The consumption of vegetable oils has increased dramatically in the past century.
Most mainstream health professionals consider them healthy, but vegetable oils may cause health problems.
Their health effects vary depending on what fatty acids they contain, what plants they are extracted from, and how they are processed.
This article looks at the evidence to determine if vegetable and seed oils are bad for your health.
What are they, and how are they made?
Edible oils extracted from plants are commonly known as vegetable oils.
In addition to their use in cooking and baking, they’re found in processed foods, including salad dressings, margarine, mayonnaise, and cookies.
Ordinary vegetable oils include soybean, sunflower, olive, and coconut oil.
Refined vegetable oils were unavailable until the 20th century when the technology to extract them became available.
These are extracted from plants using either a chemical solvent or oil mill. Then they are often purified, refined, and sometimes chemically altered.
Health-conscious consumers prefer oils that are made by crushing or pressing plants or seeds rather than those produced using chemicals.
Summary: Edible plant oils are commonly known as vegetable oils. The oil is often extracted with chemical solvents or by crushing or pressing the plants or seeds.
Consumption has increased drastically
In the past century, the consumption of vegetable oils has increased at the expense of other fats like butter.
They are often labeled “heart-healthy” and recommended as an alternative to sources of saturated fat, such as butter, lard, and tallow.
Vegetable oils are considered heart-healthy because studies consistently link polyunsaturated fat to a reduced risk of heart problems, compared with saturated fat.
Despite their potential health benefits, some scientists are worried about how much of these oils people consume.
These concerns mainly apply to oils that contain a lot of omega-6 fats, as explained in the next chapter.
Summary: The consumption of vegetable oils increased drastically in the last century. While some vegetable oils have been linked to health benefits, there are concerns about the excessive intake of omega-6.
You may want to avoid vegetable oils high in omega-6
It’s important to note that not all plant oils are harmful to your health. For example, coconut oil and olive oil are both excellent choices.
Consider avoiding the following plant oils due to their high omega-6 contents:
- soybean oil
- corn oil
- cottonseed oil
- sunflower oil
- peanut oil
- sesame oil
- rice bran oil
Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are essential, meaning that you need some of them in your diet because your body can’t produce them.
Throughout evolution, humans got omega-3 and omega-6 in a certain ratio. While this ratio differed between populations, it’s estimated to have been about 1:1.
However, this ratio in the Western diet has shifted dramatically in the past century and may be as high as 20:1.
Scientists have hypothesized that too much omega-6 relative to omega-3 may contribute to chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is an underlying factor in some of the most common Western diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis.
Observational studies have also associated a high intake of omega-6 fat to an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease.
However, these associations don’t necessarily imply a causal relationship.
Studies investigating the effects of omega-6 fat consumption generally do not support the idea that these fats increase inflammation.
For instance, eating a lot of linoleic acids, the most common omega-6 fat, doesn’t appear to affect blood levels of inflammatory markers.
Scientists do not fully understand what effects omega-6 fats have on the body, and more studies are needed.
Suggested read: What is the healthiest oil for deep frying?
However, if you are concerned, avoid oils or margarine that contain oils high in omega-6 fats. Olive oil is an excellent example of a healthy cooking oil low in omega-6.
Summary: Some vegetable oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids. Scientists have hypothesized that eating too much omega-6 can lead to increased inflammation and potentially contribute to disease.
These oils are easily oxidized
Saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated fats differ by the number of double bonds their chemical structures contain:
- Saturated fats: no double bonds
- Monounsaturated fats: one double bond
- Polyunsaturated fats: two or more double bonds
The problem with polyunsaturated fats is that all these double bonds make them susceptible to oxidation. The fatty acids react with oxygen in the atmosphere and start deteriorating.
The fat you eat isn’t only stored as fat tissue or burned for energy — it’s also incorporated into cell membranes.
If you have a lot of polyunsaturated fatty acids in your body, your cell membranes are more sensitive to oxidation.
In short, you have a very high level of fragile fatty acids that can easily be degraded to form harmful compounds.
For this reason, it may be best to eat polyunsaturated fats in moderation. Vary your diet by eating healthy saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats.
Summary: Oils that are high in polyunsaturated fats are susceptible to oxidation, both on the shelf and inside your body.
They are sometimes high in trans fats
Commercial vegetable oils may also contain trans fats, which form when the oils are hydrogenated.
Food producers use hydrogenation to harden vegetable oils, making them solid like butter at room temperature.
For this reason, vegetable oils found in margarine are commonly hydrogenated and full of trans fats. However, trans-fat-free margarine is becoming increasingly popular.
Suggested read: Is canola oil healthy? Nutrition, downsides, and alternatives
However, non-hydrogenated vegetable oils may also contain some trans fats. One source looked at vegetable oils in the United States and discovered that their trans-fat contents varied between 0.56% and 4.2%.
A high intake of trans fats is associated with all sorts of chronic diseases, including heart disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes.
If a product lists hydrogenated oil as an ingredient, it likely contains trans fats. For optimal health, avoid these products.
Summary: Hydrogenated vegetable oils are high in trans fat, associated with various health problems. They are found in certain margarine, ice cream, and cookies.
Vegetable oils and heart disease
Health professionals often recommend vegetable oils for those at risk of heart disease.
The reason is that vegetable oils are generally low in saturated fat and high in polyunsaturated fat.
The benefits of reduced saturated fat intake are controversial.
However, studies show that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat reduces the risk of heart problems by 17%. Still, it has no significant effects on the risk of death from heart disease.
Furthermore, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids appear to have a more significant benefit than omega-6.
Nutritionists have raised concerns about the high amounts of omega-6 found in some vegetable oils. However, there is currently no solid evidence showing that omega-6 fats affect your risk of heart disease.
In conclusion, a moderate intake of vegetable oils seems to be a safe bet if you wish to reduce your risk of heart disease. Olive oil may be one of your best options.
Summary: Vegetable oils appear to be heart-friendly. While some nutritionists are worried about the high levels of omega-6 in certain oils, there is currently no evidence that they raise the risk of heart disease.
Vegetable oils generally seem to be healthy sources of fat.
Hydrogenated vegetable oils that are high in unhealthy trans fats are an exception to this.
Suggested read: Why extra virgin olive oil is the healthiest fat on earth
Some nutritionists are also concerned about the high amounts of polyunsaturated omega-6 fats in certain vegetable oils.
Olive oil is an excellent example of a healthy vegetable oil low in omega-6. It might be one of your best options.