Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Healthy Fats and Oils, Part One

The following post is a guest article written by my friend, Sarah Kamps.  She and I have had many conversations recently about improving our families' diets.  Healthy fats/oils is a topic that I don't know much about (yet!), but it's a topic on which Sarah has done a LOT of research.  Read on to discover what she's learned...and what she's teaching me!

Coconut oil has been making headlines lately.  It is creating a buzz in the health food world because of its many health benefits, such as:
  • maintaining cholesterol levels
  • improving weight loss
  • increasing immunity
  • dental and skin care
Coconut oil also has antimicrobial, antibacterial and antifungal properties.  But, is coconut oil just a fad or is it something we can incorporate into our everyday diet?  Let's take a closer look at coconut oil, as well as some other healthy fats.  We'll also compare them to modern industrialized cooking oils.  

First, let's consider the common everyday oils that many of us are familiar with and use regularly.  Oils such as canola, vegetable oil, corn oil, margarine, shortening, and cooking spray. These oils are popular because:
1. They are inexpensive.  
2. They are convenient and easy to use.  
3. They are mono- and polyunsaturated "healthy" fats.  

But, have you ever stopped to consider where these oils come from, how they are processed, or if they are actually as healthy as they claim?  Probably not.  I know I didn't until about a year ago when I started asking these questions...and I was surprised at what I found!

1. Where do these oils come from?  Corn oil obviously comes from corn, but what about the canola or vegetable oils? 

Is there really a canola plant?  Yes and no.  Canola oil is a crossbred variety of the rapeseed plant.  Rapeseed oil naturally contains high amounts of poisonous erucic acid, so in the 1970s in Canada the rapeseed plant was crossbred to make it lower in erucic acid.  Because of the negative connotation of the word "rape", it has been renamed Canola, Canadian Oil, Low Acid.

How about vegetable oil?  That sounds healthy!  On the label is pictured several colorful vegetables, so vegetable oil must be the oil pressed out of a variety of vegetables, kind of like olive oil, right???  (Am I the only one who actually thought this? :) ) Well, unfortunately, that is not where vegetable oil comes from.  Instead, vegetable oil refers to a blend of oils often including soybean, palm, corn, or sunflower oil.  But, it's not always a blend.   I found an old container of Meijer brand vegetable oil in the back of my cupboard and the ingredients only listed soybean oil.  It may as well have been labeled soybean oil instead of vegetable oil.

2. How are these oils made?  I won't go into all the details, but it is not a simple process to say the least!  In my mind I envisioned corn and "vegetables" being pressed until the oils flowed out, which was then bottled and sold.  Again, this is far from reality.  These oils are some of the most heavily processed and chemically altered foods in our diet.  The long refinement period includes things such as high heat and pressure, hexane solvent bath (hexane is a product of crude petroleum oil!), degumming, chemical bleaching and deodorizing.   Does that sound very tasty to you?

3. Are these oils really as healthy as they claim to be?  By now, it's probably no surprise that no, they definitely are not in the healthy fat category!  No matter how many "health claims" are on the label.  Here are just a few of the reasons why.
  •  Oxidization:  Polyunsaturated fats, such as corn & soybean oil (canola has both mono- and polyunsaturated fats), are much more unstable than a saturated fat.  Polyunsaturated fats are missing several pairs of hydrogen atoms, which makes them highly unstable and prone to oxidation (turn rancid).  Air, light, and heat all promote oxidation.   These fats are so vulnerable that even at room temperature and in indirect sunlight oxidation occurs inside the bottle.  So, in the store the oil is already beginning to oxidize.  Then you take it home and open it (exposing it to oxygen and more light) and oxidation is accelerated.  Now, you use it in cooking and expose the oil to high heat.  This greatly accelerates the rate of oxidation and free radical formation.  Oxidized fats cause inflammation and mutation in cells.  
  • Chemical additives:  As stated previously, vegetable oils are chemically produced, so it's not too surprising that they contain harmful chemicals.  Most vegetable oils contain BHA and BHT which are artificial antioxidants that are added to prevent food from spoiling too quickly.
  • GMO:  At least 91% of soy, 88% canola, and 85% of corn grown in the United States is a GMO (genetically modified organism).  Essentially, all non-organic vegetable oils in the store will contain GMO.  Genetically modified crops are simple unsafe.  They contain high levels of pesticides and cause a variety of health problems.  If you are interested in learning more about GMOs I would highly recommend the film by Jeffrey M. Smith, Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risk of Genetically Engineered Foods.  You may even find it free on YouTube! :)
  • Trans fats:  Margarine and shortening undergo a chemical process called hydrogenation.  During this process trans-fatty acids are formed.  Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils also have trans fats.  Trans fats increase bad LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and insulin levels and reduce beneficial HDL cholesterol.
So, are there any healthy alternatives to vegetable oils?  Yes, thankfully there are!  In the next article I will only be covering coconut oil and olive oil, but there are several other healthy fat options, such as, tropical oils (coconut and palm), animal fats (butter, lard, tallow, full fat dairy, etc.) and oils from vegetable sources (olive, sesame, avocado, nut and seeds, etc.).  

Stay tuned for Healthy Fats and Oils, Part Two.  Sarah will ask the same questions about coconut oil and olive oil, and we'll see if they pass the "healthy" test.  She'll also give you some great suggestions on how to use these oils!

This article was posted as part of April's theme, Spring Clean Your Eating Habits.  To catch up on all the fun, check out the Monthly Themes page, where you can check out the rest of the articles (and recipes!) in this series.


  1. Thanks for this informative and easy-to-understand article. I look forward to reading more!

  2. Coconut Oil is awesome! I use it mainly as a moisturizer but I've started exploring with it in cooking.
    Did you know that the hard toppings for ice cream are made with coconut oil and that is why they harden?

  3. oh my! didn't realize it was so bad for you...gross...i've never cared what i eat but maybe after reading this i will start to care!