The Oily Truth

First day of school is under my belt and I am feeling good about it so far. I’d almost forgotten how painful all the administrative details of the First Day can be—but they’re over with now and our instructor even managed to squeeze in about 45 minutes of lecture (to make sure we’d come back next week, no doubt).

One of the most interesting topics she touched upon was refined oils, and how decided boorish they really are. I’d heard plenty of stuff about how canola oil was not so good as it is highly processed and so on, but I never really spend much time looking into what “processed” meant. Apparently, canola oil goes through 80 (!) steps to turn it from rapeseeds to oil. And, alas, while canola is a particularly extreme example, all refined oils go through a similar process:

  1. Oil is pressed, using extreme force, creating friction and heat (*Expeller pressed oils are heated to a somewhat lower temperature, but only olive, sesame, coconut and nut oils can be truly “cold pressed”).
  2. Often treated with hexane solvent (a petroluem biproduct known to be carcinogenic) to extract more oil
  3. Injected with phosphate and put through a centrifuge to separate the oil and plant solids
  4. Degummed to remove the natural lethicin content (important for memory and cognitive function, cardiovascular health and liver function)
  5. Neutralized by treating the oil with sodium hydroxide (sound familiar? It’s in Drano) to remove even smaller bits of residue, such as pigments (and vitamins)
  6. Bleached using heat and carbon or clay to filter out still more of the “impurities”, including nearly all of the natural antioxidants and nutrients.
  7. Deodorized using pressurized steam (at over 500 °F) to make the oil seem like something you might be willing to ingest.

Ick. Our instructor mentioned the deodorizing step in particular, explaining that oils oxidize and go rancid from the heat and time to perform all of the steps above (and more). This really struck me. If I picked up a bottle of oil from the shelf and it had gone rancid, no way would I use it or even be tempted to, but it would seem that most of the oils we use regularly in our kitchens are rancid, just in disguise. Blech. When we ingest these oxidized oils, the antioxidants in our bodies are pulled away from performing their duties to instead try to “anti-oxidize” the ingested oil.

So, what’s a girl (whose famous chocolate chip cookie recipe depends on refined sunflower oil) to do?! Well, there is good news. As I mentioned above, certain oil producing plants can be cold pressed to produce shelf stable, nutrient (and flavor) rich oils for all sorts of applications. Olive oil is the most familiar, and arguably the most versatile, but certainly not the only option. For higher heat, coconut oil (makes sure it’s unrefined) works like a charm or macadamia nut oil (a new one for me). For medium to low heat, (untoasted) sesame oil, nut oils (walnut, hazelnut, etc.) and avocado oil are tasty options. And for raw applications, flax seed oil is an exceptionally healthy choice. And, my vegan conscience wrestles with this one, but fresh, local, humanely produced butter and ghee are good choices as well, in moderation.

Of course, it’s healthiest of all to ingest most the fat in our diets through whole foods themselves. Instead of using a heavy hand with the cooking oil, go nuts with nuts, seeds, coconut, avocados, flax meal, chia seeds—even oats are 10% fat. And, if you regularly eat a diet high in colorful fruits, veggies and spices (and bonus points for sea vegetables!), the antioxidants in your body will be numerous enough that diverting some to deal with the doughnut that just came down the pipes will not kill you…