Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Price of Oil

The price of oil dictates many of our decisions from the cars we purchase to vacations to the budget we (and our country) live on. Since many of us have very few options when it comes to fuel oil for our vehicles or houses, let’s talk about our options when it comes to the oils that fuel our bodies. I seem to remember a time when the grocery store simply stocked big plastic bottles of golden cooking oil. It was cheap and we used it for everything. As I’ve grown up and learned more about health and cooking and appreciating the taste of warm bread dipped in fresh cold pressed olive oil, things have gotten much more confusing, at least for me.

This past month’s Cooking Light had an excellent article summing up oils, how they’re made, what they’re used for and highlighting some of the oils we never knew existed – like truffle oil or pumpkinseed oil. It inspired me to go back to some of the original information I gathered when I first set off on my organic path.

By now we’ve all had it beaten in to our heads that transfats are bad. But do you know why? Or for that matter, do you know what a transfat is? Manufacturers are motivated to create and add transfats to foods because they make it possible for oil to be solid at room temperature. A good thing when what you’re creating is a cheese curl that can live for centuries in any climate. Transfats are created by heating the oil to extremely high temperatures and infusing it with hydrogen gas. This causes the chemical makeup of the oil to be changed, or hydrogenated. First of all, this isn’t anything that would naturally occur so I’m guessing that in the original design for our bodies, processing partially hydrogenated anything wasn’t in the plan. In fact, several scientific journals point out that “altered partially hydrogenated fats made from vegetable oils actually block utilization of essential fatty acids, causing many deleterious effects including sexual dysfunction, increased blood cholesterol and paralysis of the immune system”. These findings were first published in the 40’s and 50’s as the process of hydrogenation was just getting big. One wonders if the rise in fertility problems, heart disease, and immune disorders is any coincidence. Transfats are now listed on food labels for all to see.

So transfats and hydrogenated anything isn’t good, but what about heart healthy canola or olive oils? It’s important to read the label and determine how the oil was extracted from its original source. Back in the day, say when horses were still important to our daily existence, oils were extracted by something like a stone press. Basically you squeezed the heck out of the seed or nut, or what have you, and the result was oil.

But who can stand in the way of progress and scientific advancement? Soon manufacturers discovered that by adding refiners like hexane (a petroleum by-product used to make plastics, glue, and solvents) they could extract even more of the oil, very quickly. More oil from less raw materials creates a bigger profit. Never mind that workers in shoe factories utilizing hexane in their processes developed nervous system and respiratory system failures. Never mind that teenagers in the US and Europe looking for a quick high sniffed hexane and ended up paralyzed. 90% of the hexane evaporates once it does its job, and the rest is removed by boiling the oil, causing much of the remaining hexane to leave in the form of steam. The US government allows a tiny percentage of hexane in oils as acceptable and doesn’t require companies to note it as an ingredient.

And how to get that gorgeous clear, clean color? All you need to do now is refine the oil some more by degumming, bleaching, and then deodorizing the oil. Now it’s beautiful. But is it safe? Hard to say, since laboratory mice don’t process oil the same way we do. Studies have been few and far between.

I’ve only glossed over the details, if you’re interested; you know how to use Google. Here’s my take on oils. Look for oils that are cold and expeller-pressed. It will say so on the label. Although the US does not yet regulate cold and expeller pressing, it’s got to be better for you than mass marketed oils. If you buy expeller pressed oils produced in Europe their standards are strict. These oils are more expensive than a big bottle of Wesson, but since we aren’t supposed to be using too much of any oil, I think the splurge is not just justified, but necessary.

Look for dark or green glass bottles when buying oils. Oil can be damaged by light if it is unrefined. Another boon for the mass manufacturers – they can bottle their highly processed oil in clear plastic because not much more damage can be done to it. Besides, after you’ve worked so hard to make it look pretty you just have to show it off.

It’s a good idea to buy your oils in small amounts since they only taste fresh for a few months after opening. Vegetable oils will last longer, but olive and nut oils should be used within 3-6 months.

I use mostly canola, coconut, and olive oils for everything I cook. Occasionally I’ll use sesame or peanut for Asian dishes. These oils and a little butter get me through just about any recipe. Canola or butter are better oils if you are cooking at high temperatures. You lose the flavor and much of the nutrient value when you heat olive oil too high.

Making healthy food choices for you and your family, requires reading labels. Like so much involved in living a healthy life, we need to slow down and act consciously. It is dangerous to assume that just because the broader culture accepts a food or an activity or an attitude as the norm, does not mean it’s safe or sane for any of us.


  1. For those not troubled by peanut allergies, peanut oil has a higher burn point and is best for very high temperatures -- thus the popularity in Chinese kitchens

  2. Besides, after you’ve worked so hard to make it look pretty you just have to show it off.