The continued rise of vegetable oils, do they really live up to the hype?
Posted on 24th November 2021 at 07:33
In recent years the consumption of vegetable oils has increased dramatically while that of butter, lard and other animal products have shown a marked decline. As so often is the case, no single factor is responsible for this change, although the popularity of the Mediterranean Diet in the 1960’s and 1970’s probably helped kickstart this trend.
The logic behind the diet was simple, trying to emulate the health benefits from the diet of those living in and around the Mediterranean. In other words, a wholefood and locally sourced diet centring around fresh produce. Fresh vegetables, salad, fruit, nuts, beans and grains with smaller amounts of protein, predominately fish, along with unsaturated fats, such as Olive Oil. And it’s these last two foods which are key to what we’re talking about today, as you’ll see in a moment. Fish and Olive Oil. Other meat and dairy products were only occasionally eaten. Oh, and don’t forget plenty of red wine (!).
Not surprisingly, the health benefits of Olive Oil were quickly focussed in on, along with that of red wine. Both were easy to incorporate into the existing diet – however healthy or not it was (!) – with its echoes of holidays in sunnier climes. So liberal amounts of Olive oil started to be used at home, replacing the previously popular butter, lard and other animal products.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite that simple as we’re now finding out, but the demand for vegetable oils was already well underway. Others quickly followed aided, more recently, by concern over excess cholesterol in the diet. Sunflower Oil. Rapeseed Oil. Coconut Oil. Palm Seed Oil. Generic Vegetable oils, containing a blend of different oils, although it’s usually not clear which oils are being used.
While vegetable oils may have many perceived benefits for consumers, this was only the start. From food producers’ point of view there were benefits too although, sadly, these tended to be of the economic variety. To start with, vegetable oils were much easier and cheaper to produce than animal based oils. Even better, they had many different uses – both in processed foods for people and feed for animals – as well as a long shelf life.
Before we go any further, let’s take a quick look at how vegetable oils are produced. While they sound healthy and nutritious, the vast majority are produced on a large scale by an industrial process. And this is without the way the raw materials themselves are produced. Intensively, with the use of chemicals, pesticides, etc. Matters are then made worse by the use of heat during processing, both to maximise the amount of the oil produced and ensure a long shelf life.
Sadly, the end result of all of this is that the vegetable oil loses its nutritional benefits, as well as being more susceptible to oxidation once opened at home. While oils produced in the traditional way, ie, without heat – cold pressed oils – are still available, they’re becoming increasingly difficult to find as well as much more expensive than the mass produced versions.
As we’ve already highlighted, the important part of the Mediterranean Diet so far as fats are concerned, is that it was high in both fish oils AND Olive Oil. Why is this so important? Well, for the simple reason that fish and Olive oil are both high in different types of Omega Oils. Omega 9 in the case of fish, Omega 6 for Olive oil.
And here’s the bit that’s often overlooked. A healthy body needs both types of oil – as well as Omega 3 – BUT they need to be balanced. As a rule of thumb, the proportion usually given is 2:1:1. In other words, twice as much Omega 3 as Omega 6 and Omega 9.
However, if more vegetable oils are consumed without also eating more of the foods containing Omega 9 and 3, then the proportions are thrown out of balance. Now here’s the crucial bit. When eaten to excess, Omega 6 ceases to have health benefits but, so far as the body is concerned, becomes a metabolic poison. This is due to the high levels of Linoleic Acid Omega 3 oils contain which, in excess, damage individual cells preventing them from generating the energy needed to carry out their functions.
Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there. This damage, in turn, triggers the Immune System leading to the destruction and rebuilding of these cells. As you may know, an important part of the immune response is inflammation of the area concerned, both to stop the damage from spreading any further, as well as helping remove the after effects of the immune response. And here’s the final link in the chain. Inflammation is now being found to be the underlying cause of many chronic diseases such as Heart Disease, Obesity, Cancer and Diabetes. It’s also why lifestyle choices are so important, particularly as their effects – positive and less so – usually take many years to become apparent.
Now, if you think this problem can be easily solved, think again. By simply eating more cold water and oily fish containing Omega 3 AND more eggs and nuts for Omega 9. And this is where processed and pre prepared foods come in. Look at the back of any packet and you’re likely to see a specific oil – Oliver oil, Palm Seed Oil, Coconut Oil – listed in the list of ingredients but also the “catch all” vegetable oil and fat. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell you the exact amounts of either.
So, assuming you could determine which foods contained them, this wouldn’t get you much further forward. Added to this, the whole rational behind processed and pre prepared foods is that they make life easier, rather than requiring more work to determine what’s in them and then adjusting what else is being eaten to get the desired result. And, if you think this doesn’t apply to you think again. You’ll be amazed by just how foods you wouldn’t think contain vegetable oils, do, even if they’re only an occasional “treat” – if that’s the right word.
Oh, and there’s one other complication that’s just as easily overlooked. Vegetable oils are also used in animal feeds, again, as they’re cheap to produce and high in calories so helping shorten the time from “farm to fork.” This means that mass produced meats – rather than traditionally reared outdoor and grass fed meats – are much higher in Omega 6 now than they were historically. Again, it’s almost impossible to quantify the amount but needs to be taken into account if adjustments are to be made. And, if you think this doesn’t apply to farmed fish, think again, as their feed also contains vegetable oils for exactly the same reasons as for meat.
So where are we going with this?
Well, along with vegetable oils, processed foods also tend to be high in white sugar and white flour, for exactly the same reasons. Cheap to produce. Good shelf life. Make food more palatable. Give it a good “mouth feel.” However, once again, they do not produce good levels of nutrition and are hard to digest. Hence so many health problems and allergies being linked to – or fuelled by – white sugar and white flour.
As an aside, it’s the reason why so many people feel lethargic immediately after eating these foods and they don’t feel “full” for long. This wears off over a few hours and they then go back to “normal.” But – and it’s a big BUT – with these foods affecting so many people these days – and relatively few people feeling 100% healthy – it’s easy for this to seem “normal” and the “cause and effect” not to be linked.
However, there’s another issue with these foods as well. They’re high in calories. The end result of all of this is that they provide a high number of calories and low nutritional content, while putting the body under a huge amount of stress. Not a good combination. It’s little surprise that white flour, white sugar and vegetable oils are now considered to be the major drivers of inflammation and many chronic diseases.
We appreciate this is a multi layered issue. Complicated and rather depressing. The good news is there's a simple solution. Even better, it’s one we talk about regularly in this blog. Truly encompassing the traditional Mediterranean approach to diet. Eating local and in season foods. Preparing as much of your food as you can at home using wholefoods with plenty of fresh vegetables and salad. Avoiding processed and fast foods, in all their guises. If you do succumb, making it an occasional “treat” having read the label carefully, so you have some idea of what you’re eating. Using only traditionally produced cold pressed oils and in small amounts. If you need a reminder as to which oils are best to use at home, as well as why there may be more to Rapeseed oil than meets the eye, click here and here.
And, finally, before we go a quick word about cholesterol. It never was the baddie it was – and still is – portrayed to be. For a quick refresher why this is the case, click here.
As always, the choice is yours.
Photograph by unknown author
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