Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Oily

Olive OilGodsend or Demon Seed?
What oils are truly healthy? I began to wonder that when someone on Facebook felt that they had debunked rumors that canola oil is unhealthy. Some sources say it is; some say it isn’t. How do you know who to believe?

So I explored a number of different sources to see what makes a healthy oil or fat and what doesn’t. Those sources included the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Oz of television fame, Mike Adams of, internationally known nutritionist Dr. Joel Fuhrman, raw-food guru Gabriel Cousens and a miscellaneous author from the U.K. because I'm an anglophile. Below, I present my confusing results.

First, some vocabulary words to know:
Monounsaturated fats=usually associated with good cardio health, but a small number of nutritionists dispute this
Polyunsaturated fats=also called essential fatty acids, these include the omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids which are good for you only if eaten in the right ratio
Saturated fats=generally seen as a bad fat
Trans fats=processed fats that are bad for you
Hydrogenated oils=a source of trans fats, these processed oils are bad for you

Okay, now you’re ready to explore The Good, the Bad and the Oily:

Our Government—Bastion of All Official Knowledge
Let’s begin with the USDA Dietary Guidelines. You may recall that these guidelines have been revised several times in recent years due to gross inaccuracies attributed to lobbyists in the beef and dairy industries.

According to the USDA, “Oils are fats that are liquid at room temperature, like the vegetable oils used in cooking. Oils come from many different plants and from fish. Oils are NOT a food group, but they provide essential nutrients.”

Interestingly, the USDA points out that coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil—which have been widely lauded for their positive health effects—are high in saturated fats and for nutritional purposes should be considered to be solid fats. The agency defines solid fats as “fats that are solid at room temperature, like butter and shortening.” Solid fats come from animal foods and can be made from vegetable oils through a process called hydrogenation. A USDA list of solid fats includes:
  • Butter, milk fat, cream
  • Pork (lard), beef (tallow, suet) and chicken fat
  • Stick margarine, shortening
  • Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils
  • Coconut oil, palm and palm kernal oils
The USDA advises consumers that saturated fats and trans fats tend to raise "bad" (LDL) cholesterol levels in the blood, which increases the risk for heart disease. To lower risk, the agency advises cutting back on foods containing saturated fats and trans fats. The foods to cut down on (with apologies to Paula Deen) include:
  • Many desserts and baked goods, such as cakes, cookies, donuts, pastries and croissants
  • Many cheeses and foods containing cheese, such as pizza
  • Sausages, hot dogs, bacon and ribs
  • Ice cream and other dairy desserts
  • Fried potatoes (French fries) - if fried in a solid fat or hydrogenated oil
  • Regular ground beef and cuts of meat with marbling or visible fat
  • Fried chicken and other chicken dishes with the skin
Good-bye, comfort food.

Having started with the USDA, let’s see what other well-regarded health sources have to say. We’ll begin with a pop culture health authority, Dr. Mehment Oz.

Into the Land of Oz
Dr. Oz is a fairly popular television health guru. He says that in order to protect your heart and lose weight, cook with canola oil. He says canola oil is the best oil to use for cooking, bar none.

He also touts rice bran oil as a “miracle” oil for cooking. (Sorry, I missed the episode on why.) He says that things labeled “vegetable oil” are no good to eat. He recommends macadamia nut oil for baking, toasted sesame oil for stir fries and walnut oil (which cannot be heated because it is fragile) for salad dressings or as a substitute for butter.

Going Ivy League
Now let’s go to The Harvard School of Public Health. It posted an article about healthy versus unhealthy oils on its site. Here’s what they had to say. “Olive, canola and other plant-based oils are rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fats.” Eat them. Trans fats and hydrogenated oils are bad; don't eat them.

Eat fatty fish (such as salmon and tuna), walnuts and canola oil because they all provide omega-3 fatty acids, essential fats that our bodies cannot make. Cut back on red meat (beef, pork, lamb), cheese, milk and ice cream. They are high in saturated fat. Instead, choose fish, chicken, nuts or beans.

Saddling Up with the Health Ranger
Then there’s Mike Adams, aka, the Health Ranger, an Internet health columnist with a substantial following who puts out a newsletter on Adams says that healthy “good fats” include omega-3 fatty acids, fish oils and monounsaturated fats. He says these fats are found in oily fish, nuts, seeds and avocados. He advises his readers to “give up cheap fats such as the low-cost vegetable oils found in the grocery store, and move to the more expensive fats, such as cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil.” The most important oils to avoid, he cautions, are hydrogenated oils because “hydrogenated oils are the number-one cause of heart disease and a major contributor to neurological disorders in the United States and around the world.”

What is his opinion on canola oil? Adams says “In addition to the plant having an unpredictable genetically modified (GMO) element, the oil is heated to over 300 degrees as part of a process to remove its extremely unpleasant odor. Processing vegetable oils may include degumming, batch acidulation, bleaching, deodorization, chemical extraction methods using solvents and high-temperature expeller pressing.” He adds that canola oil is monounsaturated, making it easy to promote as a similar but cheaper alternative to olive oil. “But real olive oil is not processed and doesn't contain toxic trans-fatty acids or GMOs. Canola is among the lowest of all oils with essential fatty acids, which happens to be the main health aspect of oils.”

Independent tests, he says, found some problems with canola oil. In one, piglets were fed a formula using canola oil. Their vitamin E was reduced to dangerous levels, resulting in sticky blood platelets that impeded blood flow. “Other tests have determined various imbalances with micronutrients,” Adams says. He believes that a healthier choice in oils would be cold pressed hemp, flax or olive oil.

Urban Legends
Someone pointed out to me that the trash talk about canola oil was debunked on So I visited there to see what the site had to say. There were no statements from doctors, dietitians or food scientists. The source they used to back their debunking was a financial and agribusiness writer. But let’s hear what he had to say.

According to the author: “It is true that canola oil is made from the seeds of rapeseed plants… but not all rapeseed plants grown for this purpose have been genetically engineered. In fact, according to D'Arce McMillan's Market Watch (business and financial website) article on the Western Producer Website (a website dedicated to reporting on Canadian agribusiness), currently only about half of them have been genetically altered….” The rest, apparently, were naturally hybridized through traditional methods. Aha! Only 50 percent of canola oil products on the market have been altered genetically! Wait, is that reassuring?

As for the rat study (wait, our study was with piglets, not rats…) the site says “the natural diet of a rat is made up of grains, raw fruits and vegetables and is very low in fatty acids. Introduce a load of heavier fats into a critter's diet and sure all sorts of health problems might develop.” Apparently, follow-up studies found that cooking oils other than canola (specifically, sunflower seed oil) produced the same results in laboratory rats. Okay, but what about the piglet study?

The Nutritarian Approach
What does medical doctor and nutritional guru Dr. Joel Fuhrman have to say? He believes that all diets are made of macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates and proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals). He says that popular diets try to balance fat, carbohydrates and proteins, when in fact, we need less of all of those and more micronutrients.

That said, he points out that a diet has to have some fat and the amount of fat varies per person depending on their genetic makeup and current state of health. He believes that the most important source of healthy oils is nuts and seeds, not animals or vegetables. He considers all animal fats, trans fats and refined oils (including canola oil) “dangerous fats.”

Even the sacred cow of olive oil is not good for your heart, according to Dr. Fuhrman, and is just as bad as most other fats that people eat. He says that 15 studies have shown that olive oil is not cardioprotective. “We have to eat less fat, but the fat we eat has to be high-nutrient fat,” he says. Sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts and flax seeds have a high level of nutrients.

Going Raw
Another viewpoint comes from Gabriel Cousens, a raw-food guru who runs the Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center in Arizona. He believes that a healthy diet is devoid of processed foods, which presumedly would include processed oils—canola, olive, you name it. Instead, he promotes an organic vegan diet consisting of vegetables, fruits, mature seeds, nuts, grains, beans, legumes, sea vegetables and algaes.

Foods should never be heated above 105 degrees so that all of their enzymes, vitamins and minerals are left intact, for use by the body. He does have an article on his website that touts coconut and palm kernel oils as healthy oils according to ancient Ayurvedic medicine. I assume these oils would need to be unprocessed versions to fit in with his dietary visions.

Advice from Across the Pond
When all else fails, consult the British. If for no other reason than: they seem so dignified. The Daily Mail in the U.K. carried an article about oils. Here is what author Mandy Francis had to say:

“Yet another piece of research has confirmed the benefits of omega 3 oils. As well as lowering the risk of heart disease and stroke, increasing concentration and helping those suffering from inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, they may also help prevent Alzheimer's, according to a new American study.” Wait, why isn't she citing a British study? Ah well.

She adds that not all omegas appear to be quite as healthy to eat when it comes to dementia. Researchers found that “overdosing” on oils rich in omega 6, such as sunflower oil, could have the reverse effect, possibly doubling the risk of developing dementia.

Apparently, most people tend to eat too high a proportion of omega 6 polyunsaturates (found in many vegetable oils, chicken and processed foods) and not enough omega 3 polyunsaturates (found in oily fish, some nuts, seeds and a select few vegetable oils). The general advice is that fats and oils should make up no more than about 33 per cent of our daily calorie intake. That comes to roughly seven tablespoons for a man, five for a woman.

Here’s how the author reviewed the pros and cons of commonly used oils.

So what have we learned here today? Here’s what most sources agree upon:

Negative stuff
  • Don’t eat anything labeled “vegetable oil”
  • Don’t eat hydrogenated oils or trans fats
  • Processed foods contain too much fat, so avoid them
  • Avoid overloading on Omega 6 oils; we don’t eat enough Omega 3 oils and we should
  • Avoid too much fat or oil, in general—even the good stuff
Positive stuff
  • Seeds, nuts and avocados are good for you
  • Raw or lightly cooked fruits and vegetables are good for you
Confusing stuff
  • Olive oil is good for you according to the USDA, the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Oz, the Health Ranger and the writer from the U.K.; it’s bad for you according to Dr. Joel Fuhrman and Gabriel Cousens
  • Canola oil is safe according to the USDA, the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Oz and the writer from the U.K.; it’s dangerous according to the Health Ranger, Dr. Joel Fuhrman and Gabriel Cousens
  • Urban Legends says it disproved negative rat studies about canola oil, but what about the negative piglet studies? Pigs are closer in metabolism to humans than rats, aren’t they?
  • Why does Dr. Oz call rice bran oil a “miracle oil”?
  • Why can’t everyone agree on what’s good to eat?

Final Distracted Thoughts
Well, there you have it. Eat seeds, nuts and avocados, but not too many. Use olive and canola oils at your own risk. Avoid any fat that becomes solid at room temperature. Other than that, I got nothin'. Bon appétit.

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