This disturbance is thought to lead to chronic inflammation, which is an underlying factor in diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and cancer. Secondly, cooking with certain vegetable oils causes the release of aldehydes — a chemical linked to cancer, dementia, and, again, heart disease.
There certainly are good fats. But, contrary to popular belief, these aren’t vegetable oils. Sadly, our meals are — often literally — drowning in them.
Wait, aren’t vegetables great?
In short, yes. It cannot be emphasized enough how important vegetables are as a staple to feed the planet. Sure, some people thrive on a ketogenic or carnivore diet, eating hardly any vegetables at all. But, for the general public, vegetables are great. Moreover, there are many areas where the freedom to eat whatever you please is not a given. In those places, vegetables are what keeps people from starving. They (vegetables) can contain lots of minerals, vitamins, fiber, water (do you drink enough?), and even some carbs and protein.
Most vegetable oils aren’t made from vegetables
The shocker about vegetable oils is that many of them come from seeds, not plants. In other words: most vegetable oil has little to do with vegetables. It just deceptively uses the positive association people have with the word “vegetables” to its own advantage.
Canola oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, flaxseed oil, and palm oil are all examples of popular “vegetable” oils that aren’t derived from vegetables. As said, most of these oils come from the seeds, not the plants. Canola oil, for instance, is the world’s third-largest source of vegetable oil, and it comes from a plant called rapeseed.
The seeds of these plants are harvested, slightly heated, and crushed, after which the oil is extracted using a hexane solvent. While this is generally considered safe, hexane poisoning is a real thing, which is most common in shoe factories as hexanes are also often used in glue. Regardless, the main point is that canola oil has nothing to do with vegetables.
Of course, there are exceptions. Olive, coconut, and avocado oil, for example, come from the fruit, not the seed. It’s still not true vegetable oil, but it’s closer to the real deal. The main benefit of this nuance is that most fruits that contain oils can be cold-pressed to extract the oil. In this process, the oil is literally squeezed out of the fruit without heating it, let alone using chemicals. This prevents the oil from being altered. In other words: it’s pure, natural oil.
What makes vegetable oils dangerous
Heat, oxygen, and chemicals. Simple as that. The earlier mentioned “cold pressing” of oils is a safe extraction method because it keeps the oil as is. Heating, exposure to oxygen, and chemical processing alter the structure of the oil, causing it to go rancid more quickly. In the process of going rancid, the oil breaks down, resulting in harmful byproducts — the earlier mentioned aldehydes, for example. Some oils are better resistant to breaking down than others. Those oils are said to have higher oxidative stability.
Because heat increases the rate at which chemical processes, such as oxidation of oil, occur, heating oils causes them to become toxic faster. The longer an oil can withstand being heated, the more stable it is, and the safer it is to cook with. There are plenty of lists you can Google, but from this research paper, we can conclude that coconut oil is the safest vegetable oil for cooking. It tops the list with a score of 44 (hours), against 2.5 for sunflower oil. The hours represent the duration for which the oil could withstand heat, before breaking down.
The (in)stability of oils is often mistaken for their smoke point. This is, surprisingly, the temperature at which it starts to give off a bluish smoke. We’ve all been there when we were heating a skillet with oil in it and got distracted. However easy to notice, the oil’s smoke point turns out to be a bad indicator of how well an oil handles heat.
On a side note, the concept of oxidative stability sheds a whole different light on the practice of reusing oil in a blazing-hot deep fryer for hours (or days) on end, at home, or in fast-food restaurants.
Which oils are safe, and which aren’t?
Generally speaking, all vegetable oils that have been cold-pressed are safe for your health, as long as you don’t heat them too much yourself. There’s no point in buying expensive cold-pressed oil, only to toss it in a blazing skillet or use it in a marinade for oven-roasted ribs.
If you’re persistent in cooking with vegetable oil, for instance, because you’re vegan, coconut oil is your answer. In addition to its unrivaled stability, it’s odorless, tasteless, and comes in pretty big jars without being overly expensive.
Common foods containing unsafe vegetable oils
Now you know why vegetable oils can be unsafe, you may wonder how you can avoid them — or the bad ones, at least. To help you do this, I’ve compiled a short list of vegetable-oil-drenched foods you’re likely to run into very often.
On a side note, homemade variants of said products are generally safe, because they’re less likely to contain the vegetable oils. Factory-made variants, with long(ish) shelf life, aren’t.
- Cookies and baked goods;
- Off-the-shelf dressings, sauces, and mayonnaise;
- Marinades, and marinated vegetables and meats;
- Everything deep-fried (savory and sweet);
- All fast food, even bread (Subway (Canada) bread contains soybean, canola, cottonseed, sunflower and palm oil, for instance);
- Most candy (Snickers include palm oil, so do M&Ms, Reese’s Peanut Butter cups contain PGPR which is derived from castor bean oil, etcetera.);
- Most breakfast cereal (Froot Loops contain hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil, Honey Bunches of Oats contain canola oil. Luckily, there are also some oil-free alternatives, such as Raisin bran and Cheerios);
- Canned, prepared food (meatballs in sauce, stocks, etcetera)
As I mentioned, some of these foods can be safe. For instance, you can deep fry your French fries in pork fat, or you can make sauces and mayonnaise with cold-pressed oils. But this rarely happens. It’s more work, it’s more expensive, and sometimes it doesn’t even taste great. (Ever tried mayonnaise made with only olive oil? It’s bad.)
What you can do
Get rid of all fatty cooking products that aren’t “a real thing.” When you cook, use butter, coconut oil, ghee, or olive oil. Stick to those four, just to be safe. There are other vegetable oils with decent stability, but why risk it? Never use margarine or any of those butter substitutes like cooking spray (even if they claim to contain olive oil, their main ingredient is often soybean or canola oil).
If you want to add vegetable oils for flavor (sesame oil adds a lovely nuttiness, for instance), add them after you’re done cooking, so they don’t get overheated.
Last but not least: experiment. Find out what you like, what tastes good, and what doesn’t, but without heating your oils. Cooking is supposed to be a challenging, fun journey. Embrace it.
If you are desperate to stuff your pantry, stuff it with canned or jarred foods. Because jars and cans are free of air, they are naturally protected from spoiling. Everything packaged in cardboard boxes or plastic containers isn’t. Those packages contain air, which means the manufacturers have to add preservatives to keep their products fresh (and crispy). Often, this includes vegetable oils. Other than that, go for the real stuff that spoils. Buy whole vegetables and unprocessed meats. Read the labels.
In the end, you want a balanced and satisfying diet without killing yourself. In our current society, it’s nearly impossible to avoid all processed vegetable oils. Now and then, you’re going to eat some. And that’s fine. The trick is to keep it in check by staying a little aware, without stressing about it all day long.
I hope this article helps you do that, so you can take care of your body a little better, without completely giving up on the things you love.