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-: sunflower-seed oil, rape-seed oil, soya-seed oil, grape-seed oil, cotton-seed oil :-

One molecule away from plastic?

The process of refining seed vegetable oils into either cooking oil or hydrogenated vegetable fat for either domestic or industrial use is a classic example of how the industrial cook has managed to bastardise fresh produce into a fake food product to suit their economic purposes not our nutritional needs – and then present it to the everyday cook as healthy and fit for purpose. It is perhaps a bit of a misnomer to suggest that margarine and vegetable shortening derived from seed vegetable oils are one molecule away from plastic – but the sentiment (if not the science) is sound.


There are three problems associated with the relatively new seed vegetable oils:

Firstly, when cold pressed they taste bitter and unpalatable resulting in a small if non-existent market for them.  Secondly, being polyunsaturated they are highly unstable and prone to turning rancid when exposed to oxygen, light and heat. Thirdly, most seed varieties on offer today are GMOs (favoured by the edible oil industry for their cost-effectiveness) resulting in an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio that is out of sink with what appears in nature.

The bitter taste of virgin cold-pressed seed oils

Cold-pressed, seed oils will retain most of their fabled omega-3, omega-6 and vitamin nutrients in tact – though it should be stressed that in the case of new GMO seed-oils this omega-3, omega 6 ratio is completely out of sink to that of traditional oils and fats. Anyone who has purchased and tasted any of these new seed oils virgin pressed will be unimpressed by their flavour which is naturally bitter and somewhat repelling. If used they should always be bought in dark bottles and stored in the fridge. Under those conditions they can be kept fresh and non-rancid for a relatively long time. Given that all modern GMO seed varieties, from which most seed-vegetable oils derive, have a higher omega-6 to omega-3 ratio they should be used sparingly. (See problem nu. 3 below).

The rancid taste of high-speed, refined seed oils

As well as tasting unpalatable it is not economically efficient to cold press seed oils. To be as cost effective as possible industry crushes the seeds on high-speed, high-heat mills. To squeeze even more of oil out of the seeds industry adds an FDA approved solvent called hexane which has the effect of leaving an oil residue in the seeds of 0.5%. Very efficient indeed but at the cost of adding a highly problematic chemical.

At the end of the high-speed milling/hexane treatment the oil tastes and smells rancid as well as bitter. No consumer will touch the stuff. The oil, therefore, has to undergo yet another high-heat process referred to as deodorisation whereby the oil is blasted with steam to remove all flavour, taste and smell from the oil.

The process of high-speed milling, hexane solvent treatment and deodorisation creates a product that is tasteless, odourless and devoid of any natural nutrients. To qualify for the noun “food” industry is required to add synthetic vitamins into slurry so that they can claim the product is “rich in vitamin E and anti-oxidants”.

What omega-3 or omega-6 survives the vigorous processing has been so bastardised and altered some argue they have morphed from essential fatty acids into marauding free-radicals and are no-longer of any health benefit what so ever – regardless of what the label assures consumers.

This highly refined, odourless, tasteless, rancid, potentially problematic oil is what the industrial cook uses to prepare convenience mayonnaises, sauces and salad dressings. The rest they flush into bottles and sell to catering outlets and the everyday cook as a healthy vegetable oil suitable for use in cold sauces, condiments and high-heat frying.

However, the most important use of this bastardised oil for the food industry, by far, is the manufacturing of vegetable shortenings and margarine.

Hydrogenated vegetable oils

Turning liquid vegetable oils into a solid fat is only possible in a factory. Nature or the everyday cook could never perform this feat. To describe the process of how the food industry manufactures vegetable oils into solid shortenings and fats Master in the Kitchen turns to “Nourishing Traditions”

“To produce margarine or shortening, manufacturers begin with the cheapest oils – soy, corn, cottonseed or canola, already rancid from the extraction process – and mix them with tiny metal particles – usually nickel oxide. The oil with its nickel catalyst is then subject to hydrogen gas in a high-pressure, high-temperature reactor. Next, soap-like emulsifiers and starch are squeezed into the mixture to give it a better consistency; the oil is yet again subjected to higher temperatures when it is steam-cleaned. This removes its unpleasant odour. Margarines natural colour, an unappetising grey, is removed by bleach. Dyes and strong flavours must then be added to make it resemble butter. Finally the mixture is compressed and packaged in block or tubs and sold as a health food.”

The only way to flog this product is to add artificial colours and flavourings that trick the taste buds into thinking it may be a real source of natural food. It may trick the senses but it does not fool the body, however, who has to somehow deal with the fall-out of consuming such a bastardised source of food.

Partially hydrogenated fats and trans-fats

For decades the food industry favoured the use of “partially” hydrogenated fats (now banned), which should not to be confused with hydrogenated fats that are still in use. Partial hydrogenation was a technique used by the edible oil industry to halt hydrogenation mid-way into the process in order to keep the oil partially flexible.

The technique was popular with the food industry since it gave a creamier, smoother texture to the oil – perfect for spreads, ready-made pastries, biscuits, cakes etc. It extended the shelf-life of products (no need for refrigeration), had a higher melting point than cold pressed seed oil and could be re-used for repeat deep-fat frying. For decades partially hydrogenated fats have been consumed by those buying ready-made food.

Partial hydrogenation, however, has the unfortunate side-effect of turning the vegetable oil into a trans-fat. For decades nutritionists (including Mary Enig) were warning of the dangers of using trans-fats in our diet. Since a large proportion of our cells are made up of saturated fats the consumption of trans-fats, according to Enig, has the effect of hydrogenating our cells!

Partial hydrogenation has now been banned though the food industry is still allowed to use it in small proportions and remarkably the food industry is still permitted to use fully hydrogenated vegetable fats in all manner of their products. It should be stressed that in fully hydrogenated vegetable fats the trans-fat figuration does not appear. Saturated hydrogenated fat  is a much harder product for the food industry to work with so they continue to add small amounts of partially hydrogenated fats to “soften” up the final product.

The imbalance between Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids

Omega-3 and omega-6 are referred to as “essential” in that the body can not make them naturally. Traditionally, most peoples ate omega-3 and omega-6 from nuts, whole-grain foods, meats legumes and oily fish. In natural food – be it butter, fish oil, green vegetables, meat etc. the ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 is found in a balance of 1:1 or 1:10.

In the case of modern, GMO seed-oils that natural balance is dramatically altered. Seventy-five percent of safflower oil, for example, is made up of omega-6 with no trace of omega-3 – so, no ratio. In the case of sunflower oil, 65% of the oil is made up of omega-6 oils with no omega-3 present – so, again no ratio.

Why does this matter? This is important because, if omega-6 acts as the gas then omega-3 acts as the brake. If you allow omega-6 to get out of control it is the equivalent of a high-fuel diesel jet engine rampaging through the body with nothing to put a break on its excesses. This can cause all sorts of problems – mostly inflammatory but possibly (though this of course is always very hard to prove) some cancers.

Modern farming techniques, interference with the plants natural genetic make-up and a deterioration of the soils in which these plants grow results in most seed vegetable oils containing a far higher concentration of omega-6 oils compared to the omega-3 oils that would occur in nature.

Avoiding a fake

To sum up, given that all seed vegetable oils are relatively new-comers to the modern diet,  given that the vast majority of seed oils consumed derive from genetically modified plants, that most if not all are rancid or hydrogenated or both and that most have an omega-3, omega-6 imbalance, their use in the daily diet is discouraged and none of them have been included for use in any the recipes.

For those dependent on ready-made, convenience food ditching rancid, fake vegetable oils and fats will be a challenge.  They are ubiquitous and present in all convenience products on sale in super-markets and health food stores – from chocolates to ready-made crisps, from biscuits, cookies and cakes to taramasalta, humus, anchovies, mayonnaises (including mayonnaise labelled as “olive-oil” mayonnaise), to bread-crumbs on fish sticks and chicken nuggets and to my all time favourite – olives preserved in rape-seed oil. You name the ready-made product and you will find that is contains a high proportion of tasteless, odourless new seed oils labelled, innocently enough as vegetable fats.

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