Naughty misnomer (i)

The food industry is unembarrassed to allow us to think that certain products are good for us; or likely to be good for us. Vegetable oil is one such. The name implies that these oils are made from (those healthy things?) vegetables. It’s misleading, I believe, because the word ‘vegetable’ here is used as a modifier (vegetable matter, vegetable fibres), rather than an indicator of content (vegetable curry, made with actual vegetables, obvs). We tend to assume it’s the latter, but it’s not. When I randomly ask people where they think the contents of that 10-litre can of vegetable oil came from, I always get a ‘dunno.’

Vegetable oils are not made from what we typically think of when we think of vegetables. There is no such thing as spinach oil, for example. Vegetable oils are produced from seeds, grains and legumes: rapeseed oil, soy oil, cottonseed oil, sunflower seed oil, groundnut (= peanut) and so on. They were drizzled onto our food landscape in the 1920s. As of writing this is still less than a hundred years ago. The folly. Yet the word ‘vegetable’ and the idea ‘good for me’ are still closely linked in most people’s minds.

It seems so strange to me now, but I was brought up in an environment where margarine was assumed to be the healthy option, We used to buy Flora, made with sunflower (seed!) oil. In a factory. The process known as hydrogenation is what enables the food industry to double up on oil use by creating the oil, from whatever seed of legume, which itself can be used for cooking or in industrial food prep, and also turning that oil into a solid or semi-solid, for a whole raft of other uses.

All these oils are polyunsaturated. PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) are unstable, in the bottle, in the pan and in our bodies. They oxidise quickly and have a low smoke point. They are also very high in omega-6 acids. Now, our ancestors, eating a certain way for many tens of thousands of years, evolved on a diet in which the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 was approximately 1:1. The fatty acid content of, say, beef fat, comprises roughly equal amounts of saturated and monounsaturated fat, with tiny amounts of polyunsaturates. Our modern typical ratio is more like 1:10, and this underpins many western health issues. We simply have not evolved to be able to deal with such high levels of omega-6 acids.

One of the primary effects of the PUFAs in vegetable oils is inflammation: the instability of PUFAs brings about high oxidative stress in the body, producing global inflammation, which in turn contributes to chronic degenerative diseases and speeds up the ageing process.

Creating an analogue of lard and butter was the industry’s masterstroke. In the 1960s, as these super-healthy fats were being (unfairly) fingered as the cause of all heart disease, the time was ripe for substitutes to hit the market, and hydrogenated oils and fats, cheap to produce, did the job.

One thing that was conveniently overlooked in all the studies around heart disease, cholesterol and saturated fats was that typically when a group of subjects tested lower in cholesterol after being fed PUFAs for a while, and possibly had reduced mortality from heart disease, deaths from other causes, especially cancers, tended to rise. If those causes were not the object of the study, as they weren’t, then they could be ignored.

Right now, certain areas of the scientific community seem sure that PUFA consumption is associated with some types of cancer. (In a follow-up to one PUFA study it turned out that lung cancer in the treatment group had risen despite around 20% of them having given up smoking). Anyway, lower cholesterol readings are no longer the benefit that people used to think. Low cholesterol is not desirable and is usually associated with higher rates of mortality*. (*This is a BIG topic, beyond the scope of this blog just now).

The take-away: don’t be fooled into thinking that any ‘vegetable’ product is automatically good for you. Especially when we can use butter, lard, ghee and beef dripping – all delicious and satisfying. In this context the word ‘vegetable’ and the idea ‘very bad for me’ should be closely linked in your minds.

Next time I’ll look at vegetable protein. Vegan bodybuilders are all over it.

Have an omelette, cooked in a massive wodge of butter. Till next time.

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