Seed Oils: Sludge for our Health and the Environment?
Perhaps one of the broadest areas of consensus in regenerative circles is the philosophy of viewing “food as medicine.” One particular trend under scrutiny with this paradigm is the meteoric rise of vegetable oil consumption over the past sixty years (in this context, we are defining these as oils extracted from seeds, grains, and legumes like soybean oil, canola/rapeseed oil, corn oil, safflower oil, peanut oil, cottonseed oil, and others.) Vegetable oils are both environmentally destructive and potentially quite sickening to our health when consumed in vast quantities (we are.) Though the broad discourse surrounding which oils and fats are healthy to consume is quite hard to digest, often obfuscated by outdated and lobbied official guidance, it is becoming harder to ignore causal studies between vegetable oils and various health implications.
The arguments made against vegetable oils are well documented (I’m borrowing heavily from Jeff Nobbs’s excellent in-depth five-part series on the matter, Nina Teicholz’s The Big Fat Surprise, and Dr. Catherine Shanahan). If Americans are smoking less, exercising more, drinking less, eating just as healthy/unhealthily, and obesity and chronic disease are catapulting upwards, vegetable oils provide a compelling answer. Effectively, the key upward dietary trend over the past sixty years has been the consumption of vegetable oils - not sugar consumption nor meat. Seed oils, which are high in oxidizable polyunsaturated fats, promote oxidative stress that can lead to various diseases when it surpasses our body’s natural capacity. This is called the Excessive Seed Oil Hypothesis. The key focus over the past ten years has been proving causation that we can perhaps intuit and reason, as well the severity according to levels of consumption.
We should consider the following:
A growing body of peer-reviewed research points to vegetable oil-heavy diets causing significantly worse health outcomes. To name a few, scientists found that mice on the soybean oil-enriched diet gained 25% more weight than on a coconut oil diet and 9% more than a fructose enriched diet. Another UC Riverside study shows soybean oil leads to obesity, diabetes, and could affect neurological conditions due to its effects on the hypothalamus - all of which coconut oil did not. A study out of Temple University associated canola oil consumption with weight gain, worsened learning ability, and worsened memory in mice, while olive oil led to healthy outcomes. Overall, to quote one final study, “numerous lines of evidence show that the omega-6 polyunsaturated fat linoleic acid promotes oxidative stress, oxidised LDL, chronic low-grade inflammation and atherosclerosis, and is likely a major dietary culprit for causing [Chronic Heart Disease], especially when consumed in the form of industrial seed oils commonly referred to as ‘vegetable oils.” However, this narrative violation has not seeped into public consciousness yet because…
Official guidance on the topic merits immediate revision. We need to re-think what constitutes healthy eating and what bodies have the standing to make such proclamations - if at all. In even the most charitable cases, the answer regarding the health implications of vegetable oils is “we do not know,” which is hardly enough for a recommendation. The American Heart Association, which has historically been funded by seed oil producers including Proctor and Gamble, continues to support vegetable oils on the basis of lower LDL cholesterol levels. Many historical studies ignored by official guidance, most notably the Minnesota Coronary Experiment and the Sydney Diet Heart Study, point to higher deather rates despite lower blood cholesterol levels for groups that consumed more vegetable oil. Even the seed oil industry has recognized and tried to iterate its own products to be less harmful: "GM soybean oil causes less obesity and insulin resistance but is harmful to liver function.” Trust must be rebuilt here by recognizing the fatal flaws of previous dietary guidelines to quickly shift consumer behavior.
The environmental impact of vegetable oil production can be just as disastrous. In order to meet our oil addiction, we are planting millions of acres of new croplands:
The life cycle analyses of production for these oils speak for themselves:
Even oils that are better for human health, like coconut oil, olive oil, and palm oil, are associated with threatened species. These trees tend to grow in areas with important levels of biodiversity, with coconut cultivation, in particular, leading to deforestation. Given this unfortunate reality, thinking of the solution is not prescriptive.
Charting a path forward to healthier and more environmentally regenerative sources for our oil and fat consumption requires finding ways to re-integrate animal fats into our diets and finding ways to gradually wean ourselves off our oil addiction. I wrote this piece after hearing about Zero Acre Farms raising $37M from high-flying investors, including LowerCarbon Capital, the CollabFund, and BoxGroup. Though their product still remains in stealth, I presume Zero Acre will use fermentation to create an industrial alternative to vegetable oils used in fryers while not attempting to compete with extra virgin olive oil and animal fats in home cooking. Fermentation, which the Good Food Institute labeled as the “third pillar of alternative proteins,” is an ancient practice used for a variety of food and drink. As S2G Ventures states: “The vast biological diversity of microbial species combined with virtually limitless capabilities in biological synthesis translates to essentially infinite opportunities for novel alternative protein products to emerge from fermentation-based approaches.” Such innovation should be lauded, especially given founder Jeff Noobs’s perspective of the danger of vegetable oils, but I’ll reserve judgment on the viability of Zero Acre until their product is out publically with more information about the unit economics and health-related claims.
On the other hand, there are two ways we can build regenerative fat and oil systems to combat our current seed oil situation. The first is recognizing the power of olive trees and coconut trees in regenerative systems, which we are seeing emerge. The second is returning to animal fats. Animal fat usage has significantly declined in the same period that vegetable oils have reigned supreme, and that has come at a significant cost. Lard, for example, is a good source of Vitamins D and B, as well choline, which is not found in many other foods.
While animal fats are returning, I think supporting companies like Fatworks that provide regenerative ranchers with markets for grass-fed tallow, ghee, and duck fat presents a novel opportunity to divest from seed oils and invest in regenerative ranchers - and our own health. There is also plenty of room for entrepreneurs seeking to enter this space and make an impact at scale.
For Further Consumption:
Nina Teicholz - 'Vegetable Oils: The Unknown Story'
Cooking with vegetable oils releases toxic cancer-causing chemical
Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz - Free excerpt here on “Toxic Heated Oils”
Gastropod: The Most Interesting Oil in the World
Food price surge led by vegetable oils
Why is Vegetable Oil in Everything? | The History and Corruption Behind Processed Oils