Cooking with canola or vegetable oil was widely regarded as a way to prevent heart disease – or so the experts said. After being stuck in this loop for so long – avoid “bad” fats, consume the processed ones – we’re finally beginning to take a look at the overwhelming prevalence of processed oils in our diet and what it means for us. These oils include sunflower oil, soybean oil, canola and vegetable oil, sesame oil, and many more. They’re in everything from lip balm to salad dressing to French fries, and they’re destroying your health.
Why Are They So Bad?
Just because oils are edible for human consumption doesn’t mean they’re produced in natural environments. In fact, the refining process for vegetable oil alone (which happens under high-intensity temperatures and goes through several separate stages of bleaching, oxidation, and deodorizing) should be enough visually to turn us off processed oils altogether.
Microbiology-wise, heavily processed oils are polyunsaturated fats (also known PUFAs), meaning they oxidize quickly and easily on a molecular level. Conversely, saturated fats like beef tallow – which McDonald’s used to fry their products in – don’t oxidize as easily. Note that people did not start getting fat from eating Mcdonald's until after the company had switched from frying in natural beef tallow to frying with PUFA oils.
To get into the nitty-gritty, linoleic acid, a primary compound in polyunsaturated fats, oxidizes 40 times more easily than those found in saturated fats. When oxidation occurs, the polyunsaturated fats will naturally produce aldehydes, a chemical by-product that has been linked to conditions like cancer and mental decline.
The refining process for vegetable oil includes bleaching, oxidation, and deodorizing.
One professor of chemistry found that fish and chips cooked in vegetable oil produced almost 200 times more aldehydes than the recommended amount, while saturated fats like coconut oil, butter, and lard produced much lower levels. Aldehydes are toxic for the body, and they can remain in the body permanently. Another neuroscientist in Japan went as far as to say that consuming vegetable oil causes dementia, due to the prevalence of a specific aldehyde called 4-HNE that has been linked to it and other diseases.
Our Bodies Are Heavier, and Our Brains Are Declining
In the 1950s, around 10% of Americans were considered obese. In 2012, that number had grown to 35%. In about 60 years, the number of obese Americans had tripled, and the number of obese or overweight children had also increased drastically. We know that in those decades our diet as a society changed, effectively reducing the number of whole foods we consumed and expanding the number of processed materials we consumed each and every day.
Similar to obesity, it’s widely accepted that heart disease (now the leading cause of death for American men and women, regardless of race or ethnicity) was virtually non-existent in the 20th century. Even with the introduction of vegetable oils in the early 1900s, families still ate at home and cooked their food in saturated fats like animal by-products, such as butter and beef tallow. But vegetable oils grew in popularity as industrialization took hold and as companies expanded via effective marketing and advertising. And nothing was more effective than when the American Heart Association told the public in 1961 that replacing unsaturated animal fats with polyunsaturated fats, like those found in vegetable oil, would lower their risk of heart disease. (Who knows how much that decision was influenced by Procter & Gamble, the manufacturer of Crisco, who had gifted the struggling AHA with $1.7 million in 1948.)
In the 1950s, around 10% of Americans were obese. In 2012, that number had grown to 35%.
While there’s definitely a correlation between oil consumption and numerous physical issues, there’s also an alarming connection to mental decline as well. A study conducted by the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Diseases discovered that high levels of omega-6 fatty acids (“found principally in vegetable oil”) are linked to changes in the brain which commonly result in dementia and Alzheimer’s. The study, which observed how mice completed memory tasks with increased levels of a specific omega-6 fatty acid, found that the hippocampus (the brain’s memory center) was quickly and severely impaired by the acid.
Many consumers also blame their diet for their feelings of sluggishness or fatigue, and processed oils are likely to blame. Essentially, we desperately need the mitochondria of our cells to work efficiently to provide the body’s vital functions with energy. Chronic fatigue and exhaustion can be linked to the inefficiency of our mitochondria, especially when conditions like diabetes and obesity are present. But, constant consumption of linoleic acids (in vegetable oils) can heavily damage the inner membrane of the mitochondria, making them unable to do their job and provide us with energy.
Are the Alternatives Any Better?
People have started to pay attention to the damage these products are causing. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the alternatives are all that advantageous as opposed to what we’re used to.
A San Francisco Bay Area startup is trying to lead the way, as it happens. Zero Acre Farms, which raised $37 million in its Series A stage, is funded by big name venture capitalist firms – including Robert Downey Jr.’s – and wants to be the answer to the oil crisis. Zero Acre Farms wants to create oil and fat products that cause less environmental damage by means of production and rely on fermentation instead of heavily industrialized processing.
Our ancestors lived on quality foods full of natural fat and weren’t dropping dead of obesity or heart disease.
The company wants to eliminate reliance on vegetable and seed oils completely, which is definitely a step in the right direction. It should be noted, however, that the company and others like them aren’t exactly arguing for a return to traditional means of farming and cooking. Instead, Zero Acre Farms wants to rely on a production method they call “synthetic biology,” which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in their products. Additionally, one of their largest donors, Lowercarbon Capital, has previously invested in “beef sustainably cultivated from cells,” or what’s essentially synthetic, lab-grown meat. If a product like lab-grown meat is what Zero Acre Farms is after, we can only anticipate what kind of “sustainable” or “plant-based” vegetable oil alternative they’re going to peddle in the near future.
In reality, we don’t need heart-healthy labels or sustainable, lab-made oil alternatives to better our health. Bearing in mind that our ancestors subsisted on solid, quality ingredients – full of natural fat – and weren’t dropping dead of obesity or heart disease, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we have a lot to learn from their diets. If the new and improved products are the factors actually impacting our health, it’s probably time for a return to the traditional.
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