The Harmful Effects of Vegetable Oils: Revealing the Science Behind Them

By Gabriel Dalton

19 min read

Photo from Natures Healing

Did you know that vegetable oils can increase the risk of death by 62%? That's higher than the risk associated with heavy alcohol consumption (defined as 14 drinks per week for men or more than 7 drinks per week for women) or moderate smoking (defined as less than 10 cigarettes per day).1

Soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, rapeseed/canola oil, peanut oil, rice bran oil, grapeseed oil, and cottonseed oil are examples of oils that are referred to as "vegetable oils." These oils are commonly known as seed oils.2

Even though the name "vegetable" makes it seem like it should be good for you, vegetable oil is one of the most processed and least healthy oils out there.3

"What was garbage in 1860 was fertilizer in 1870, cattle feed in 1880, and table food and many things else in 1890."

- Popular Science on Cottonseed Oil

One of the factors that contributed to the rise of vegetable oils as food was their origin and history as industrial lubricants. During the industrial revolution, machines were lubricated with vegetable oils until Procter & Gamble (P&G) began marketing them as edible products. P&G was originally a soap and candle manufacturer that used animal fats as its main ingredient. However, during the depression in the 1870s, they were looking for cheaper alternatives and came across cottonseed oil, which was considered toxic waste at the time. They chemically transformed the cottonseed oil into an edible fat that resembled lard and called it Crisco. They marketed Crisco as a healthier and more economical alternative to animal fats and distributed free samples and cookbooks to consumers. Crisco sent emails to grocers, restaurants, and nutritionists to pique their interest. They even fried donuts in Crisco and handed them out on the street. 4 Within five years, Americans bought over 60 million cans of Crisco, transforming lard from a staple of the American diet into an old-fashioned ingredient.5

Crisco became a staple of the American diet, even though it contained 50% trans-fat, which is harmful to the heart. It is estimated that for every two percent increase in consumption of trans-fat (still found in many processed and fast foods), the risk of heart disease increases by 23 percent.6 P&G was the first company to mass produce vegetable oils and popularize them as a food product during the industrial revolution. Later, P&G expanded its line of vegetable oil products to include Puritan Oil, which was first manufactured with sunflower oil before switching to canola oil.7

Although these oils aren't great for our health, the real troublemakers are the “hydrogenated oils.” Hydrogenated vegetable oils are one of the most dangerous foods on the market. These oils are so bad that six European countries have banned them; the countries include Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland.8 “Hydrogenated oil is a type of fat that food manufacturers use to keep foods fresher for longer. Hydrogenation is a process where manufacturers add hydrogen to a liquid fat, such as vegetable oil, to turn it into a solid fat at room temperature”.9 Two more terms to know in the context of hydrogenation are saturated fats and trans fats. Saturated fat is a type of dietary fat that can raise “bad” cholesterol.10 Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), sometimes referred to as bad cholesterol, is problematic because having too much of it in your blood can result in plaque buildup in your arteries. Higher levels of LDL are also a risk factor for heart disease, according to a meta-analysis of observational studies and randomized controlled trials.11 You may have heard about trans fats; these are the worst type of fat. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) said in 2005 "that dietary trans fatty acids are more deleterious with respect to coronary heart disease than saturated fatty acids." Moreover, trans fatty acids are now thought to play a role in the development of type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, auto-immune disorders, and bone degradation, as well as issues with fertility and growth.12 There are two types of hydrogenated oil: fully hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated. The difference between them is the type of fat they are made of and how they impact your health. Fully hydrogenated vegetable oils contain mostly saturated fat, whereas in the process of making partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, trans fats are created. In the process of making fully hydrogenated vegetable oils, the oil returns to zero trans-fat levels.13 However, this does not mean that they are healthy, as they may still contain some saturated fat. There have been many studies on the negative effects of hydrogenated vegetable oils. One 16-year study with almost 85,000 women between 1980 and 1996 found that those who consumed the highest amount of trans fats, which are a byproduct of hydrogenation, had a significantly higher risk of type 2 diabetes.14  15

In a five-week study, 50 men swapped out other fats in their diets for trans fats. The results from the study showed that consuming a diet rich in trans fatty acids led to an increase in levels of inflammatory markers, specifically C-reactive protein, and E-selectin, compared to a carbohydrate-rich diet. Elevated C-reactive protein levels are an indication of inflammation, which is a key risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD).16

Medical investigator at the National Institutes of Health, Christopher Ramsden, investigated information from the Minnesota Coronary Experiment, which started in 1968 and lasted for five years. More than 2,300 men and women participated in the study and were randomly assigned to a diet in which all the oils were vegetable oils. Ramsden found that those who ate more vegetable oils, particularly corn oil, did in fact lower their cholesterol by nearly 14% compared with those who did not, but that after a year or more, they did not see any lower rates of heart disease or dying from heart events. In fact, for every 30 mg/dL drop in cholesterol, there was a 22% increased risk of death. Thus, the consumption of animal fats was associated with a greater life expectancy than the use of vegetable oils.17

Now you might be thinking about what you should ingest instead of vegetable oils. There are many different types of fats that you can cook with, such as extra virgin olive oil, extra virgin avocado oil, and coconut oil. There are also more solid fats, such as lard, which has a lot more nutritional value than vegetable oils. Oil extracted after the initial pressing of olives is categorized as "extra virgin." A mixture of processed oils is used to make regular olive oil.18 Extra virgin, in short, means that the oils, such as extra virgin olive oil, are made from fresh olive trees without the addition of any extra processed oils or solvents, which are extremely popular with the production of vegetable oils.19 The reason these oils are much healthier than vegetable oils is because most of them are primarily made of monounsaturated fats, which are healthy fats according to the American Heart Association.20 If you feel inspired and want to start using healthier oils, I suggest extra virgin olive oil, but make sure that it is extra virgin because refined olive oil is just a blend of other oils like canola, soybean, and sunflower mixed with olive oil. Olive oil is high in anti-inflammatory compounds, including polyphenol antioxidants, which may help prevent heart disease and mental health decline.21 Other good substitutes are extra virgin avocado oil, which can help heart health, and coconut oil, which may help increase “good” HDL cholesterol.22 You have to be careful because even if the label on the bottle says “100% pure,” it does not mean that the oil is healthier.

To go into further detail, let us put extra virgin olive oil and canola oil into juxtaposition. A big issue with canola oil is the fact that in the US and Canada, more than 90% of canola crops are genetically modified.22 A genetically modified organism, often known as a GMO, is any type of creature—plant, animal, microbe, or other—whose genetic composition has been altered using genetic engineering or transgenic technology in a lab. This produces gene combinations of bacteria, viruses, plants, and animals that are not found in nature or produced by conventional crossbreeding techniques. Nongmoproject.org is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation that is committed to “... building and preserving the non-GMO food supply for all.” 23 You may have seen some products at your local food store have a non-GMO project-verified badge on the product’s packaging. This is an organization that determines if the product is indeed GMO-free and then provides certification to prove it. There has been no scientific proof to demonstrate that genetically modified organisms are bad for human consumption, according to healthline.com and Purdue University (College of Agriculture). This is not to say that all GMOS are good for consumption. Though 80% of all GMO foods worldwide are genetically engineered to withstand glyphosate pesticide spraying, the most popular herbicide used is called Roundup, made by Monsanto (recently purchased by Bayer). All plants in the field are killed by the herbicide, apart from the crop. Glyphosate is the active ingredient within Roundup and is considered by the World Health Organization, a world-renowned organization that specializes in classifying potential dangers to humans, to be “probably carcinogenic.” Glyphosate has many other harmful effects; it kills the good bacteria in your gut and the good bacteria in the soil. Glyphosate is very likely behind symptoms like food allergies.24 Glyphosate is maybe a contributor to Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD).25

There is no genetic engineering in extra-virgin olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil is generally extracted from 100% pure olive juice, and there are no genetically modified olive varieties in the whole world.26

Canola and olive oil vary substantially in their amounts of antioxidants, which are compounds that neutralize free radicals. This will be addressed later on. Extra virgin olive oil has over 200 plant compounds, including polyphenols, which act as powerful antioxidants inside your body.27 However, the quantity of polyphenols varies depending on the processing technique used.28 Canola oil has a low polyphenol count due to the significant reduction in antioxidant content throughout the refining process.29

These plant-based bioactive polyphenols, which come from fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and other sources, have antioxidant qualities that can successfully lower the risk of cancer, heart disease, and neurological illnesses. Extra virgin olive oil maintains a wide range of health-promoting qualities, such as anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, anti-atherogenic, anti-thrombotic, and anti-mutagenic benefits, in contrast to refined canola oil. Research demonstrates the special capacity of polyphenols found in olive oil to alter the human immune system, affecting the growth of white blood cells and the synthesis of cytokines for improved immune protection.28 Because extra virgin olive oil has higher levels of polyphenols, which offer a number of health benefits for humans, it is better for you than canola oil.

The environmental impact of canola oil and extra virgin olive oil is also important to talk about to determine which one we should be using. In arid climates where other crops would perish, olive trees can flourish. Olive trees stop desertification since they do not use a lot of water. 70% of olive orchards worldwide, according to the International Olive Council (IOC), are rain-fed alone.31 In addition, olive trees protect biodiversity and enhance soil quality. Olive trees are a permanent crop that can live for years without replanting, reducing soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions.32 They have deep roots and stabilize soil, while canola plants are an annual crop that requires more tilling and shallow roots, causing soil erosion and water loss. Olive trees store more carbon, helping mitigate climate change by capturing and storing carbon. Canola plants store less carbon and require more fertilizers and pesticides, emitting more greenhouse gases. Olive trees provide habitats for various plant and animal species, protecting ecosystem biodiversity. However, annual crops, like canola plants, can reduce ecosystem diversity, compete with native plants, and introduce invasive species. "Olive trees remove 10 kg of CO2 from the atmosphere in the production of 1 litre of olive oil," states Francesco Serafini, chairman of the IOC's environment R&D council.33 Canola plants can capture and store 800 to 1200 kg of carbon dioxide per hectare per year, with a hectare being equivalent to 10,000 square meters or 2.47 acres. The number of canola plants in a hectare depends on the seeding rate and plant density, with optimal rates ranging from 3 to 6 kg per hectare and 40 to 80 plants per square meter. A hectare can have 120,000 to 800,000 seeds sown and 400,000 to 800,000 plants emerge. The CO2 removal per litre of canola oil can be calculated by dividing the carbon dioxide removal per hectare by the yield per hectare, which depends on the oil content of the seeds and extraction efficiency. In Canada, the average yield was 1.5 tons per hectare in 2020, resulting in a CO2 removal per litre of canola oil ranging from 0.47 to 0.71 kg. This means that olive oil has a lower carbon footprint and a higher carbon sequestration potential than canola oil.

The taste of each oil is significant since canola oil is bleached and deodorized, resulting in a neutral taste. Olive oil gives a rich Mediterranean flavour to food because of its vibrant colour and nearly spicy taste.27

To sum up, extra virgin olive oil is a fat that is better for the environment and more sustainable than canola oil. Olive trees are never genetically modified and do not use chemical solvents compared to most canola oils. Extra-virgin olive oil is full of natural, healthy antioxidants that combat a multitude of illnesses. Lastly, olive oil has a magnificent taste that canola oil simply does not have. Most of the vegetable oils that are popular today have a higher-than-recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. I will go into more detail about omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids later in this essay. For example, corn oil has a ratio of 60:1 and safflower oil has a ratio of 77:1.34 In 2021, the size of the world market for corn oil was estimated to be just over $7.25 billion CAD by 2029; it is anticipated to have increased from $7.9 billion in 2022 to $12.7 billion.35 As of 2022, Canada exported 79,289 tons of corn oil worth just under $84 million at the time of writing this.36 As for safflower oil, in 2022, Canada exported 627 tons worth just under $1.4 million.37 In 2023, the safflower oil market was likely to be worth over $315 million, growing at a 4.5% annual rate of growth from 2023 to 2033. The safflower seed oil market is expected to hit over $485 million by 2033.38 Imagine if we stopped using all of these harmful processed oils and switched to more sustainable and healthy fats such as tallow, lard, ghee, grass-fed butter, extra virgin olive oil, extra virgin avocado oil, and coconut oil. There would be a decrease in cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases because of the stable omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.39

As mentioned above, the oil extraction from the canola plant uses chemical solvents to extract the oil, but the use of chemical solvents is not just limited to canola oil. Most vegetable oils in the store use chemical solvents to attain the oil, but sometimes they might say “expeller pressed,” which is a method that uses physical force to squeeze the oil out of the seeds without the use of chemicals. The most common solvent used to extract vegetable oils is hexane, but there are many other types of chemicals that are used, such as petroleum benzene, diethyl ether, and acetone.40 41 Many people choose hexane over the other options due to its affordability in comparison to the alternative selections.

In this section, we will examine a selection of key studies that unequivocally explain the negative effects of vegetable oils on human health. These studies provide undeniable evidence as well as rigorous research indicating the possible dangers linked to the widespread use of these oils. One of the pivotal studies in understanding the detrimental effects of vegetable oils is the 'Use of dietary linoleic acid for secondary prevention of coronary heart disease and death.' Conducted by Christopher Ramsden, M.D., Ph.D., and his team in 2013. Within this study, the amounts of fat and oils in each group's diet were the same; however, the first group obtained their fats and oils from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, such as margarine and safflower oil, while the other group obtained theirs from alternative sources, such as butter and olive oil. The habits of the two groups were identical in every other way. The fatality rate for the vegetable oil group was 62% higher during the course of the seven-year trial.42

Another study concluded that human subjects who consumed more margarine and corn oil experienced 86% more heart attacks. According to Jeff Nobbs, who has over 15 years of experience talking about health and nutrition, he mentions on his website that “282 participants were separated into different groups and told to eat different types of margarine, either margarine made with more fat from vegetable oil or margarine made with less fat from vegetable oil. After two years, the number of strokes, heart attacks, and cardiovascular deaths was seven times higher in the group eating the vegetable oil-rich margarine than in the group eating the margarine made with less vegetable oil."

Another study that shows the terrible effects of vegetable oils on the human body is the Los Angeles Veterans Administration Study. In this study, the participants who increased their fat intake from vegetable oil without significantly altering their total fat intake were 82% more likely to die from cancer compared to those who did not increase their vegetable oil fat intake.1

Vegetable oils can be found in nearly all processed foods, used as cooking oils at most restaurants, and hidden within processed foods billed as "healthy,” including popular alternative oat, almond, and soy “milks.” The majority of the non-dairy plant-based "milks" that I have seen include either canola oil (rapeseed oil) or sunflower oil. This is because the texture of plant-based milk is much different than that of animal milk. The manufacturer adds certain types of vegetable oils to the fake milk to make it taste like the actual milk that we have been used to in the past.43 If you drink any type of plant milk, I would highly suggest that you check for any vegetable oils, as they are not as healthy as they are said to be.

In addition to all the said disadvantages of vegetable oils, another major one is the fact that vegetable oils contain an unnatural and unhealthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. Omegas are a type of fatty acid that helps the body run smoothly. Scientists believe omega-6s are pro-inflammatory, while omega-3s are anti-inflammatory.44 45 The optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is between 1:1 and 2:1, but the modern Westernized Standard American Diet (SAD) has a ratio of anywhere from 10:1 to 25:1. This indicates that, although our consumption should be roughly equal, we are currently consuming 10–25 times more omega-6 than omega-3. This imbalance can disrupt the optimal functioning of both types of fats in the body and increase the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Therefore, it is important to reduce the consumption of omega-6 fats from vegetable oils and increase the consumption of omega-3 fats from fish and plant sources, as this can restore the balance of essential fats in the diet and improve health outcomes.46 47 48 49

When the omega 6’s ratio is higher than the omega 3’s, it can cause inflammation within your body. You need inflammation in order to survive; it aids in the body's defence against injury and infection, but when it is excessive or chronic, it can seriously harm the body and lead to disease. It is making your body more inflammatory than it would naturally be.50 There are many studies that show the negative effects of an off-balanced ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in a diet. There is increasing evidence showing a positive connection between the dietary omega-6 to omega-3 ratio and Alzheimer disease risk.51 The excessive consumption of omega-6 fatty acids, especially in the absence of sufficient omega-3 fatty acids, is linked to an increase in the formation of free radicals in the body. 52 Free radicals are highly reactive and extremely unstable molecules made by the body. Although free radicals only have a lifespan of a fraction of a second, during that time they can damage DNA, which sometimes causes mutations that can increase your risk of getting health conditions like heart disease and cancer. 53 If you have an inadequate number of antioxidants to keep free radicals in check, they go rogue and steal electrons from any source. An abundance of free radicals stealing electrons from stable molecules causes oxidative stress. 54 Oxidative stress mediates cellular damage. 55

Too many omega-6 fatty acids can make our body produce fewer antioxidant enzymes and anti-inflammatory cytokines. Antioxidant enzymes are substances that can protect our cells and tissues from free radicals. Anti-inflammatory cytokines are protein molecules that can reduce inflammation and help our body heal.56 These problems can affect our immune system, which is the system that protects us from diseases. Our immune system needs to strike a balance between inflammation and anti-inflammation. If there is too much inflammation and not enough anti-inflammation, our immune system can become confused and attack our own body. This is called autoimmune disease, and it can cause many health issues, such as arthritis, diabetes, and lupus.

Immunologist Jenna Macciochi, Ph.D., who spends a lot of her time researching the relationship between immune function and lifestyle, has said that “these are the raw materials for our cells to make inflammatory mediators like prostaglandins.” Prostaglandins are substances that resemble hormones and impact several body processes, such as pain, inflammation, and uterine contractions. She also notes that regular consumption of omega-6 fatty acids could increase inflammation, which has been the conclusion of a few studies.57 A study published in the National Library of Medicine demonstrates the negative effects of increasing imbalances in omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, emphasizing the potential harm associated with elevated ratios and supporting the argument for reconsidering the consumption of vegetable oils for a healthier dietary approach. As the largest biomedical library in the world and a reliable source for scientists, health professionals, and the general public, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) maintains strict standards for publishing research on its website, guaranteeing unmatched accuracy. 58

In addition, a study that can be seen on the NLM website emphasizes how important it is to keep your Omega-6/Omega-3 ratio low. It reiterates that maintaining this nutritional balance is essential for lowering the risk of allergies, asthma, and autoimmune illnesses. For anyone looking for more information, the study "The Importance of Maintaining a Low Omega-6/Omega-3 Ratio for Reducing the Risk of Autoimmune Diseases, Asthma, and Allergies" is a helpful resource. A brief Google search using the study's title will provide more in-depth information about this critical topic.

Vegetable oils are extremely popular, and they are hidden within most of our food. It is so popular that one-third of a person's daily calories come from vegetable oils. The average person has 80 grams, or 6 tablespoons, of vegetable oil per day, which is equivalent to 720 calories. Here is a scary statistic: every 5 percent increase in daily calories from vegetable oils is as dangerous as smoking 7 cigarettes per day. 59

Vegetable oils that you find inside your local supermarket are usually stored in clear plastic containers. Plastic containers can cause oxidation of the vegetable oils, which reduces their quality and shelf life. Oxidation is the chemical reaction that happens when vegetable oils are exposed to light. It can create harmful compounds like free radicals and ketones. A study found that tin containers and dark glass bottles are the best types of packaging for olive oil. 60

If you do want to or have to consume vegetable oil, consider researching the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio and if the ratio is extremely imbalanced. For example, if you have a higher amount of omega 6's, I would suggest eating foods that are high in omega 3's, such as salmon, chia seeds, shellfish, walnuts, and non-GMO soybeans.61

In conclusion, this essay has shown how vegetable oil consumption is linked to the rise of chronic diseases and deaths in the modern world. Vegetable oils are widely used in processed foods and cooking, but they have harmful effects on our health, such as increasing inflammation, oxidative stress, and cholesterol levels. Therefore, we need to look for healthier alternatives, such as grass-fed butter and extra virgin olive oil, which have natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. We also need to be more aware of what we eat and reduce our intake of processed foods that contain vegetable oils. By doing so, we can protect our health and prevent the onset of chronic diseases. This essay has demonstrated the importance of making informed and mindful choices about our food and lifestyle, as they have a significant impact on our well-being and longevity.

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