I’m all for consuming the least restrictive diet as possible – I like focusing on ADDING to our plate, not subtracting. However, one of the very few products I recommend cutting out or drastically decreasing, is seed oils.
What Are Seed Oils?
Seed oils are man-made, industrial oils such as soybean oil, canola oil, vegetable oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, grapeseed oil, rice bran oil, corn oil. Peanut oil and margarine would also fall under this category. Many of these are not naturally occurring in nature, and weren’t consumed until the early 1900s, with intake rapidly picking up over the last 50 years.
Where Are Seed Oils Found?
Seed oils can be found in everything from sliced bread, to granola bars, peanut butter, coffee creamer, hummus, salad dressing, ice cream, chips, and crackers. Seed oils are in the vast majority of fast food and sit down restaurant meals as well…and that’s not including if you also use them in your cooking/baking at home.
When looking at the ingredient list on a packaged food, if you see “sunflower oil”, “safflower oil”, “soybean oil”, “cottonseed oil”, “peanut oil”, etc… that means the food was made with, and contains, seed oils. The higher up on the ingredient list, the more seed oils are present.
What’s the Big Deal?
Seed oils are predominantly comprised of the omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) linoleic acid. This fatty acid plays a pro-inflammatory role in the body. We do need some of this fat for necessary inflammatory processes in the body, but our current food environment makes it extremely easy to over-consume this fat, in an oxidized state (more on that in a second), since seed oils are in almost everything.
Further, excessive intake of seed oils is correlated to higher levels of inflammation in the body, which can increase risk for chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer – or just more low-grade pesky ailments like brain fog, achy joints, or skin issues. I enjoyed this article by Dr. Chris Kresser on the potential effects of excessive seed oil intake.
Polyunsaturated fats are’t necessarily the issue, especially when consumed from whole food, minimally processed sources (i.e. nuts, seeds). The concern comes when they are exposed to light, oxygen, and high heat. PUFAS are unstable when they come in contact with light and heat, yet they are what these oils are comprised of. And when you think of these oils, they’re often stored in clear, plastic jars, and are repeatedly heated and reheated – especially in fast food chains and restaurants. When these oils degrade (from exposure to light, heat, oxygen), they form free radicals, which further increases the risk of inflammation in the body.
Why are they so unstable? Well, this is going to take you back to chemistry class, but I’ll keep it simple. Polyunsaturated fats contain two or more double bonds in their chemical structure. Double bonds are less stable and more prone to oxidation when exposed to light, heat, and oxygen than single bonds are. Single bonds are found in saturated fats, i.e. butter, ghee, coconut oil, tallow. Thus, these saturated fats are better at maintaining their chemical structure when exposed to heat, oxygen, light, etc…
Another concern is that high intake of seed oils tip the balance of the omega 6 to omega 3 ratio to a more unfavorable one. Remember, we do need both forms of fat for normal, healthy functioning. Omega 6s play a more pro-inflammatory role while omega 3s are more anti-inflammatory. However the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 in our diet is important to consider, as it can tip us into a more pro-inflammatory or a more anti-inflammatory state. As stated, we are vastly over-consuming omega 6s out of a balanced ratio to omega 3s. The ideal ratio is close to 3:1, but we are eating upwards of 50:1!! This can contribute to widespread inflammation. How is our omega 6 amount so high? Likely due in part to seed oils being in the majority of packaged, processed goods that we consume on a day to day basis.
We can improve this ratio by cutting back on seed oil use and increasing intake of whole food forms of both omega 3 fatty acids and saturated fats – think seafood and animal sources.
Alternatives to Seed Oils
So…what to use instead? When possible, aim to use more traditional fats like grass-fed butter or ghee, coconut oil, tallow, lard, avocado oil, or extra virgin olive oil. All of these (except for avocado and olive oil) contain a fair amount of saturated fats which make them more stable at higher cooking temps.
My favorite ghee: THIS Fourth & Heart ghee or THIS Goddess Ghee
My favorite coconut oil: THIS Nutiva coconut oil
My favorite avocado oil: THIS Chosen Foods avocado oil or THIS Primal Kitchen Foods avocado oil
My favorite tallow: THIS tallow or THIS lard
All would be fair choices for higher heat cooking (350-500F), though avocado, ghee, and coconut oil tend to have the highest smoke points. In the context of a predominantly whole food-based, varied, nutrient dense diet, there is no need to fear saturated fat intake.
…and honestly, that goes for products that contain seed oils: there is no need to FEAR them. And, we aren’t aiming for perfection here. The reality is that in our present day, we WILL come in contact with food, products, and meals that are made with seed oils. It would likely be a considerable undertaking to ensure that you are consuming absolutely ZERO PUFAS, especially if you enjoy eating out. For some people though, it might be easier to cut back on seed oils if they mostly cook at home using whole food, minimally processed ingredients and don’t eat out. Consider YOUR values, YOUR health, YOUR preferences, and make the decision that feels best for you. You absolutely can be mindful of seed oil intake without having to obsess over total elimination. Every choice has a trade off, and you get to decide that for yourself (and your decision can change overtime).
To reiterate: what if a product you looove and can’t picture living without contains one of these seed oils? Or, what if you can’t regularly afford the “higher quality” fats? I encourage you to come to a decision that feels best for you and takes into consideration your life as a whole. Our health doesn’t have to be approached with the all or nothing mentality, and our food choices don’t dictate our morality. Do what you can within your means, what feels most comfortable and sustainable to you, and find peace in that. While our diet and nutrition is important, your health, and life as a whole, is more than that. Mindful consumption and general awareness is the goal!
- Read labels of products you commonly consume to get an idea if they include seed oils. Common ones to look for include sunflower oil, canola oil, soybean oil, peanut oil, and safflower oil. If it feels feasible, find ways to easily decrease intake of these.
- Switch to using butter, ghee, coconut oil, tallow, lard, avocado oil, or extra virgin olive oil when cooking or baking at home.
- Remember, it isn’t all or nothing! You don’t have to ruthlessly eliminate every ounce of seed oils from your diet – simply building awareness and making small tweaks over time can add up!
- Health is multi-faceted and several factors work together to influence your overall health. We can’t put all our eggs in one basket.