By Eric R. Gustafson
WHEN IT COMES TO FATS, CONFUSION STILL REIGNS, BUT THAT DOESN’T NEED TO BE THE CASE. Healthy fats like lard and beef tallow are derived from an animal source; oils and shortenings are derived from a vegetable source — soybean, rapeseed (canola), palm, coconut and so on. While vegetable oils can be traced back to nature, turning these sources into food is a manufacturing process. And the results don’t always promote health.
Stroll through any supermarket and it becomes abundantly clear that Americans really like vegetable oils. Canola, corn and safflower oils and the like are remarkably popular. According to the USDA, “the dramatic success of the canola brand in North America has caused the word ‘canola’ to become synonymous with edible rapeseed in much the same
way the word ‘Xerox’ is understood to be a photocopy.”
And, indeed, recent market research affirms this basic fact about American culinary life. According to a new consumer survey from Ipsos Research and Coast Packing, my company, Americans regard vegetable oils as the “healthiest option” for cooking and frying. At the same time, a majority are unaware of the health risks arising from the manufacture of products like canola oil and palm oil.
The Ipsos survey is nuanced, examining not so much the nutritional properties of the various sources of these oils as the potentially toxic properties arising from chemicals used in refinement. It speaks to the purity, or lack thereof, of the products we consume.
As the USDA notes, canola oil is used in frying and baking applications, and is an ingredient in salad dressings, margarine, and a variety of other products: “Canola oil appeals to health-conscious consumers because it has a low percentage of saturated fat and is free of artificial trans-fats. Higholeic canola varieties have been developed recently that are used in commercial high-temperature frying applications to replace partially hydrogenated oils.”
And that health message is the one that consumers have heard, as the survey indicates — to the exclusion of all others.
But vegetable oils are highly refined, a process that enlists chemicals to extract the oil from
the seed — including compounds like n-Hexane, a known neurotoxin that has found its way into the food chain, where residuals have been detected. The system used to refine vegetable oils also produces “process contaminants.” These substances form during food processing — in particular, when deodorizing vegetable oils at high temperatures. The State of California is now reviewing n-Hexane, with an eye toward adding it to Proposition 65’s list of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm. Recent studies have indicated that the extraction processes used in producing vegetable oils for cooking/frying foods can release various potentially unhealthy toxic agents. Survey respondents were asked to rate their awareness of the potential health risks associated with consuming vegetable oils on a 1 to 5 scale.
According to the Coast/Ipsos research, roughly half of those surveyed indicated little or no
awareness of potential health risks arising from vegetable oil processing. Overall, 48 percent were unaware, 29 percent indicated they were “very aware” or somewhat aware and another 23 percent were in the middle. Millennials, men, residents of the Western states, respondents with children at home, those better educated and those employed all
recorded a higher overall awareness of potential health risks.
Squeezing oil fit for human consumption from seeds is complex and anything but natural. The science is increasingly clear. With toxic additives and carcinogenic compounds putting popular vegetable oils at risk, embracing minimally processed animal fats isn’t a fad.