• Caitanya Chandra dasa

A few good reasons to stop using refined vegetable oils

In the 19th century, the US had a serious ecological crisis: after extracting the fibers, cotton planters were throwing the seeds in the rivers, creating pollution. As a response, the government passed a law prohibiting the practice. This became a problem to the planters, as the cotton seeds started to accumulate in their properties. For every 100 kilos of cotton fiber that one can get from the plants, there are 162 kilos of cotton seeds, so we can just imagine the huge piles of cotton seeds sitting in the farms.

Some intelligent man developed a technique to extract oil from the seeds, using chemical solvents. This oil was not considered edible, therefore it was sold as lamp oil. Since this oil was essentially made out of garbage, it was cheap to produce and therefore his company was able to make a good profit.

Later, cheaper kerosene oil, made from petroleum, put it out of business. He had then one of these crazy ideas: Maybe instead of selling his oil as lamp oil, he could just make people eat it! After perfecting the production of the cottonseed oil, and adding a hydrogenating process, he came up with something that could be used in place of butter or lard. This led to the creation of a product called Crisco, that made millions of dollars to the people involved.

Similarly, other refined vegetable oils originally appeared as ways to use waste from other production lines. Corn oil is made out of the germ that is left after the milling. The germ is mashed, mixed with a petroleum solvent (that binds to the oil) and then separated from the solvent using an industrial process that involves bleaching and other operations. Similarly, rice oil is made out of the germ of the rice, which is discarded after the polishing process used to make white rice. In fact, most of the refined vegetable oils in the market are made out of refuse. They appeared not out of desire for something healthy, but simply out of desire for profit, turning rejects that could be got for a very low cost into something that could be sold for more.

Traditionally, the only oils used by humans were ghee (in the case of civilized societies), animal fat (in the uncivilized ones) and cold-pressed oils. Ghee has a lot of medicinal properties, but it also is very rich in saturated fats, therefore too much ghee can easily cause indigestion. Because it’s difficult to digest and expensive, people would use it in small quantities. Fried samosas and pakoras would be a rare occurrence, usually only on special occasions. Cold pressed oils were also expensive, therefore also not used on a very large scale.

This changed dramatically when these cheap refined oils, made from sunflower seeds, corn, soy, rice, cottonseed, etc. became available in mass. At first, these oils were marketed as healthier alternatives to butter, but later it was discovered that they are very detrimental to our health, almost like margarine.

As mentioned, these cheap refined vegetable oils are obtained through the use of chemical solvents like hexane, which comes from petrol and is toxic. These solvents allow factories to extract almost all the oil from the seeds and grains (different from cold pressing, that extracts only a percentage), making the final product very cheap. The problem is that the final result is very unhealthy, heavily processed, devoid of useful nutrients and containing residues of the chemicals used to extract and process them.

Even if we forget about the solvents (or find some brand that produces cold pressed oil), vegetable oils still have another problem: they all have too much omega-6.

One very important point when we speak about health is the balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Both omega-3 and omega-6 are types of polyunsaturated fats that, in small amounts, are essential for different functions of the body. The problem starts when one gets too much of them. Omega-3 is beneficial, but too much omega-6 is dangerous because it provokes inflammation and interferes with the normal operation of the cells. Inflammation causes pain, lack of energy, mood swings and so on. Basically, it saps our energy and makes us feel uncomfortable. Chronic inflammation is also behind many serious diseases, including arthritis, atherosclerosis and even some types of cancer.

Ideally, we should eat a proportion close to 1:1 of omega-3 and omega-6, since they compete with each other in many bodily functions (the more omega-6 one eats, the more omega-3 he will need to compensate). The tricky part is that most lacto vegetarian sources are imbalanced, containing a lot of omega-6 and little omega-3. Some sources, like milk and butter, offer more or less balanced amounts, but practically, only chia seeds and flaxseeds have more omega-3 than omega-6. Therefore, the best is to reduce the intake of polyunsaturated fats in general, so we keep the imbalance small.

Butter has only a small amount of polyunsaturated fats. Olive oil, sesame seed oil, and mustard oil are moderated, just like most grains and seeds. The biggest villains are the above mentioned refined vegetable oils, including sunflower oil, soy oil, corn oil, etc. These cheap refined vegetable oils have a very detrimental effect on our health.

Sunflower oil, for example, is almost 70% omega-6, with little saturated fat and almost zero omega-3. Even relatively small amounts of vegetable oils in our diet are going to create a disbalance in the omega-3/omega-6 ratio, and large amounts can create serious problems. Not only are they prejudicial, but because these oils are light and easy to digest, we tend to eat a lot. You can eat a plate full of samosas fried in sunflower oil and live to eat another day, leaving your body to somehow deal with all this omega-6 fat.

Another problem with vegetable oils is that they become toxic when heated to high temperatures. Most of us heard the instruction that we should not use olive oil for frying because it becomes toxic. The problem, however, is not only with olive oil: almost all vegetable oils share the same problem. It comes from the polyunsaturated fats present in them. These unstable fats produce hazardous compounds when heated to high temperatures, therefore they are not suitable for frying or for baking in high temperatures. Ghee is free from this problem, and also has a higher smoke point, making it the only recommended oil for deep frying, exactly as prescribed in the Ayurveda.

If you want to keep your body healthy to serve Krsna, it’s better to renounce all samosas, pakoras and puris deep fried in vegetable oil. You can eat them sometimes when you get some fried in ghee, but even in this case it's important to not exaggerate. Ghee is the best type of oil for human consumption. Naturally, if one takes too much ghee it can be harmful, as anything if exaggerated, but as long as one uses it in moderation, it should bring only benefits. Ghee never goes bad (as long as it is properly stored), so you can buy a few kilos of butter and make ghee for the whole year at once if needed.

If ghee is not available, a second option are cold pressed oils, like coconut oil, olive oil, sesame seed oil, mustard seed oil, flaxseed oil and palm oil. As long as they are cold pressed, these oils preserve the nutrients and are not chemically processed. The main problem is that cold pressed oils (especially olive oil) are expensive and thus frequently adulterated with cheaper refined vegetable oils (usually canola oil or soy oil). If you go this route, it's important to check if the oil you are buying is bonafide.

Here is a short list of some bona-fide oils that we can consider using:

Ghee: Best oil. Don’t go rancid, can be used for frying, rich in vitamin A, D and K2, of which many of us are critically deficient. Also has a good amount of omega-3 in active form (DHA), being (alongside other milk products) practically the only source of this essential fat for vegetarians. Although the body can produce some DHA from the ALA found in vegetable sources, this conversion is inefficient and many factors can suppress it. Ghee doesn't contain significant amounts of lactose or casein, therefore can be used by people with intolerance to milk.

Coconut oil (cold pressed): Similar to ghee on fat composition, but lacks the subtle properties of the ghee, as well as the vitamins and the omega-3. On the other hand, it’s rich in lauric acid, which has antibacterial properties. It’s another healthy oil, the problem is that it can be even more expensive than ghee.

Extra-virgin olive oil: Olive oil is another good quality oil that has positive properties. The problem is that one has to do his research to avoid adulterated products. A recent research showed that up to 80% of the olive oil sold in the US is adulterated. In third world countries, the percentage can be even higher. Adulterated olive oil is frequently made of a mixture of refined canola oil, a percentage of olive oil and chemicals to imitate the taste and color. There is also adulteration by inedible oils (like lamp oil made from rotten olives picked from the ground).

Sesame seed oil (cold pressed): Cold pressed sesame seed oil is another good quality oil that can be used. The problem with cold pressed sesame seed oil is that it can go rancid in a period of a few months, therefore it needs to be bought fresh and kept in the fridge. This oil is also not suitable for frying.

Palm oil (cold pressed): Just like coconut oil, cold pressed palm oil is rich in saturated fat. It’s not particularly good, but it’s still a stable, natural oil that can be used in small amounts. However, not all palm oil in the market is of good quality.

Mustard oil (cold pressed): Common in India, mustard oil can also be used in small amounts. However, it can be dangerous in bigger doses due to the high content of erucic acid.

Here is a short list of oils that should be avoided:

Refined vegetable oils: These are the great vitalins. The list includes all the oils commercially extracted from seeds by using chemical solvents, like soy, corn, rice, cottonseed, canola and sunflower seed oils.

Refined olive oil (olive pomace oil): After passing through the cold pressing process, the rest of the oil in the olives is extracted using chemical solvents and heat, in a refining process very similar to the one used on cheap vegetable oils, and should be avoided for the same reasons. This type of oil can be sold under different names, like “pomace olive oil” or “extra-light olive oil”. This is a clear oil, that lacks the strong smell and taste present in the extra-virgin olive oil.

Rancid oils: Oils generally don’t spoil, but they can go rancid. Oils go rancid through a chemical reaction that causes the fat molecules in the oil to break down. This is a process that happens naturally (even refined vegetable oils have a shelf-life of about one year) and the process is accelerated up by exposure to air, light and heat. That’s the main reason why most oils from vegetable sources should not be used for frying: the high-temperatures, combined with the contact with the air make the oils quickly go rancid. Rancid oils are very detrimental to one's health. They are known to be pro-inflammatory and cause free radical damage to the cells.

Ghee and coconut oil rarely go rancid, but most other oils do. Cold pressed oils, like sesame seed oil, mustard oil and flaxseed oil can go rancid in a period of a few months even if just sitting in the bottle. These types of oil should be bought fresh and stored in the fridge.