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How to Choose Earth-Friendly Edible Oils

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Discovering options that are better for the health of ourselves and the planet.

By Sheila Harrington Posted Jun 18, 2014

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Like any food product, there are oils that are produced more sustainably than others, and those that are better for our health. There is usually a lot of processing involved in the production of oils before they reach your kitchen, from where the oils come from, to how it is metabolized in our bodies, to where and how long to store it, and oh yes, how it tastes! Here is an introduction to earth and people-friendly edible oils.

How Oils are Made

Most oils come from extracting, expressing or decanting various parts of plant seeds or nuts. Common plants include: sunflower, safflower, sesame and grapeseed oils; from nuts we get peanut, soybean, almond, flax, pumpkin and walnuts. The coconut, palm, and olive oils are squeezed from the pulp or flesh of the fruit.

Some oils are expeller or cold-pressed (such as olive, peanut, sunflower). Expeller pressing is a mechanical method of extracting the oil from the seed, nut or algae.

Extraction usually requires the use of hexane, which is a solvent and cleaning agent commonly used to extract oil from seeds and vegetables. Unfortunately, this product is unhealthy for workers especially. The EPA has a hazard summary for this product.

Cold-pressed (or extra virgin) oils are made by using pressure to extract the oil from the seeds, grains, nuts, etc., No heat is used during the processing, which is good because heat degrades the healthy benefits of the oil. Extra Virgin also means that it is not deodorized nor was any chemical solvent used.

Another factor in choosing oils is their impact on the environment. Are some cooking oils more environmentally sustainable than others? Let’s take a look at the popular cooking oils available to consumers today, and how they compare as earth-friendly staples in the modern kitchen.

Palm Oil

In the last month, there have been media attention and social media petitions against the processes used to create palm oil and the resulting effect on rainforest ecosystems. Palm oil has gained an increasing market share over the last decade. Unfortunately, it turns out that the rainforest in Southeast Asia is being cleared to grow more palm trees to make oil that is sold directly or added to those tasty snacks many of us like to eat.

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Originally produced in Africa, today 85% of palm oil is produced for export in Indonesia and Malaysia. Some 40 – 50% of household products in the US and Canada use palm oil.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the equivalent size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil production. This large-scale deforestation is pushing many species to extinction, and findings show that if nothing changes species like the orangutan could become extinct in the wild within the next 5-10 years, and Sumatran tigers less than 3 years.

The UN considers the deforestation and habitat destruction in Borneo and Sumatra a “conservation emergency.” Over 300,000 animals are injured, killed or captured during both cutting and production of palm oil. The orangutan is a keystone species for the regeneration of the rainforest. Amazingly, scientists say that rainforest seeds pass through the orangutan’s stomachs, germinating once they have been deposited in the forest. Of course, the burning of forests to plant palm trees is also a significant problem, causing Indonesia to be ranked as the 3rd highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.

I remember learning about the indigenous people of Malaysia in the mid ‘90s when Wade Davis and Thom Henley brought a couple of Malaysian people on a national tour throughout the world to help publicize their plight.

Today, the United Nations reports, “Countless villages have been displaced due to development and have not received the benefits and compensation they were promised. Land proclaimed as gazetted for the indigenous communities can quickly have that status removed, if its inhabitants are viewed as standing in the way of progress and financial benefit.”

Not only that, but according to consumer and environmental advocacy group, SumOfUs.org: Investigations have found workers being beaten by “enforcers”, locked in tiny barracks at night, and not allowed to leave for any reason. Meanwhile, the remaining forests of Indonesia are storing as much carbon dioxide as the entire earth emits in a year, meaning that allowing the destruction to continue could detonate a carbon bomb.

If you want to send Pepsico a message to stop this unfair treatment of workers and reduce their involvement in clearing rainforest lands, contact the PepsiCo headquarters: (+1) 914-253-2000 or click here and sign their petition.

Canola Oil

Another common oil that has negative environmental impacts is Canola Oil. Canola oil is an engineered product created from the rapeseed plant. According to Dr. Josh Axe, canola oil was first bred in the early 1970′s as a natural oil, but in 1995 Monsanto created a genetically modified version of canola oil. By 2009, 90% of the Canadian crop was genetically engineered and as of 2005, 87% of canola grown in the United States was genetically modified.

Another negative health element about Canola oil is its effects on the human body. Because it is genetically engineered, it goes through an extensive extraction process that turns it into a partially hydrogenated oil that has been recently studied by the University of Florida at Gainesville and found to have high levels of trans fats as well.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is quickly becoming a “superfood,” with an increasing number of people using it to cook, drink and use as a skin cream. Along with palm oil, coconut oil is known to contain saturated fats which along with butter, margarine and other fats that stay solid at room temperature, have been promoted as the worst fats.

But new research has proven that coconut oil’s saturated fat is metabolized differently from meat or dairy-based oils. According to Kris Gunnars, “Coconut oil contains a lot of medium chain triglycerides, which are metabolized differently and can have therapeutic effects on several brain disorders.”

Not only have recent studies shown that coconut oil is processed differently in our bodies, it also is purported to reduce pathogens like bacteria and viruses, including Staphylococcus Aureus (cause of Staph infections). Coconut oil is also reputed to have improved health benefits for people with Alzheimer’s and epilepsy.

Other studies show that coconut oil contains HDL (the good) cholesterol while reducing LDL (the bad) cholesterol, resulting in reduced risk of heart disease. Not only that, but several other studies have revealed that coconut oil increases energy – burning off fat, and reducing hunger, leading to weight loss and energy gains.

Many health food stores today are selling coconut oil more than any other oils on the market. The smoke point of coconut oil is also higher than many other oils, making it ideal for cooking.

Olive Oil

The Mediterranean region is known for its healthy and delicious food. Olive oil is a traditional and highly valued economic crop in Greece and Italy. Extra-virgin olive oil is very low acid with a mild flavor and scent. Slightly higher acidity is found in Virgin olive oil, while pure olive oil is the thickest oil of the three and has the strongest flavor and aroma. Unrefined, pure olive oil is the gold standard for many of the world’s best cooks.

Olive oil is ranked as one of the best oils for making dressing, sauces or for pouring over pastas. It contains monounsaturated fat, which is recommended by most scientists and doctors as the least harmful type of oil for our bodies. Olive oils, like some other sunflower and sesame oils, are available with organic certification and cold pressed. This is a better method of expressing oil, by-passing the chemical extraction process. Some people don’t think cooking with olive oil is advisable because of its medium smoke point, although for low heat cooking it is recommended by several notable cooks.

Nutritional Values of Common Edible Oils

Oil is primarily fat. What kind of fat you should consume is a significant and complex topic. Fats are needed for a healthy body, especially for your skin and hair. Fat also insulates your body, provides energy, and helps absorb vitamins. A daily amount of fat is essential to health.

However, we know there are several kinds of dietary fats which are each metabolized in our bodies differently. These fats include saturated fats and unsaturated fats: trans fats, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Saturated fats, usually found in animal and dairy products and in processed hydrogenated foods, are definitely one of the culprits in today’s Western diet. Most saturated fats (coconut oil contains healthful saturated fats) have been demonized as artery clogging and linked to heart disease. It is important to always avoid “hydrogenated oil” or “partially hydrogenated oil” which are high in trans fats, which solidify around your arteries and blood vessels, including those made from corn, safflower, soy and other vegetable oils.

Cooking with oil

When oil is heated it changes its characteristics. Oils that are safe at room temperature can become unhealthy when heated. Flaxseed and sunflower oils have a very low smoke point. (225F) After that, unrefined corn, sunflower, olive, peanut, unrefined soy and walnut oils have a slightly higher smoke point (320F). Coconut and unrefined sesame oils are better at 350F.

Disposing of used cooking oil is important as well, because reusing fried or cooked oil which has solidified is unhealthy. Because oil is lighter than water if should not be put down a drain or into any water source, as it blocks oxygenation of water and spreads far. Thankfully, cooking oil can be recycled. It is used to produce soap and biodiesel.

In conclusion, to help the environment, people and wildlife, avoid Palm and Canola oil. To help your health, buy and use organic, unrefined, cold-pressed oils notable extra virgin olive oil and virgin coconut oil. For those rare times you need high temperature cooking, avocado oil and rice bran oil have high smoke points.

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  • jason chan

    Good Oils are hard to come by these days everything seems to be processed in a lab :///

  • MKG

    It’s my understanding that grapeseed oil has a high smoke point and is a healthy oil. Is this true? Is it earth friendly?

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