The Oily Truth

The oil we use for cooking is a very important aspect for healthy or even conscious eating and it is necessary that we understand it. The way oil is produced today compared to the way it was produced during ancient times is mind-boggling, and we as consumers need to be aware of how the manufacturing of oil today (and everything else we consume to be honest) can affect our wellbeing.

I was a victim to the genius marketing tactics of some of these large food corporations until I got into the habit of reading the ingredients behind everything I purchased. It may be time consuming, but I would rather do that than to suffer the health consequences later.

I started researching about this a few years ago when I realized the cooking oil I was consuming was not actually ‘vegetable’ oil, but soybean oil. Soybean, that was genetically modified, and sprayed with a herbicide manufactured by a company that was being sued for negligence. The individual that sued the company was diagnosed with blood cell cancer after years of spraying that herbicide around the school grounds where he worked.

This herbicide is called ‘Roundup’ and its key ingredient is ‘glyphosate’. The World Health Organization (WHO) has labelled glyphosate as a carcinogen and when it is mixed with other ingredients, it can be more toxic. Roundup is probably the most popular weedkiller on the planet, and it is a non-selective herbicide, which means, it kills every weed. Roundup Ready is a newer version released by the same company, to protect crops while killing the weeds that grow around it, so famers can spray all their crops conveniently and extensively without having to selectively spray their crops and weeds.

Everything grown on non-organic, or industrial farms is sprayed with this herbicide. More than half of America is farmed with genetically modified (GMO) soybeans and corn crops. Therefore, my purchase of ‘vegetable oil’ was actually genetically modified, carcinogenic soybean oil.

Finding out about this was a pivotal moment in my understanding of food manufacturing and I hope to share what I know with you regarding this.

So, what oil is safe to consume, what oil is safe to cook with and what oil is safe to deep fry with? To begin with, let us look at how cooking oil is made.

In ancient times, cooking oil was produced in a natural setting with the sun or fire as the main source of heat to warm up oily plant products. These plant products were then wedge pressed and the oil was collected through a funnel and stored. This process took many days and it was intense. In China and Japan, soybean oil was produced like this as early as 2000 B.C. In Europe, olive oil was produced during the 3000 B.C. (1) As the method of extraction improved over the years through the industrialisation period, ways to make oil and products to make oil from, expanded.

Today, oil extraction is split into several stages, which is why we see so many options in the market today. Each process is transforms the oil, placing it into a different category, which then alters the price and quality of the final product.

This is how refined, mass produced cooking oil is made:

  • Cleaning and grinding
  • Pressing
  • Adding solvents
  • Eliminating solvent traces
  • Refining
  • Packaging

Oils like canola oil, vegetable oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, rice bran oil, grape seed oil and corn oils are made using the above manufacturing process.

Unrefined oils: cold-pressed and expeller pressed

When an oil is labelled unrefined, it has used one of two methods of extraction: cold-pressed or expeller pressed. Cold-pressed is when oily plant products are pressed and crushed in lower temperatures to produce the oil, and expeller pressed is when oily plant products are squeezed through a barrel cavity, creating friction and compression to produce the oil (2) The expeller pressed method can create indirect heat, making it an inferior method compared to cold-pressed, as heat can alter the composition of the oil.

The unrefined methods of extraction does not involve the use of bleach, solvents or high temperatures which keep the antioxidants and nutrients in the oil for consumption. This is why it is important you check the labels behind the packaging when making a purchase for your cooking oil. Buying unrefined oil is far superior than refined.

Unrefined oils: virgin and extra-virgin

Virgin is classified as cold-pressed oil that is produced from the first cold-press of the fruit with no more than 3% acidity.

Extra Virgin is classified as cold-pressed oil that is produced from the first cold-press of the fruit with no more than 1% acidity.

Smoke points

Another thing to note here is the smoke point of the oils which you consume. We often use lower smoke point oils for high temperature cooking, which can alter the chemical composition of the oil, making it carcinogenic.

Here is a list of oils and their smoke points in degrees Celsius.

  • Avocado (271)
  • Rice bran (254)
  • Ghee (250)
  • Mustard seed oil (249)
  • Regular olive oil (241)
  • Flaxseed oil (232)
  • Safflower (232)
  • Sunflower (232)
  • Corn (232)
  • Soybean (232)
  • Peanut (232)
  • Palm (230)
  • Cottonseed (216)
  • Almond (216)
  • Sesame (210)
  • Virgin Olive Oil (210)
  • Chia seed oil (204)
  • Canola/Rapeseed (204)
  • Walnut (204)
  • Vegetable (204/232)
  • Grape seed (199)
  • Coconut (177)
  • Hemp seed oil (165)
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil (160)
  • Butter (150)

In conclusion:

I would highly recommend the following oils for the following purposes.

  • Ghee, coconut oil, avocado oil or unrefined olive oil for frying (deep frying is also ok, but watch out for heating olive oil for too long as the flavours and taste may change)
  • Grape seed oil, coconut oil or butter for baking (grape seed as it is flavourless so this is a great vegan option for those who do not like the smell or taste of coconut oil)

Make sure you purchase oils in dark glass containers, as it helps preserve the oils better without exposure to high temperatures, and air. It also helps maintain the benefits of the oil to your body.

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