My favorite thing to make as a kid was brownies.
But not just any brownies. A brownie recipe that came from a friend.
One that called for a HALF CUP of vegetable oil.
Being a teenager at the time, I didn’t care. I just watched the golden liquid swirl into the glass measuring bowl.
Brownies have got to be moist, right?
What I didn’t know then was that vegetable oil wasn’t the “healthy” cooking option we all thought it was.
The truth about vegetable oil is only now coming out … and it’s not pretty.
A hundred years ago, you wouldn’t have found jugs of vegetable oil on the shelves of your local grocery store. But you’d have found plenty of butter, tallow and lard.
Today, the average American consumes 70lbs of vegetable oil per year.
And we all once thought that was HEALTHY.
After all, you didn’t want artery-clogging saturated fat in your diet. So we cooked with Crisco, vegetable oil and margarine. Healthy oils made from vegetables—what could be wrong with that?
What we didn’t realize was that we’d been sold a lie.
A marketing campaign that blamed saturated fat for heart disease and presented cheap industrial vegetable oils as the solution.
The Invention of Canola Oil
Take canola oil.
You wouldn’t have found canola oil on the shelves before the 1970s.
The term, short for “Canadian oil,” was invented by the Rapeseed Association of Canada as a way of rebranding rapeseed oil to make it more appealing to the public.
It worked. Canola is now the third most popular vegetable oil on the market.
That’s why you won’t find a canola plant in nature. Instead, canola oil comes from a genetically-modified form of rapeseed, designed to be resistant to pesticides and lower in erucic acid, a substance known to be harmful to humans.
Rapeseed fields are beautiful. The flowers are a gorgeous, vibrant yellow. Rapeseed oil has a long tradition of use in China and India, where it’s produced in small batches by heating the seeds then pressing out the oil at a low temperature using a stone press.
That’s not how commercial canola oil is made.
The canola oil at your supermarket has gone on a long journey to get there.
Once the rapeseed is harvested, it’s heated to super-high temperatures. Then it’s processed with a petroleum solvent to extract the oil—a solvent that may remain in trace amounts despite refining.
The oil is heated again and acid added to remove any solid particles that may have formed.
At this point, the oil doesn’t look or smell like how we think cooking oil should. So the oil is filtered to clarify the color and deodorized to remove any unpleasant odors—a process that converts healthy omega-3 fatty acids into unhealthy trans fatty acids. (See the whole process in this video.)
If the oil is destined for margarine, it is then hydrogenated, which increases the level of trans fatty acid even further.
Does that sound like a food fit for human consumption?
How canola oil was marketed to consumers as a “healthy” alternative to cooking oils is a story in itself.
Suffice to say, new research is finding that canola oil is NOT a healthy option, especially when compared to olive oil. It causes weight gain and impacts memory. Until recently, it was prohibited from use in infant formula because it stunts growth.
What’s Really in Vegetable Oil
Branding is also behind the marketing of soybean oil as “vegetable oil.”
We hear “vegetable,” and we think healthy.
But 85% of vegetable oils are simply soybean oil, while the remaining 15% tend to be a blend of oils such as corn, canola, cottonseed, safflower, sunflower, or palm oil.
They’re processed in a similar way to canola, with the goal of producing a colorless, flavorless oil.
Research links overconsumption of vegetable oil to heart disease, the very condition they were designed to help protect against. Fried foods are a particular risk.
Vegetable oils also contain high levels of omega 6 fatty acids, which oxidize easily if exposed to light or heat. Diets high in omega 6’s and low in omega 3’s cause inflammation and have been linked to greater risk of cancer.
The consensus is clear:
Swap your vegetable oils for heart-healthy options.
But what ARE heart-healthy options?
Healthy Alternatives to Vegetable Oil
One option is to choose cooking oils made by cold pressing, or expeller pressing, much like the rapeseed oil of old. This process produces oils with a distinctive taste and color profile.
These oils aren’t cheap. They come in glass bottles made with tinted glass to reduce oxidation.
Dr. Andrew Weil recommends storing all cooking oils in the refrigerator to prevent them from going off. Because the cold turns the oil solid, you’ll need to soak the glass bottle in hot water to melt the oil before using.
Another issue with even the best expeller-pressed oils is the smoke point, the temperature at which a particular oil starts to smoke. A low smoke point means that an oil is unsuitable for cooking at high temperatures.
Olive oil has a low smoke point, which is why it’s recommended for salad dressings but not frying.
That’s where coconut oil comes in.
Coconut oil has a high smoke point, which makes it suitable for cooking at high temperatures. It also has a beneficial fatty acid profile, thanks to medium chain triglycerides. It’s good for the brain AND the heart. And it’s naturally stored in a solid state, putting it at less risk of oxidation.
(It makes absolutely delicious brownies, too!)
So you can cook with coconut oil, drizzle olive oil on your salads, and don’t forget to spread grass-fed butter on your toast.
Thanks to Bulletproof Coffee’s Dave Asprey, I’m become a fan of grass-fed butter. Asprey believes grass-fed butter is nutritional magic, especially if your goal is to live to 180 years of age (like him).
I still have a few recipes from childhood that call for vegetable oil. When I make them, I substitute coconut oil.
It’s an extra step to melt the coconut oil, but I don’t mind. This time, I feel confident I’m choosing a genuinely healthy option. Even if I AM mixing it with sugar, flour and cocoa. 😉