inedible oils?

Skip's Shortcut:  This is an important post on fat and your health.  You need to know this stuff, but maybe I gave too much information.  Sorry, I do that sometimes.  So here's the shortcut—read the three lessons of Dr. Holman below, skip down to the table "Healthiest Cooking Oils," then jump to Healthy Change #16.  Oh, and please don't forget to leave a comment.


You may take a pass on Dr. Ralph Holman’s favorite lunch—sardine and herring with canola oil on rye bread, followed by an apple—but what he learned during his career should influence what you do eat.  Holman studied the blood fats in people around the world and made three key discoveries:

1. Omega-3 and omega-6 fats—both essential to life—compete for the same metabolic space in our body.  One will crowd the other out, so to get enough of each, they must be balanced in our diet.

2. There is an annual cycle in nature:  the green plants of spring are rich in omega-3, while the seeds harvested in fall are full of omega-6.

3. Year around, Americans eat too much omega-6 and too little omega-3 and this is a known cause of depression, dementia, memory dysfunction, attention-deficit disorders, mental diseases, and vision problems.  Though not proven, some theorize that obesity and violent behavior can be added to the list. 

The culprits behind our excessive omega-6 fat intake are the “seed oils.”  Originally they were called vegetable oils, which gave them a healthy sound.  The so-called edible oil industry grew around their use.  Edible is not the best word as these oils were usually hydrogenated, but in the beginning we were ignorant of the danger of manufactured trans fats. 

The consumption of seed oils exploded in the last century with the rise of processed foods.  The first big product was Crisco, introduced in 1911 (originally made from cottonseeds, later mostly soybean oil) which handily displaced lard; next was margarine, which overtook butter in the 1950s; along the way salad oils (liquid shortening) found their way into our dietary. 

Soybeans are the dominant edible oil source.  If you check the ingredient list of chips, crackers, cookies, breads, and processed foods in your grocery store you will find soybean oil (with a little corn, cottonseed, or safflower oil).  These oils are also found in margarine, sandwich spreads, salad oils, shortenings, and mayonnaise.   They’re common to most processed foods, especially fast foods.

The War Against Saturated Fats

America got itself into a crazy mess regarding fats.  In a misguided attempt to reduce heart disease, influential scientists vilified saturated fats—like butter and lard—despite millennia of safe use.   The newly invented polyunsaturated fats—found in seed oils—were wrongfully hyped as the cure.  It made a good business but the oils were bad medicine.

Europeans, by contrast, chose to stay with traditional fats.  The French, despite their creamy sauces and butter, largely avoided heart disease.  In recent decades, heart disease in southern Europe has declined to even lower levels as prosperity put more saturated fats on the dinner table.

There is painful irony in our anti-saturated fat experiment:  In attempting to solve a problem, we made it worse.  When we reduced saturated fats, we replaced them with hydrogenated seed oils and sugar, both now implicated as causes of heart disease.  Worse, we sowed the seeds of two additional epidemics: overweight and type 2 diabetes.  It’s a big fat mess.

High-Oleic Seed Oils

For years seed oils were falsely promoted as healthy because they were polyunsaturated and certain polyunsaturated fats (omega-3 and -6) are essential to life.  Unfortunately, omega-3s are reactive to oxygen when refined so to extend shelf life they were removed by hydrogenation.  The resulting trans fats were a health disaster. 

To reduce the need for hydrogenation, seed plants are being modified through GMO (genetically modified organism) and other techniques to reduce polyunsaturated fats.  Given names like “high oleic” oil, many food products now use these new oils and products made from them proudly carry the “zero trans fats” banner.  But are these modified oils healthy enough for long-term use?  Though the FDA allows their use, some observers are uncomfortable.  After all, the FDA still allows the sale of food with trans fats.  In time we may know, but for now here are some concerns with high-oleic oils:

1. About ninety percent of the soybean and corn crops are GMO per reports.  The long-term healthiness of consuming GMOs is a hotly debated but unsettled issue.  In Europe GMOs are generally not allowed.

2. The new “high oleic” varieties are low in omega-3, and have an unhealthy omega 6:3 ratio.

3. Seed oils are refined using chemical solvents like hexane (a hazardous pollutant per the EPA) plus heat exposure (during hexane recovery, bleaching, and deodorization) that can harm the nature of the fats. 

Though approved by the FDA, we cannot be sure about the long-term healthiness of these oils.  My plan is to follow the “century rule” and avoid them as best I can.

Healthy Changes

To date, two of fifteen Healthy Changes have addressed fats.  Healthy Change #2 addressed the worst source of trans fats—deep fat fried foods.  There are still plenty of sources in the grocery store unfortunately, mainly in processed foods, particularly fast foods.  A rule of thumb is to eat nothing that has the term “hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. 

Healthy Change #11 recommended that two traditional fats, butter and olive oil, be returned to our dietary, and suggested that people reacquaint themselves with a product their great-grandmothers used—lard

Dietary fat is the subject of two more healthy changes:  this post explains how to eat less omega-6 seed oils, and a future post will show how to eat more omega-3 fats from plants and animal sources. 

Note:  If your diet is based on herbs (vegetables, legumes), fruits, whole grains, nuts and a little meat, you will automatically consume a healthy fat profile.  The problems start when we replace whole food with processed and fast foods.  Briefly, the average American should eat 1/3 as much omega-6 and more omega-3.

Please comment on how you include healthy fats and oils in your diet.

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (19)

I use mostly olive oil (organic) and butter in cooking. I have a vegetable oil that I don't use very often when I need a neutral oil. I keep sesame on hand for flavor. I'm ready to remove the small amount of shortening I use occasionally when baking and replace it with lard.

(I remember getting into a fight with a waitress who explained that their refried beans didn't have any lard. Lard is good, lady! It's better than whatever you're using to approximate lard.)

Sardines for lunch? Yes, please. I prefer them fresh, but they're almost impossible to find in my landlocked state. Nothing beats a freshly grilled sardine. You can bet your bottom dollar I use anchovies in my cooking.

Great post.

April 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarina

Carina, you're on top of healthy fats. I hope there wasn't too much info in this post. I could have easily filled two posts with the omega fat story. Best.

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSkip

I currently use a neutral oil (soybean oil) in my whole grain sandwich bread recipe. It is the only place I use this oil as the other oils I currently use (olive, coconut, peanut, grapeseed and sesame) have a flavor that I believe would negatively impact the flavor of this bread. What would you suggest that I use for a neutral oil in this bread or suggest that I replace it with so it will be more healthy?

Wonderful blog, by the way. I've been following for a few weeks now and it has helped me fine tune my efforts to eat healthy. Much thanks!

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

In the last 2 years I have used olive oil, coconut oil, and real butter exclusively. They make food taste so much better and they don't leave you with that yucky heavy feeling.

Soy products have been linked to thyroid disfunction which seems to plague many of us, especially women. ( Fatigue, weight-gain, depression, anyone?)

To avoid hydrogenated oils, like soybean, you have to basically abandon all prepared , pre-packaged foods: cereals, crackers, cookies, canned soups, peanut butter, etc. You have to buy natural peanut butter or almond butter. Even cereals that scream, "HEALTHY" on the box almost always contain soybean oil in the ingredient list.

Thanks again for the info. Skip! Can't wait to hear the follow up on how to fix that omega 3/6 ratio.
You're changing our culture for the better one post at a time.

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLC

I have started to use more olive oil in baking, and less vegetable/canola oil. I have always used butter (I went to pastry school, so in my mind, there is nothing better than butter!). Trying to eat more nuts and avocados, and just all in all, trying to eat healthier completely.

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTee

I'm from the South and we like to deep fry our foods. Actually, I've gotten away from it since living in the Pacific Northwest, but there are times when I want to fry up something - fried green tomatoes or hush puppies for example - and I use a "high heat" corn oil. The only ingredient listed is "corn oil". I don't see hydrogenated on there, but perhaps that's just a given if it's corn oil? That's what I'm getting from this awesomely informative post.

Any suggested oil for the occasional deep fry that would be better. I normally use Olive Oil in my cooking, but somewhere I came under the impression that this is not a good oil to use in high heat "deep" frying.

On the whole I use Olive Oil and I always use real butter in place of anything else for toast and baking. Seems like I'm doing okay in this department, especially now that I've gotten away from processed foods more and more.

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoy Fisher

Again, excellent post, Skip. I use olive oil and butter in nearly all my cooking. I do use canola when I bake bread, but that is about it. I need to be better at avoiding buying processed foods that use bad oils. I'll start looking for that now.

Don't you love being the person standing in the food aisle staring at the ingredient list of everything you pick up? It's getting easier to just avoid those aisles completely.

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRachael C

Question: I use lard when I make tamales at Christmas time, but I have never used it otherwise. How would it substitute in for Crisco in something like a cookie? Is it a similar flavor? Also, I'd love to see how a week of meals goes for you sometime. Do you eat little fish of rye? :) Seriously though, I'd love to see a sampling of meals you do eat. I loved the breakfast idea you already gave.

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermelinda

I love butter! I started buying it just recently. It turns out that it won't cost me much more, because I can use less of it than margarine. It has a much better flavor.

I'm really glad to see that canola oil can be good, because that's what I've been using for occasional deep-frying, bread, and pie crust.

Funny, I never bought Crisco, just to see if I could get by without it (poor college student). I had no idea that trans fats were really bad until recently, because I assumed that it was another nutrition fad that would blow over in a few years. I'm really glad to have all this info. I love cooking from scratch and become more motivated to do so the more I read about what's in all that processed food.

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSacha

@Melinda: lard that has been filtered so that it has no flavor is fine in cookies, but you can also use butter. Definitely use butter in things like frosting....

@Joy Fisher: avocado, peanut, and grapeseed (from highest to lower) have the highest smoke points (when the oil begins to break down), so they would be the healthy oils for deep fat frying. Although plain olive oil (not virgin or extra virgin) can be used for frying; the smoke point is just below that of grapeseed....)

@Stephanie: pure olive oil (usually referred to as just "olive oil", not virgin or extra virgin) should be bland enough to use in your bread. I haven't had problem being able to taste it in my recipe.

Thanks for starting such a great dialogue with this blog, Skip!

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertiff

I I use avocado as a spread in place of mayo on sandwiches. I also use coconut milk in cooking and sprinkle flax seed ( but that is a seed) in my taco beans,smoothies, stews and soups (the way some people might add oatmeal)
We have always used butter and now use olive oil in both cooking and as a "dressing "at the table for dipping when we are eating bread.
Although I have young children ,some who are picky, we also have salmon twice- three times a month.

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

Great post! I'm lucky to have married a man who lived in Italy for 2 years and believes the olive oil is directly from the Gods. We have other oils but only use them when we unexpectedly run out of EVOO.
How does one use avocado, coconut and palm oils? I was under the impression that coconut and palm oils were extremely bad. It looks like I'll need to do more research on that and why I believed it.
Thanks again!

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCammie

I don't think you could put too much information in any of your posts. I feel like most of us are information starved when it comes to healthy eating. Since I discovered your blog about a week ago I've been referring people here left and right. Thank you so much for all your research and information. Your posts are easy to read and I appreciate the highlights for the most important points.

I've been using olive oil and butter for several years now. I hardly ever eat fast food because I'm gluten intolerant and because it generally just grosses me out. I exercise regularly and enjoy doing triathlons. After my last pregnancy (my sixth) I had a physical done for a new term life insurance policy. My results came back with high cholesterol, 228. I was shocked. I don't know if it was the pregnancy although I think it was the healthiest in my life because I've made so many changes to my diet and stuck to them during the pregnancy. So, I was wondering if you know anything about cholesterol? What really affects it, etc. My husband and I are working to eat less sugar and more fresh vegetables and I hope to retest in a few months to see if my changes are working but I was hoping you might have some good information on this topic.

April 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

Lauren, thank you for your note. First, I'm not a doctor and always try to remind that people should heed their doctor first. That said, most doctors have little training in nutrition and a recent study suggests that isn't getting any better. So we all have a problem: prevention of chronic disease through lifestyle is far better than treatment of symptoms with drugs when disease is established—but where do we get lifestyle guidance?

Second, from my reading, your cholesterol number is not scary high. Numbers above 300 are a greater concern but high cholesterol (like yours) is not a risk factor for women. We have been cholesterol obsessed but there is a growing realization that if you eat a healthy diet, a liver that produces above average cholesterol just may be an above average liver. One sign of failing health for the elderly is the decline in cholesterol production.

Consider getting a second opinion if a doctor suggests putting you on a cholesterol lowering drug. Inform yourself by reading books like "Fat and Cholesterol are Good for you!" by Uffe Ravnskov, MD, PhD. Ravnskov was one of the first to raise a warning voice about cholesterol-phobia. Best to you.

April 22, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Cammie, coconut and palm oil, if cold-pressed, have a place in the healthy diet. The fats in tropical oils are more saturated (as most things from warmer climes are) and our recent, misguided, war on traditional saturated fats allowed the domestic producers of vegetable seed oils (think soybean oil) to cast a dark shadow over the tropical oils. (Palm kernel oil should be avoided, as it is a solvent refined seed oil.)

You can inform yourself about coconut oil by reading Mary Enig's excellent book, "Know Your Fats." Perhaps readers who use avocado oil could share their experience. Best.

April 22, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Thank you. I think I'll take a look into that and read the book.

April 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

I've read that women who are pregnant or lactating naturally have elevated cholesterol (anywhere between 200-325). If you had the test done really soon after giving birth/ were still nursing that may be the reason. Here's a mom who also had elevated cholesterol while nursing-

just wanted to share that in case it helps:)

A friend referred me to your website and I am so glad she did! I am loving all the information that you compile. It has helped me immensley, so thank you!

April 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

We use avocado in our fruit smoothies. We have started using coconut oil for some things.

Skip - Did you ever see a menu planning idea I posted? I might not have pressed the right button.
I put in a smoothie idea too, but maybe didn't push the right button...again!
What is the difference between vitamin D2 and D3 - I think one helps in calcium absorption...but I am not sure.

April 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNancy O

I found this post VERY helpful. I was completely lost when it came to oils until reading this post. Thanks for the great info. I'm printing that oil list and posting it on my fridge. I should probably print a second one to take to the grocery store. :)

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJen

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