Over the past century, consumption of seed-derived oils, also known as vegetable oils, has increased significantly. Scientists warn that modern diets are too rich in these fats and that our over-reliance on them could harm our health.
What Are Seed Oils?
The term “seed oils” is a generic term used to describe omega-6-rich vegetable oils obtained from seeds. Oils such as soybean and canola oil are also included among the oils derived from seeds, even if they do not come from them.
Oils derived from industrial seeds, also known as vegetable oils, are present practically everywhere. If you use common cooking oils, consume packaged foods, or eat out at most restaurants, chances are you consume them every day.
And you wouldn't be alone: Globally, vegetable oil production has increased more than 16-fold since 1909, doubled in the last 20 years, and is expected to grow 30 percent in the next four years.
Seed oils are obtained from crop seeds, often using industrial methods that include solvents, high temperatures, and large amounts of mechanical pressure. This is one reason why they are a relatively recent addition to the human diet: before large-scale industrial production and processing, it simply wasn't a viable option to produce many seed-derived oils or add them to foods.
What Are Seed Oils?
Rapeseed oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, grapeseed oil, peanut oil, rice bran oil, soybean oil, l Safflower oil and sunflower oil are oils derived from industrial seeds that you may want to avoid for health reasons. Also watch out for products that contain "vegetable oil" or "vegetable oil blend," which are alternative terms for oils derived from seeds.
What is Linoleic Acid?
Linoleic acid is an omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) found naturally in a wide range of foods, but especially in many types of nuts, seeds, and seed-derived oils.
As the main component of vegetable oils obtained from seed crops, linoleic acid is a significant source of calories in many processed foods. Like other fatty acids, it contributes to the "mouthfeel" or sensory properties of foods by carrying flavor compounds and altering textures.
As an omega-6 fatty acid, linoleic acid is one of two naturally occurring essential fatty acids (EFAs) that humans must obtain through diet. In other words, your body can't make it from other compounds in foods.
Is Linoleic Acid Good or Bad?
Small amounts of linoleic acid, as little as 1-2%, are necessary for survival, but research links higher amounts to health problems, including inflammation, heart disease, cancer, dementia and other neurological diseases, diabetes and obesity .
According to an article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, per capita consumption of soybean oil (which contains about 55 percent linoleic acid) increased 1,000-fold from 1909 to 1999, along with the rise of other omega plant oils -6 industrials that were not widely available before the 20th century.
As a direct result of the increasing consumption of oils high in linoleic acid, most people now get 6-10% or more of their calories from linoleic acid, and nutritional surveys suggest that this trend will continue to grow.
So, why is this such a significant problem? Because it is an omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid, linoleic acid is inherently unstable. It oxidizes (breaks down) more easily than most other fats, during production, storage, transportation, cooking, and even in your body after you eat it.
And because your body incorporates it directly into cell membranes, excess linoleic acid builds up in cells over time, causing instability and inflammation at the cellular level.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Linoleic Acid:
Extra virgin olive oil is known to be rich in monounsaturated fats and low in linoleic acid. On average, extra virgin olive oil contains less than 1% linoleic acid per 100 grams. This low quantity is due to the origin of the oil, since it is obtained from olives, which naturally have a low content of linoleic acid.
Major Seed Oils (for comparison):
- Corn Seed Oil: This oil is known for its high concentration of linoleic acid. It contains on average about 28-59% linoleic acid per 100 grams, making it one of the richest sources of this fatty acid.
- Sunflower Seed Oil: Sunflower seed oil is also known to be rich in linoleic acid. It contains on average about 65-74% linoleic acid per 100 grams, making it one of the most concentrated sources of this fatty acid.
- Soybean Oil: Soybean oil is another common seed oil with a high linoleic acid content. It contains on average about 50-57% linoleic acid per 100 grams.
What is the healthiest oil to eat?
Oil is a key ingredient in cuisine around the world, but when it comes to choosing which oil to use, extra virgin olive oil shines with its health benefits and unique flavor.
To fully understand the differences between extra virgin olive oil and seed-derived oils, it is important to examine the extraction process. Extra virgin olive oil is obtained by pressing olives, a fruit rich in antioxidants, healthy fats and bioactive compounds. This cold extraction method preserves much of the health benefits of olives. On the other hand, seed-derived oils, such as corn, sunflower or soybean oil, are often obtained through chemical extraction and refining processes, which can compromise nutritional quality.
The Benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil:
- Rich in Antioxidants: Extra virgin olive oil is rich in powerful antioxidants, such as vitamin E and polyphenols. These compounds help fight free radicals in the body and may reduce the risk of chronic disease.
- Healthy Fats: Extra virgin olive oil is an excellent source of monounsaturated fats, known to promote heart health. These fats can help reduce bad cholesterol (LDL) and improve cardiovascular health.
- Brain Health Benefits: Some research suggests that extra virgin olive oil may play a role in preventing neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's, thanks to its protective effects on the brain.
- Reduced Inflammation: Extra virgin olive oil contains compounds that can help reduce inflammation in the body, which is beneficial for a number of conditions, including autoimmune diseases.
- Better Flavor and Aroma: Extra virgin olive oil offers a distinctive flavor and aroma that enriches every dish. Its versatility in the kitchen is unsurpassed.
In conclusion, extra virgin olive oil stands out from oils derived from seeds due to its exceptional nutritional quality and the health benefits it offers. Thanks to its natural extraction process and its richness in antioxidants, healthy fats and bioactive compounds, extra virgin olive oil is a superior choice in cooking and health promotion. While seed-derived oils may have their place in some culinary preparations, it's hard to compete with the Mediterranean green gold when it comes to health and flavor.