Are All Oils Created Equally?

If you’ve eaten anything in the past 24 hours, chances are you’ve eaten something with some kind of oil in it. There’s no doubt that some oils have received a faulty reputation, somehow falling into the category of foods to avoid, or unhealthy “bad” foods, but why?

The debate on whether oil is a healthful food, and which oil is superior has been an ongoing controversial debate amongst foodies for quite some time now. Everyone has their favorite and least favorite for their own reasons, which of course leads to some oils being labeled as “bad” or “unhealthy” when in fact, they may be healthier than you think!  Because oils are a vital dietary component, we’ve decided to uncover the truth about different oils, the good, the bad, the greasy and everything in between.

The consumption of lipids has been around for quite a while, “dating back c. 10-11,000 years for the domestication of sheep, goats and cattle, and c. 6000 years for the cultivation of olive oil”.  It became apparent to humans that oil and fats were necessary when it came to staying full and energized long enough to hunt, gather, build shelter and other day to day tasks humans faced 10,000 years ago.  From the Aztec’s usage of groundnut oil in South America, to the discovery of palm oil in West Africa, our ancestors were experimenting with different oils left and right. Oil was a commodity from an early age, but before the 19th century, the only oil that wasn’t made from animals was olive oil, the only other oil available on the market were made from animals. The phenomenon of liquid lipid consumption became essential to diets everywhere thanks to the Industrial Revolution and large scale production making consumption easier and more accessible for people everywhere.

Fast forward to the 1960’s, Americans everywhere were wrapping their heads around the concept of corn oil.  Finally, an oil option that didn’t come animal fat but still relatively cheap to produce and fairly easy to cook with.  By the time the 1980s came around, people around the world were making the transition from animal fats to soy, palm, and vegetable oil, three of the most popular oils at the time.

Today, when shoppers stroll down the baking aisles of grocery stores, some might find themselves overwhelmed by the choices of oils to choose from.  If this sounds like you, no need to worry, we’ve put together a guide to make you the oil connoisseur you’ve always dreamt about being.

VEGETABLE OIL

A deceivingly promising and safe name, the word “vegetable” has the ability to fool consumers that food is healthier than it truly is.  Oil from vegetables, what could go wrong? Unfortunately consuming vegetable oil won’t count as your daily recommended vegetable intake.  Vegetable oil is actually made from a mixture of seeds in lancing rapeseed (canola oil) sunflower oil, and soybean oil just to name a few.  While these seeds come from plants, the name vegetable oil can be quite misleading to the actual contents of the oil. In order to make vegetable oil, the rapeseeds need to be heated to an extremely high temperature, they are then processed with a petroleum solvent and other acids to remove any solids, dirt, wax or other waste items and extract the oil.  It is then further treated with chemicals to guarantee shelf life and a familiar color and smell. These chemicals used to preserve the oil have been notorious for not only being genetically modified chemicals but also dangerous, “Most vegetable oils and their products contain BHA and BHT (Butylated Hydroxyanisole and Butylated Hydroxytoluene) which are artificial antioxidants that help prevent food from oxidizing or spoiling too quickly.  These chemicals have been shown to produce potential cancer-causing compounds in the body, and have also been linked to liver/kidney damage, immune problems, infertility or sterility, high cholesterol, and behavioral problems in children.”(Wells). However, vegetable oil is low in saturated fat and high in polyunsaturated fat. We all know saturated fat is something we should try to avoid, and while the topic is controversial, many believe that polyunsaturated fats are essential to a healthy diet in moderation.  But of course, there are two sides to this story-many believe that the high amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids (polyunsaturated fats) are actually quite concerning and could lead to serious health problems. There is no concrete evidence of either side of this polyunsaturated and saturated fat argument since vegetable oil is considered a newer oil in the market compared to fats like lard and olive oil, making it quite a controversial topic among consumers everywhere.

BUTTER

If you’ve ever been to a farm, you might remember shaking up a fresh bottle of milk for about 20 minutes or until your arm fell off to make fresh butter.  Butter has been around since the domestication of animals, “The first reference to butter in our written history was found on a 4,500-year-old limestone tablet illustrating how butter was made.”(Dairygoodness).  In the earlier times, butter was seen as something of great value, not just in the kitchen but cosmetically. The Greeks and Romans would rub butter on their skin to make it smooth and put it in their hair to make it shine.  It was also used to heal burns and wounds in ancient Egypt. The pilgrims were the catalyst in America’s love affair with butter when they packed a plethora of butter for their journey on the Mayflower. The rest is history, American’s were hooked on butter, “At the turn of the 20th century, Americans’ annual consumption was an astonishing 18 pounds of butter per capita—nearly a stick and a half per person per week!”(Thebutterjournal).  Unfortunately for Americans, World War II and The Great Depression made it difficult for this love affair to continue. Butter along with other dairy products was frugally rationed, forcing Americans to seek alternatives to their beloved smooth creamy delicacy. By the late 1980s the USDA starting recommending low-fat diets in an effort to increase consciousness about the dangers of heart disease and obesity, “By 1997, consumption had fallen to 4.1 pounds per capita per year.”(Thebutterjournal)

Today, with the copious oil options consumers have to choose from, people are straying away from traditional butter because of its unhealthy reputation. While butter shouldn’t be consumed in massive quantities, research shows that small amounts of butter can actually have health benefits. Butter contains butyrate, a short chain fatty acid that is gut health, promotes healthy digestion, and can decrease inflammation.  Butter is also a good source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fat found in other dairy and meat products that some medical professionals think may contain properties to help fight cancer and improve the immune system. Of course, on the other hand, butter is highly choleric as well as high in saturated fats. Butter is about 63% saturated fat, and while historically saturated fat was seen an unhealthy, unnecessary additive that clogs your arteries, some health professionals are now tinkering with the idea of saturated fat being healthier than we think, keeping the body feeling full for longer.  With the Ketogenic diet becoming more and more popular, people are starting to experiment and question what butter can do for our bodies and if eating butter will have positive or negative effects on our bodies. From an American staple to a frowned upon add-on, to entering a blank space of ambiguity, butter’s reputation has been through the churner quite a few times!

AVOCADO OIL

Nothing screams 2019 like avocados. It is no exaggeration that avocados have become an obsession.  From Avocado toasts, avocado hummus, avocado chocolate pudding, and even avocado gelato, society has spoken and it doesn’t look like avocados are going away any time soon.  Avocados are high in monounsaturated fat giving them a smooth creamy texture we can’t resist. Avocado oil, unlike vegetable oils, is mixed at a low temperature. Once mixed, the avocados are sent through a filtration system to separate the solid materials, water and oil.  Avocado oil is high in monounsaturated fats, the type of fats that lower “bad cholesterol (LDL) and raise good cholesterol (HDL). It’s also high in polyunsaturated fats, fats that contain omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids which can also help cholesterol. Polyunsaturated fats like avocados and walnuts are also believed to improve skin, in case energy and even add a little shine to your hair!  While there aren’t any proven negative health effects of avocado oil, it does tend to be a more expensive oil due to the high cost of avocados, so if you’re looking for the best bang for your buck, it might not be avocado oil.

OLIVE OIL

Probably one of the most popular oils in this list, the infamous olive oil.  Great for cooking, baking, salad dressing, or just drizzled on bread-olive oil is truly a versatile delicious delicacy with great health benefits. Like avocado oil, olive oil is high in monounsaturated fat, making up about 73% of the total oil content with only 14% saturated fat and 11% polyunsaturated fat.  Olive oil also contains antioxidants that can help protect from heart disease and reduce inflammation. Along with its nutritious properties, olive oil’s association with obesity has been studied extensively, “In a 30-month study in over 7,000 Spanish college students, consuming a lot of olive oil was not linked to increased weight.”(Wells).  Olive oil is moderately priced making it more accessible than other more expensive healthy oils, what more could we ask for?!

COCONUT OIL

Did you think we’d forget about the infamous coconut oil?!  How could we with it’s dominating presence in the food world and loyal crew of followers and enthusiasts who swear by it?  Coconut oil, an oil newer to game wasted no time kicking out all other oils and winning over the hearts of consumers everywhere.  You couldn’t escape hearing about the wonders of coconut oil when it became popular, everyone was fascinated by this vegan, plant-based oil that could be used in so many different ways, “Between January 2011 and January 2013, the U.S. searches for coconut oil more than doubled, Google trend data shows. Meanwhile, major food companies scrambled to get in on the trend, producing coconut-oil versions of Pam Cooking Spray and Crisco.”(Dewey).  Coconut oil has a versatile composure, it can be bought in solid or liquid form, making it a popular replacement for bakers seeking out that flakey crispy crust that is also vegan. Coconut oil has also become quite the hot commodity in natural beauty products as well. Coconut oil is now popular in shampoo, face creams, or other hair and face supplements because of the healthful benefits from the fat. Of course with popularity, comes questioning and controversy.  As people started to slow down and actually ask themselves, “what makes this oil so healthy besides the fact that everyone says its healthy?” researchers and health professionals began to explore the nutritional value of coconut oil in greater depth. Health professionals started to conclude that coconut oil isn’t as magical as everyone thought, “Dr. Alice H. Lichtenstein, a Tufts University professor of nutrition science and policy who is vice chair of the federal government’s dietary guidelines advisory committee, “there’s virtually no data to support the hype.” (Egan, Rabin).  In fact, some concluded that coconut oil has concerningly high saturated fat levels compared to other oils and could be linked to heart disease and high cholesterol. Consumers were listening, and while some stayed faithful to the coconut, others were alarmed and swore off the stuff for good, “Between January 2011 and January 2013, U.S. searches for coconut oil more than doubled, Google trend data shows. Meanwhile, major food companies scrambled to get in on the trend, producing coconut-oil versions of Pam Cooking Spray and Crisco. In 2015, the apparent peak of coconut oil mania, Americans bought $229 million of the stuff. But that peak was short-lived.” (Dewey),  But of course not all coconut oil is made the same, virgin coconut oil is processed gently with little additives, “If you’re going to use coconut oil, make sure you get virgin oil,” Dr. Brenna said. “And, of course, everything in moderation.” (Rabin, Egan). While refined bleached and deodorized (R.B.D) coconut oil contains solvents that are unnatural and could be harmful to the body.

SUNFLOWER OIL

Out of all the oils, it’s safe to say that this oil definitely comes from the most beautiful plant than all the other oils.  As you can probably guess, sunflower oil is made from the extraction of oil from the sunflower seeds. Sunflower oil contains “palmitic acid, stearic acid, oleic acid, lecithin, carotenoids, selenium, and linoleic acid. The combination of fatty acids in the body are extremely important to maintain various elements of human health, and sunflower oil can help maintain that balance.”(Wells).  According to the USDA, sunflower oil is also rich in vitamin E and vitamin K as well. While many critics of this oil will scrutinize sunflower oil lovers because of its high content of omega-6 fatty acids, the benefits of consuming sunflower oil in moderation aren’t ones to be pushed aside. Since sunflower oil is rich in vitamin E, sunflower oil can improve your immune system and almost act as an antioxidant to your body while also keeping your skin healthy and protecting against damage.  Sunflower oil can also help manage and reduce the severity of arthritis as well as asthma because of its anti-inflammatory properties. Since sunflower oil does contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, it’s important to consume in moderation.

Regardless of which oil if your favorite, it’s undeniable that we as humans need oil in our diets to keep our insides and outsides feelings and looking our best!  It’s important to remember that even though oils have tons of positive health benefits, moderation is everything! We definitely don’t recommend chugging a glass of any of these oils to be able to experience the benefits, but remember-moderation over restriction!   Which oil is your favorite and why?

CITATIONS

Dewey, C. (2018, March 07). The sudden collapse of coconut oil, 2015’s favorite superfood. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/03/07/the-sudden-collapse-of-coconut-oil-2015s-favorite-superfood/?utm_term=.840ede129d31

The History of Butter – Butter | Dairy Goodness. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.dairygoodness.ca/butter/the-history-of-butter

The History of Butter. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.butterjournal.com/butter-history

Rabin, R. C., & Egan, S. (2018, August 21). Is Coconut Oil Good or Bad for You? Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/21/well/eat/coconut-oil-good-bad-health.html

Wells, K. (n.d.). Is Vegetable Oil Healthy? | Wellness Mama. Retrieved from https://wellnessmama.com/2193/never-eat-vegetable-oil/