Why demonising vegetable oils is a bad idea

By: Dr. Paul Wassell

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I recently came across this article condemning processed vegetable oils and advising readers to replace them with animal oils and fats instead. I was appalled at the blatant misinformation presented as fact. The article’s suggestion of vegetable oil being ‘more dangerous’ than animal oil, because of the way it is processed, is fundamentally flawed.

The author presents a disclaimer upfront. He acknowledges that there are countless differing views on food nutrition, the result of, for example, upbringing, experience, or education. He states, “articles, much like the one you are currently reading, will say one thing (and) comments, your neighbours, or that one guy at the grocery store will say the opposite.”

He’s right — here’s a different perspective, one based on nearly 40 years specialising in edible fats and oils.

Countless medical studies have shown that people should consume butter and animal fat in moderation. The high saturated fat content found in animal products is a prime source of cholesterol that can collect in your arteries and increase the risk of heart disease. You do not have to eliminate it but replacing some of it with plant-based substitutes is beneficial for your health, and better for the environment as well.

Vegetable oil is a broad description

The author argues that the use of the term ‘vegetable oil’ on ingredients labels is misleading because most of them come from the seeds and fruits of vegetables. While these may not be the kale, lettuce or carrots you traditionally associate with vegetables, they are still plants, and therefore vegetable sources of oil. Let’s unpack this a little more technically.

Vegetable oil is indeed a broad description, consisting of seed oils and fruit oils. Irrespective, this does not mean, it’s not from a botanical source. Country food regulations and trading standards are guided by the Codex Alimentarius (also known as International Food Standards). These internationally accepted and implemented requirements, allows us to have trust in food label descriptors.

If a food label says vegetable oil it means the source was botanical, a plant and therefore vegetable, not animal or mineral. Food manufacturers have a choice. They can be more explicit and name the specific oil, or if they change oil types, then they may use the generic vegetable oil label. But at the end of the day — vegetable oils are plant-based.

The article further incorrectly presents the following examples:

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Palm oil comes from the reddish part of the oil palm fruit. The white kernel gives us palm kernel oil.

How heat affects vegetable oil

The article claims that for vegetable oils, three elements — heating, exposure to oxygen, and chemical processing — alter the structure of the oil and cause it to go rancid more quickly. When rancid, it results in harmful by-products. The simple fact is that ALL natural edible oils, including animal and plant-based, will deteriorate under those conditions.

I will address how heat can impact vegetable oils. Two ways: Processing to recover oil from the fruit or seeds is the first. The second is when oil is used in cooking, especially in home cooking and deep-fat frying where extreme temperatures are used. The article lacks clarity on this.

In the processing stage, high heat is often used during the refining processes. Contaminants such as 3-MCPD and GE may start to form as a by-product of high-temperature deodorising at above 200°C. Most edible oils are deodorised at high temperature (230–260°C). But, these by-products can be minimised or eliminated through manufacturing controls, and there is a growing demand from oil processors to reduce residence time at a higher temperature during deodorisation.

When it comes to cooking, if you dabble in the kitchen often enough, you would know that not all oils suit high-heat cooking. Oils that are more saturated and have a high ‘smoke point’ (which refers to the temperature at which triglycerides degrade, producing soot and off-flavours) are usually much better for high-heat tasks in the kitchen. Palm oil is one such example. Palm olein is a rich source of monounsaturated fatty acid — same as olive oil. It is perfect for frying and more stable than polyunsaturated fatty acid-based oils (soybean, sunflower, rapeseed).

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Palm olein is the liquid fraction of palm oil commonly used as cooking oil. Click here to find out more about the different fractions of palm oil,

Balance your nutritional sources

Finally, the article recommends sticking to only four types of fats or oils for cooking: butter, ghee, coconut oil and olive oil. It is maddening how anyone can lobby for cooking only with these products given three out of four of them are highly saturated. Saturated fat raises your LDL (bad) cholesterol, and high LDL cholesterol increases your risk for heart disease and stroke. The article’s claims and comments are unsubstantiated and unrealistic.

There are many different reasons why certain foods use vegetable fat, and others use animal fat. It could be for taste, for certain textures, or to cater to certain types of diets. Opting for a balanced diet is a smarter choice than always choosing one over the other exclusively.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the differences in edible oils and their applications, visit our website www.goldenagri.com.sg.

About the author:

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Dr Paul Wassell is a specialist in edible fats and oils application working at GAR. His nearly 40 years of experience in the field of food technology and application, has focused on baking and confectionery applications. Paul has a PhD in Biological Sciences from the University of Chester in the UK.

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