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Best Oils for Health and The Problem with Seed Oils


Olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil stand out as healthier options compared to highly processed seed oils. Healthy oils are a valuable part of a nutritious diet supporting many cellular functions and helping to regulate appetite. The right choice of oil is paramount. There has been growing concern over the potential health risks associated with seed oils due to their high omega-6 content and their pro-inflammatory nature.


Olive oil in  a glass bottle

The modern kitchen often relies on a wide range of cooking oils for culinary purposes. Among these, seed oils like canola, soybean, and sunflower oil, have been widely accepted due to their universal availability and low cost. Some have even been marketed for their purported health benefits. However, despite their popularity, there has been growing concern over the potential health risks associated with these oils.


Seed Oils and the Omega-6:Omega-3 Balance

Seed oils are rich in omega-6 fatty acids. The conversation about omega-6 fatty acids is a bit like discussing a car's gas pedal — essential but not something to be slammed on all the time. The typical Western diet is characterized by an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio that can range from 15:1 to 20:1, a far cry from the ideal 1:1 ratio that our ancestors consumed.

Omega-6 fatty acids are important for numerous bodily functions, such as supporting cell growth and brain function. However, excessive intake can set the stage for a host of issues. Think of it as an imbalance in the checks and balances system of your body's inflammation response. Omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory, and when consumed in large amounts without a counterbalance of omega-3s, they can tip the scales toward chronic inflammation.

French fries

This chronic, low-grade inflammation is like a smoldering fire that contributes to the pathogenesis of various diseases like heart disease, cancer, and even neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer's. Recent research shows a causative link between omega-6 oil and coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis. Men take note that this can affect more than just your heart health, but can be a major cause of erectile dysfunction. Moreover, a surplus of omega-6 can compete with omega-3s for the same enzymes, which could inhibit the benefits that omega-3s offer, such as anti-inflammatory effects.


In practical terms, reducing omega-6 means watching your intake of processed foods, and processed oils like corn, soybean, and sunflower oils. If you're an advocate for your own health, striking the right balance between omega-6 and omega-3 can make a world of difference in tipping the inflammation scales back in your favor.

Oil Processing as a Source of Injury

The journey of seed oils from their natural state to your kitchen pantry involves a series of complex processes that can dramatically alter their chemical composition. It's a bit like turning a fresh apple into a concentrated apple syrup; you might start with something nutritious, but the end product can be quite different.


Let's start with extraction. There are generally two methods to extract oil from seeds—cold pressing and solvent extraction.


Filling an industrial vat full of oil

Heat extraction of seed oils is often referred to as "hot pressing," and it's a bit like using a pressure cooker to speed up the cooking of a stew; it's more efficient but has trade-offs when it comes to preserving the natural flavors and nutrients. In hot pressing, the seeds are usually cleaned and conditioned before they are subjected to high temperatures. This preheating allows for a higher yield, meaning you get more oil from the same quantity of seeds. From an industrial standpoint, this is beneficial as it maximizes output, making it an economically appealing option.


However, the heat does more than just improve efficiency. High temperatures can fundamentally alter the chemical structure of the fatty acids in the oil. In the worst-case scenario, heat can lead to the formation of trans fats, which are associated with a slew of health problems like increased LDL cholesterol and a higher risk of heart disease. It's akin to leaving a piece of metal out in the rain; exposure to the elements changes its structural integrity, often for the worse.


Moreover, heat can destroy some of the oil's natural antioxidants, such as vitamin E, which help fight inflammation and oxidative stress in the body. So, while the oil may still serve its basic function as a cooking medium, many of the health benefits can be compromised. It's like opting for fast food when you could have had a well-balanced, home-cooked meal; both will fill you up, but the long-term impacts on your health could be vastly different.


Heat extraction is often combined with chemical solvent extraction to maximize yields, which brings in a whole new set of concerns, including the possibility of chemical residues being left behind in the oil. Solvent extraction uses chemical solvents like hexane to leach out the oil. This method is efficient but can leave behind chemical residues. Imagine squeezing out a sponge soaked in water as opposed to wringing it out in a chemical solution—clearly, you’d want the former for something you're going to consume.


Next comes refining, which involves several steps like neutralization, bleaching, and deodorization. During this phase, the oils are treated with chemicals to remove impurities and are often exposed to high heat. This process can degrade some of the beneficial compounds in the oil and even create trans fats, which are unequivocally bad for your health. It's akin to stripping down a piece of antique wooden furniture to its bare skeleton, losing its charm and intricate details in the process.

Rusty chains

And let’s not forget about the issue of oxidation. These oils are rich in polyunsaturated fats, which are highly susceptible to oxidation. Oxidation is the nutritional equivalent of rusting, and consuming oxidized oils can contribute to inflammation and other health issues. The refining process, with its use of heat and exposure to air, can promote this oxidation.


Cold Pressed Oils Are Better

The cold-pressing technique for extracting oils from seeds is like artisan bread-making; it's a slower, more meticulous process, but the quality of the end product often speaks for itself. In cold pressing, seeds—whether they be olives, sunflowers, or flaxseeds—are mechanically pressed to extract their oils. The term "cold" is a bit of a misnomer because some heat is naturally generated due to friction, but it's significantly less than the heat used in hot pressing.


One major advantage is nutrient preservation. Because the seeds are not subjected to high heat, many of the oil's natural antioxidants, like vitamin E, and beneficial compounds are left intact. Think of it as cooking vegetables on low heat to preserve their color, crunch, and nutritional value. Moreover, the absence of chemical solvents means you avoid the risk of residual chemicals in your oil. So, what you get is a more "authentic" oil, which can offer a broader range of health benefits and often has a more robust flavor and color.

Another advantage is the lower likelihood of oxidation during the extraction process. Remember, oxidation in oils is akin to rust in metals; it's undesirable and can lead to inflammation and other health issues. Cold-pressed oils, with their more stable fatty acid profiles, are generally less susceptible to this.



Bread with olive oil for dipping

However, it's not all sunshine and rainbows. Cold-pressed oils often come with a higher price tag. The yield is typically lower, and the process is more time-consuming, which drives up costs. They also often have a shorter shelf life compared to their heat-extracted counterparts, meaning they can go bad more quickly. Like a fresh loaf of artisan bread, it's best enjoyed sooner rather than later.


Additionally, because they are less processed, cold-pressed oils can sometimes contain higher levels of natural impurities, which could be a concern for some people. It's like opting for raw honey over processed honey; you get the full range of flavors and benefits, but also any naturally occurring imperfections.


Cold-pressed oils offer a healthier alternative. These oils are extracted through mechanical means without the use of high heat or chemical solvents. This method ensures a cleaner, more nutritious oil that is less likely to contain harmful residues. Nonetheless, it is prudent to moderate the consumption of seed oils even if they are cold-pressed.


Choosing the Best Oils for Health and Wellness

The world of culinary oils is a bit like an artist's palette: different oils provide different hues of health benefits, flavors, and cooking properties. Olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil are often considered superior alternatives to highly processed seed oils. These are the best oils for health, each with its own unique set of advantages.


When it comes to olive oil, "extra virgin" is your best bet. This label signifies that the oil is made from the first cold pressing of olives, without any heat or chemicals, preserving the integrity of the fatty acids and antioxidants. Look for bottles that specify the origin of the olives and ensure they come from a reputable source. Also, opt for dark glass bottles to protect the oil from light degradation. Olive oil is a star player in the Mediterranean diet and is lauded for its heart-healthy benefits. It’s rich in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants like oleocanthal, which has anti-inflammatory properties similar to ibuprofen. Using olive oil in salad dressings is a classic example, but you can also use it for low-heat sautéing and as a finishing oil to add flavor to cooked vegetables or even soups. Think of it as the reliable "utility player" on a sports team—good for many roles but not the one you'd pick for high-heat scenarios. Its lower smoke point means it's not ideal for frying or high-heat cooking.

Avocados

Avocado oil is like the new kid on the block that everyone is curious about. It has a high smoke point, around 500°F, making it a go-to for high-heat cooking methods like stir-frying, grilling, and searing. It's also rich in monounsaturated fats and vitamin E. You can use it almost anywhere you'd use olive oil, but with the added bonus of being able to withstand higher temperatures. The best avocado oil should be "virgin" or "extra virgin," meaning it is unrefined and extracted without solvents. The oil should be a vibrant green, indicative of a high chlorophyll content. Check the bottle for an expiration date; quality avocado oils often have a shelf life of about a year. Just like olive oil, you'll want to keep this one in a cool, dark place to maintain its quality.


For coconut oil, the terms "virgin" or "extra virgin" are generally signs of a higher-quality product, but the industry isn't as regulated, so those terms can be a bit nebulous. What you want to look for is "cold-pressed" and "unrefined," indicating minimal processing. If you'd like to reap the full health benefits, opt for organic varieties. Coconut oil comes in both solid and liquid forms at room temperature, so choose the form that best suits your cooking needs. Coconut oil has had its share of controversies, mainly because it's high in saturated fats. However, it’s important to note that the saturated fat in unrefined coconut oil is primarily in the form of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are metabolized differently than long-chain saturated fats found in animal products. Coconut oil great for baking, frying, and even in coffee as a creamer substitute for those following a ketogenic diet.


Incorporating Healthy Oils into Your Diet

A bowl of olives with olive oil

Incorporating healthy oils into your diet can act as a natural appetite regulator, helping you feel fuller for longer periods. Oils rich in unsaturated fats, like olive oil or avocado oil, slow down the emptying of the stomach, effectively curbing sudden hunger pangs. This makes you less likely to reach for unhealthy snacks, thus aiding in weight management. Beyond hunger control, these oils are veritable multitaskers for your health. They offer anti-inflammatory benefits, support cognitive function, and even play a role in maintaining heart health by helping to balance cholesterol levels. Think of them as the "Swiss Army knife" in your dietary toolkit, offering multiple benefits in a single, flavorful swoop.

Conclusion

In the culinary and health landscapes, oils are more than just a cooking necessity; they're a crucial component of a well-rounded, health-conscious diet. While it might be tempting to reach for the most convenient or cheapest bottle on the supermarket shelf, taking a moment to consider the extraction methods and smoke points can make a world of difference. Opt for olive oil when you're looking to enrich salads, make heart-friendly low-heat dishes, or simply add a flourish of flavor to a finished meal. Turn to avocado oil for those high-heat culinary adventures, ensuring that you're not just cooking efficiently but also preserving nutritional value. And don't give coconut oil the cold shoulder; when used thoughtfully, it can add a tropical flair to your meals without compromising your health.


The oils you choose to incorporate into your meals are not just drops in the pan; they're the underpinning of a proactive health strategy. Whether you're navigating chronic illness or simply striving for longevity, making smart, informed choices about your oils can steer your health journey in the right direction. So, the next time you find yourself in the oil aisle, remember: You're not just shopping; you're investing in your well-being.


Recent Articles that sparked some of this conversation:

DiNicolantonio, J.J., & O’Keefe, J.H. 2018. Omega-6 vegetable oils as a driver of coronary heart disease: the oxidized linoleic acid hypothesis. Open Heart 5:e000898. doi: 10.1136/openhrt-2018-000898


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