Poison and Medicine in your Food – III The Good Oil

-R K Chandrika

What’s virgin, and that too extra virgin about oil? What’s the difference between saturated and polyunsaturated oils? How much hydrogenated fats is good? Is coconut oil healthy or not? Ghee? Irrespective of whether such questions occasionally make your hand tremble when you finally reach out for that attractively packaged oil on the mart shelf reassuring you in bold font that it’s ‘heart friendly’, or whether oil never ever gave you a sleepless night, you do need your fact wheels well oiled.

As in the case of all the other refined foods we discussed earlier, it may help to remember that everything that prolongs the shelf life of a food will likely reduce yours, and oil is no exception to that rule of thumb.

Refined is not fine

As in sugar, salt and flour, refined is not a desirable prefix for your edible oils. There are some naturally refined oils that only involve mechanical filtering, like coconut oil and almond oil, and elsewhere, avocado oil. These are safe and definitely nutritious. But all other refined vegetable oils have had a lot more tampering than mere filtration. The processes they go through depend on the kind of oil, as well as the manufacturing practices in vogue. Here are some effects on the oil you use daily when it is refined.

Loss of NutrientsIn refining, one basic treatment is heating at high temperatures to get rid of impurities that can give it a lower smoking point (temperature at which the oil begins smoking when cooked). Applying heat also ensures maximum extraction of the oil from the seeds or kernel. But the high temperature destroys firstly the antioxidants in the oil, and secondly, the nutrients. Antioxidants destroy free radicals in the body that damage cell components that lead to chronic diseases.There is a wide range of nutrients from lauric acid, omega-3 fatty acids, alpha linoleic acid to vitamin E and calcium that are distributed among various oils. At high temperatures these get destroyed.

Chemical residuesA hexane solvent bath is used to extract any residual oil from the seed cake left from the high temperature crushing. While the hexane, a highly toxic gas, is evaporated and recovered for repeated use, traces are left in the crude oil. The crude oil is then separated from the seed cake through addition of phosphates in a centrifugal process. Then to prevent fat oxidation and remove undesirable colours and odours, sodium carbonate and sodium hydroxide are employed. The resultant oil is lighter in colour, less viscous, and more prone to oxidation. The oils are usually further bleached with fuller’s earth, clays and activated charcoal.

Preservatives: All these processes make the oil quite unstable and prone to oxidation. Shelf life calls for our old nemesis, preservatives. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are the widely used preservatives in refined oils. They are considered food safe by the food regulation authorities, as are all the preservatives used in all packaged foods. You’ll find enough studies that are against, for and ambivalent about their ‘safety’.

Oil Turmoil

When you begin considering your choice of slick, there are some parameters you need to be cognisant of.

Saturated, Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated

The number of hydrogen atoms to carbon atoms determines what category your fat falls into. The higher the number of hydrogen atoms, the more saturated the fat is. Saturated fats solidify at room temperature, like butter, ghee, coconut oil, margarine and hydrogenated vegetable oils (vanaspati ghee). Of these, everyone is in total agreement that hydrogenated oils are unhealthy taken even in the least quantity. Artificial hydrogenated fat is made by injecting hydrogen gas into the vegetable oil at high pressure. This process produces an abundance of trans-fatty acids that increase the bad cholesterol and risk of heart disease. Even if you avoid these oils at home, most restaurants and packaged foods like snacks, non-dairy coffee creamers, margarine, baked food and biscuits use partially or fully hydrogenated oils, unless they expressly declare otherwise. This is because they are better for repeated deep frying and have a long shelf life. Some European countries have banned hydrogenated fats, and some countries require it to be declared on packaging and in restaurants where it is used.

However, though butter, ghee and coconut oil are saturated, they have less trans-fat and are structurally different, which not only makes them healthier, but even preferred, taken in moderation.

Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are found in seeds, nuts and fishes. Monounsaturated fats like olive, sesame, canola, safflower, groundnut and sunflower have more vitamin E. Some polyunsaturated oils from flaxseed, walnut and some fishes like salmon have omega-3 fatty acids, which are highly beneficial for heart health, bones, lowering blood pressure, and elasticity of cartilage. Both kinds of oils increase HDL, or the good cholesterol.

There is continuing disagreement among doctors and researchers about safe cholesterol levels (and therefore, quantity of saturated fat consumption) and how they impact the arteries. Research findings about how certain foods impact human beings seem to change diametrically every few years, so it is best to learn to listen to your body, and find out what suits you personally. But you’d do well to eliminate from your regular diet, artificially tampered and manufactured foods like refined and hydrogenated oils. The downsides of these are pretty well established.

Cold Pressed Oils

‘Virgin’, ‘cold pressed’, ‘kachi ghani’, are all synonymous terms for oil that has been extracted by pressing the seeds or kernels without the use of heat. No other process of refinement is used further to this.

Cold pressed oils are evidently the best option, even if they are more expensive. It’s worth the extra money for the health you gain and time and money you’ll save in not running around doctors and hospitals.

If your oils are monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, as well as unrefined (cold pressed), they are likely to go rancid faster. It is best to buy them in smaller quantities and consume them well within their shelf life. There are certain practices you can adopt, like storing them in clay pots, dark coloured bottles, or adding a blob of unrefined jaggery or activated charcoal tablet to the oil to prolong its life. Flaxseed oil for instance, goes rancid speedily, and should be only stored in dark bottles, kept refrigerated and consumed within three months of extraction.

Contrary to what certain faddists may lead you to believe, ‘fats’ and ‘oil’ are not bad words for the health conscious. Fats are very essential for the absorption and assimilation of some essential minerals and vitamins like A, E and D, that build bone and make your skin supple and elastic (there are indeed far more vital functions, but the skin bit always grabs people, so couldn’t resist that one). Healthy fats in moderation are required to sheath nerve membranes, build cells, and combat inflammation.

In examining these foundation foods: salt, sugar, flour and oil, it should be clear that keeping off refined is desirable if you have any concern for your and your family’s health. Looking at your total self on another plane, you may want to discover how keeping your foods raw and refining your emotions does you a world of good. Which is what we will be exploring in the coming weeks.


R K Chandrika has been imparting nature treatment and spiritual healing and practices for the past 20 years, apart from being a professional documentary filmmaker. She runs a holistic nature care enterprise accessible on www.grasroutes.com. You can send in your questions at tmcdotin@gmail.com.  She will answer the more relevant and generic questions of them, which will be carried the following Sunday. 

Disclaimer: Everything related to health in this column is for information purposes only. Readers are expected to exercise their own good sense in following any of them, and consult a professional therapist or doctor for conditions that warrant doing so. The author and The Morning Chronicle bear no responsibility for any outcomes from following anything described herein.

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