When deciding which oil to use when cooking, you will probably be faced with a wide range of choices. A number of cooking oils, primarily those that are created from common seeds, such as sunflower and canola oils, are “refined” so that they look, taste and feel the way you might expect them to (businesses call this “complying with consumer expectations”). Through the process of refinement, which almost unconditionally includes the use of factory-type industrial machines and processes, as well as a few nasty chemical substances, each oil is standardized so that the color, taste and aromas found in each bottle are exactly the same. From distilling the oils to adding sodium hydroxide in order to remove a seed’s natural pigments and waxes, crude vegetable oil refinement can severely increase the average household member’s risk of heart disease and propensity for health complications.
Although it is possible to purchase oils that are not refined, such oils are often more expensive and do not fit the traditional usage criteria expected of refined oils. Unrefined oils almost never include oils produced from seeds. They can, on rare occasions, include oils produced from nuts. Common unrefined oils include olive and coconut oils. Just because an oil is refined does not mean it is healthy, however. Coconut oil, for example, is made up of 87% saturated fat, a type of fat that is commonly associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer than unsaturated fat. Although the saturated fat content of oils greatly differ, regardless of whether the oil is refined or not, the processes used in the refinement of oil result in the creation of a product that can not be considered healthy by any means.
The Refinement Process
Typically, the refinement process of a vegetable oil made from seeds would resemble the following steps. Genetically modified seeds (usually altered to withstand large doses of harmful pesticides as well as increase their size before harvest) are gathered and thoroughly cleaned, then macerated. A thick pulp is formed which is heated and further pressed to yield an oily paste. The paste is then soaked in a chemical solvent primarily made up of hexane that is used to extract as many droplets of oil as possible.
Hexane, a product of another refining process, has been declared significantly detrimental to health, resulting in nausea and vertigo if inhaled, and can act as a mild anesthetic. In 2010 and 2011, it was reported that Chinese workers manufacturing iPhone components had suffered hexane poisoning. Imagine if all the other toxic elements contained in mobile phones were used to treat your food. You would be transformed into a walking piece of oxidized metal in no time!
Once the seeds and oil have been treated with a hexane solvent, phosphate, another chemical substance not usually contained in food (to say the least) is added to the mix in order to help separate the oil and macerated seeds. The solvent is then evaporated and the macerated seeds are used to create by-products such as animal feed. Finally, the oil is further refined by removing impurities through the addition of sodium hydroxide and removing unwanted coloring by passing the oil through activated carbon. Steam is also commonly used to remove unwanted odors.
If it isn’t obvious by now that refined oil probably isn’t something you want to be consuming, it may be useful to note that, if processed vegetable oil is to be turned into a solid such as margarine, hydrogen gas is forced into the oil at a very high level of pressure, helping turn unsaturated fat into trans fat, a type of fat well known for being directly linked to an increase risk of cancer and heart disease.
Although the majority of cooking oils are refined, unrefined alternatives are all around us. Olive oil, extracted from olives in a purely mechanical fashion, when consumed in moderation, can be quite beneficial to one’s health. Although refined oils are in no way healthy, some refined oils are less damaging than others. For example, canola oil, although having been treated through multiple chemical processes, contains a total amount of saturated fat that is lower than olive oil, making it healthier than peanut or sunflower oil, which each have a concentration of 17% and 13% saturated fat, respectively, compared to the total saturated fat content of canola oil, which is a mere 8%.
Although using 100% unrefined oil all the time is not something all of us can do at the moment, taking the time to research how each oil is produced, and then consequently making an informed dietary decision based on that can go a long-way in maintaining good health.