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Oils aren't what you think they are


Almost every fat we put into our mouths today is a vegetable oil manufactured by an industry that didn't exist 100 years ago. We are eating vegetable oil because it is much cheaper for manufacturers to make food with oils chemically extracted from plant seeds than it is to raise and slaughter an animal. We've also been told that the secret to reducing heart disease is to consume these unsaturated vegetable oils rather than saturated animal fats. Now all the fats in our processed foods are labelled vegetable oils, and the labels are rarely more specific than that. Vegetable oil can be found in everything from potato chips to muffins, frozen foods to canned soups, to enhance flavour and texture.

The irony is that there is no such thing as oil from a vegetable. The products being sold as "vegetable" oils are in fact fruit oils (coconut, palm, avocado), nut oils (macadamia, peanut, pecan) or seed oils (canola, sunflower, soybean, cottonseed, grapeseed, rice bran). While the fruit and nut oils are relatively harmless, the seed oils pose a real risk to our health - and unfortunately they make up most of the "vegetable" oil in our food. It is now almost impossible to buy a packaged or takeaway food that is cooked in anything but a seed oil, and while some seed oils are unhealthier than others, they all contain damaging levels of omega-6 fatty acids.

The process that initially permitted the huge expansion in the consumption of seed oil in the 20th century was hydrogenation, a chemical process that introduces hydrogen to liquid oil extracted from plants under extreme heat, making a thin oil thicker or even solid. Unfortunately, hydrogenation produces its magical thickening effects by turning polyunsaturated fats into trans fats.

A trans fat works in the same way as a normal fat in cooking, but during the early 1990s evidence started to emerge that once these fats are inside our bodies, they significantly increase our risk of heart disease. They do this by decreasing HDL cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, the so-called "good" cholesterol associated with lower rates of atherosclerosis) and raising the "bad" LDL form (low-density lipoprotein, which contributes to blocked arteries). A series of studies in the UK produced consistent evidence that trans fats also significantly increase a person's chances of developing type-2 diabetes.

Even more worrying, studies on breastfeeding mothers who were eating diets high in hydrogenated seed oils showed that up to 17 per cent of the fat in their breast milk was trans fat, whereas it would normally be less than one per cent. When tested, the babies of those women had significantly lower visual-acuity scores than babies whose mothers had eaten less trans fats.

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