The Unrefined Truth About Refined Oils

The Unrefined Truth About Refined Oils

Here is an introduction to refined oils, that has very little to do with oils. Ever heard of the idea “death insurance” ?  In the early days of marketing insurance to consumers, companies quickly found out that talking about the unpleasant eventuality put people off from having a conversation about it. In order to get past that emotional wall, they renamed their policies to “life” insurance. Very similar story with “refined” oils.

If you actually thought about it, oil refineries exist to convert “crude” oil, i.e., the slush that is extracted from under the earths surface, into petroleum, which feeds our daily lives. Something very similar happens with edible oils. But the use of refined along with the term oil, struck a chord with the post-colonized, modern homemaker, that using such a product meant that one was not antiquated in their ways. In India (where I come from), this is a very persistent thought process, and being “modern” and “western” is very aspirational. Same with “polished” rice 🙂

Oil Refining Processes.

But, what does one really get, from buying into this “refinement” story? Refining is the  process oil seeds undergo to acquire the state of odorless, colorless ‘refinedom’. To begin with, all sorts of seeds are used in refined oils – good, bad and even spoilt. The process of extracting and refining edible oil includes processes such as solvent extraction, high heat pressing, bleaching, neutralization, deodorization etc. That doesn’t augur well for something we put into our mouths and bodies.

Bathed in petroleum solvent

While the term extraction seems harmless, seed pulp is bathed in a petroleum based solvent called hexane, to pull out the maximum amount of oil possible. (Is that a safe thing to do, is a logical question that comes into our minds.) Okay, so they use food grade hexane, but traces of it are likely to remain in the oil. Many studies including one conducted by the Royal Society of Chemistry of UK have confirmed this. Nausea, headache, blurred vision, muscle weakness and numbness of the extremities are some of the side effects of ingesting even trace amounts of hexane.

Sizzling temperatures

Very high temperatures (up to 356°F) are used in the refining process to remove color, odor and bitterness, causing the molecules to become unstable, more prone to oxidation and creation of free radicals. Presence of free radicals has been traced to be the root cause of several medical problems, including cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Along the way the oil seeds are stripped of all the natural fatty goodness – vitamin E and minerals and antioxidants.

Chemical wash

Neutralizing is done to remove any impurities in the oil by adding caustic soda and soda ash. It is then purified and bleached to improve the color. Not surprisingly, the oil is then deodorized to get rid of all the chemical smells. At the end, they preservatives to improve shelf life.

That’s a complete cocktail of chemicals that the oil seeds have been processed with. The refining process leaves behind a trail of chemicals which get into our body and cause untold damage to the internal organs.

A dash of GMO

The most commonly used cooking oil in the US is soybean oil which comes entirely from genetically modified Soy. While we aren’t against science in its quest for better products for humankind, GMO’s (in the name of science) are products made by the big ag companies solely for profit (Read more about Roundup Ready and Glyphosates, the real reasons behind GMOs)

On the other hand….

There are cooking oils that are healthy, and extracted using techniques that preserve nutrients, and do not change your oil into a toxic cocktail. They are called Organic, Cold Pressed Oils.

  • The oil is extracted in traditional extracting units in Indian villages, called “ghanis” (a basic mortar and pestle that used to be driven by animals before, and now runs on electricity). This keeps the temperature of extraction low (under 120°F) and the oil that comes out has never been heated before.
  • The leftover base, called the oil cake is fed to cattle as fodder. It is a rural small scale industry that supplements farmers income from agriculture.
  • No solvents are used to extract the oil.
  • No emulsifiers or other chemicals are used to make it look pretty or increase its shelf life.
  • Cold pressed oils have a lesser shelf life than refined oils (about 7 months to 1 year)
  • They are much more tasty because they have not been overheated, and the pressing method preserves taste and nutrients.

Some oils are sold in the market as “Expeller Pressed”. The expeller pressed process requires pushing the oil seed/nuts through a screw like device, under high pressure, so the oil inside the seed/nut comes oozing out. Because of the high pressure, a lot of heat is generated by friction as the screw turns to push the oil out. There are two problems with this method: a) the high heat that is generated during the extraction breaks down the oil compounds, thus rendering them unstable b) the efficiency of extraction is low, and hence left over material has to be still fed with an industrial solvent to extract oil to make the whole process economically viable.

Other oil facts: There is no one oil that is better than another. Coconut, Sesame, Groundnut, Mustard, Safflower, Sunflower, Olive, Avocado… all of them are just as good for cooking. In fact, optimal health is when there is variety. Use these oils in rotation, and don’t stick to just one oil alone.