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Not all veggie oils are created equal–the good, the bad, and the ugly…

June 27, 2011

Which oil is the healthiest to cook your food with? Olive oil? Canola oil? Vegetable oil? How about butter? There is a lot of misinformation out there concerning the vegetable oils in the market today, and today I want to dispel a lot of myths. First of all, although olive oil, canola oil, and vegetable oils are all considered monounsaturated fats, they are not created equally. Quality olive oil (Extra Virgin, Cold-pressed) is manufactured by this simple process: The olives are pressed, the oil collected.  The quality of the oil depends on the amount of processing involved. Cold pressed extra virgin olive oil is considered the best, as it comes from the first pressing of the olives, so it’s the least processed. Virgin means that no chemicals were used in the process of extracting the oil from the fruit. Extra virgin means that the olive oil has undergone several tests to confirm its taste and to verify that it is free of defects. Light olive oil is not pure virgin olive oil. This form is a blend of pomace olive oil, which is olive oil that is extracted from the fruit using heat and chemicals, and virgin olive oil.

Bottles of Canaan's Rumi Tree Olive Oil - one of two organic varieties it produces - line a shelf in the shop.

The food oil industry is promoting canola oil as an equally healthy twin to olive oil. This is deceptive, as there are few studies involving canola oil and human health. (Numerous animal studies point to serious and deleterious effects of canola oil on rats and pigs.) To begin with, most canola, corn, safflower, and soybean oils are either genetically modified or form toxic chemicals once heated. For instance, most canola, corn, and soybeans were genetically altered by manufacturers to withstand an extreme amount of pesticides, even before the seeds have been planted.  In addition to the genetic modification, the process of making canola oil and other vegetable oils is far from natural.  The procedure involves a combination of high-temperature mechanical pressing and solvent extract, usually using hexane. Hexane is an explosive chemical solvent not meant for human consumption. Unfortunately hexane is also used to produce soy protein for infant formula, protein bars and other soy vegetarian food products, but I digress. Most vegetable oils also go through the process of bleaching, degumming, deodorizing, and caustic refining, at very high temperatures. This process can alter the omega-3 content in the oil, and in certain conditions bring the trans fat level as high as 40 percent. Corn oil is high in polyunsaturated fat and tends to undergo oxidation more readily than olive oils. Oxidized fats generate free radical damage to cells, increasing the risk for cancer. For example, corn oil is used experimentally to promote tumor growth in some laboratory models of breast, colon, and other cancers. Corn oil may also impair immune function.  So what are the healthiest oils to use in cooking, the ones that are most natural from the growing to the processing? Well, the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern diet had it right all along—extra-virgin olive oil. For different types of cooking, sesame, almond, hazelnut and walnut oils are great oils, as well as flax oil, (though you cannot heat flax oil).  While coconut oil and butter have saturated fat, they are healthier options than the aforementioned vegetable oils. Coconut oil has been found to improve heart health and the immune system. While butter isn’t as heart healthy as coconut oil, is not as toxic as vegetable oils but should be used in moderation. In short, I believe olive oil is the gold standard of all the cooking oils, and you will see me using this kind of oil in most all of my recipes, both sweet and savory.

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