Why You Need to Ditch Seed Oils for the Good of Your Health

Why You Need to Ditch Seed Oils for the Good of Your Health

A lot of "Is this good or bad for me?" nutrition questions are highly debatable, whether it's fasting, exclusion diets, or balancing macros and micros. But one that seems increasingly cut and dried is that seed (aka vegetable) oils are like kryptonite for many people. And yet they're in just about every kind of processed food and are staples in most kitchens and pantries. In this post, we'll explore why these oils are so bad for your health and suggest some healthy alternatives. 

Championing Crisco

First, it’s time for a quick history lesson (no groaning, we promise this won’t take long). Before the early 20th century, humans consumed omega-3 fatty acids from fish. Our ancestors ate saturated fat in meat and dairy products. And they consumed both kinds of omega-6 – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated (PUFAs) fatty acids – from nuts and seeds. But in 1911, a new kind of fat was created by those crafty chemists at Procter & Gamble. They used a hydrogenation technique to transform unused cotton seeds into a lab-created seed oil that they called Crisco.

So how did a company best known for selling soaps and shampoos get this new oil onto store shelves and into Americans’ homes? P&G pursued the same strategy as when promoting home goods – pay a powerhouse advertising agency’s Don Draper-like pros to convince the public that it was worth paying for. The clever marketers came up with eight strategies, which included handing out doughnuts fried in Crisco in major cities, giving away free cookbooks with Crisco recipes, and mailing samples to stores, restaurants, and “home economists,” the predecessors of nutritionists and dieticians.

65 years after they created Crisco, which quickly became a staple in kitchens nationwide, P&G unleashed another innovation from their lab: hydrogenated canola oil. Evoking a combination of purity and prudish values, they named it Puritan Oil. Like Crisco, it was much cheaper than premium products like olive oil. Once again, a massive marketing campaign ensued, and doctors, nutritionists, and dieticians were convinced of the health benefits.

Selling the Saturated Fat and Sugar Lies

At the same time, a combination of Big Sugar and seed/vegetable oil companies had grabbed hold of the assumptions made by University of Minnesota physiologist Ancel Keys, who’d suggested in the 1950s that saturated fats were the root of rising heart disease rates. A paper published in JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that sugar companies paid researchers to write papers that exaggerated the possible connection between saturated fat and heart disease, downplayed the role of excess sugar consumption, and recommended consuming more seed oils. Several of these individuals later contributed to government-issued healthy eating guidelines.

So the war on butter, cheese, and eggs continued, culminating in the low-fat craze in the 80s. But while saturated fat was now persona non grata, seed oils were still being promoted as healthy. Nutrition undergrads received pamphlets that compared various fat sources and declared that canola oil was “better than all other types of vegetable oil,” not least because it was “94% saturated fat-free.” Meanwhile, saturated fat was blamed for higher cholesterol, and so supposedly increased heart disease. And who supplied such opinions via colleges and universities? Our noble friends at P&G! To spread their product-promoting false gospel, they and other producers also co-opted government agencies and organizations that the public looked to for health guidance.

Soaring Seed Oil Consumption

Sadly, this strategy of direct-to-consumer marketing, cheap pricing, and paying authorities to promote their products while demonizing saturated fat paid off for the synthetic cooking oil manufacturers. As a result, the amount of seed oils in the American diet skyrocketed. “Historically, we can see that seed oil use increased from approximately 2 grams per day in 1865, to 5 grams per day in 1909, to 18 grams a day in 1999,” wrote Dr. Joseph Mercola in a blog post. “As of 2008, the average consumption was 29 grams a day. In terms of percentages, seed oils accounted for approximately 1/100th of total calories in 1865 and increased to more than 1/4th of total calories by 2010 — a 25-fold increase!”

So what happened to the health of Americans as so-called “vegetable oils” (another marketing ploy – most have nothing to do with veggies) became staples in almost every home and commercial kitchen in the land? Sorry to say that it’s not good news. While Ancel Keys was right to be concerned about an increase in cardiovascular disease, if he could see our society now, he would be downright mortified (and hopefully repentant for unfairly blaming saturated fat for all that ails us). Over two thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, 37.3 million have diabetes, and 37 percent of adults have metabolic syndrome. Let’s now look at how seed oils might cause or contribute to such issues.

Linking Vegetable Oils to Health Problems

According to an article by Zero Acre, which supplies healthier cooking oils to consumers and restaurant chains like Chipotle, stated that “the only diet and lifestyle factors that were found to be more dangerous than increased vegetable oil consumption were heavy smoking and severe obesity.” The piece goes on to cite research linking seed oils to immune dysfunction, increased incidence of certain cancers, and heart disease.

Dr. Cate Shanahan, the author of Deep Nutrition, has found so much damning evidence on the harm that seed oils do to the human body that she has created a list called the Hateful Eight: cottonseed, canola, soybean, corn, sunflower, grape seed, rice bran, and safflower. In a blog post, she stated that seed oils can increase the body’s dependence on sugar while disrupting the metabolism of it, creating a vicious cycle that makes hypoglycemia, diabetes, and other metabolic diseases more likely.

The story goes on to state that excessive seed oil consumption increases oxidative stress, causing cell damage and creating a chronic inflammation state in which diseases flourish. Oxidation also weaponizes LDL cholesterol, leading to arterial blockages and increasing the risk of other forms of cardiovascular disease. High seed oil consumption can also aggravate the digestive system, worsening conditions like Crohn’s disease, colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome, and negatively impacting the gut microbiome.

Choosing Healthier Fats

So if seed oils are a no go from a health perspective, what should you eat instead? When cooking, ditch the Hateful Eight in favor of extra virgin olive oil, grass-fed butter, and cold-pressed coconut oil. In recent years, avocado oil has also become more popular, but select your options wisely, as a study conducted at UC Davis found that 18 of 20 brands tested contained seed oils. Chosen Foods was one of the two that was shown to contain only avocados. When you’re going to eat out, check the Local Fats website or download the Seed Oil Scout app to find eateries that don’t cook with seed oils.

Once you’ve upgraded your cooking oils, start looking more closely at ingredient labels to further weed out seed oils. Minimizing your intake of processed foods will help, as even premium options at expensive stores often contain one or more of the Hateful Eight to cut input costs. So choose whole snack foods like nuts, seeds, fruit, and veggies when possible and get your fat during meals from grass-fed meat and dairy and pasture-raised eggs. If you feel the need for something crunchy, check out chips from Sieta and Boulder Canyon, popcorn from Lesser Evil, and Masa tortilla chips.