What are high oleic oils?
The food industry profits by selling foods made from inexpensive ingredients with long shelf lives. Not all that long ago, transfats were added to our foods because they fully met these requirements. Then, in the 1950s, studies began to show that transfats were not healthy but, lacking definitive proof of problems, transfats remained in our foods. By 1996, scientists estimated that transfats had caused some 20,000 deaths. Faced with a threat of an outright ban on transfats and the fact that customers no longer wanted transfats in their foods, the food industry realized it was going to have to reformulate its fats. They began looking for a replacement for transfats.
Initially, many simply increased their use of sunflower and safflower oils. These plants grow easily in a Northern climate; their oils are relatively inexpensive and are quite high in omega-6s, which provides a high heat tolerance and a long shelf life. But the food industry needed more. The rush was on to use a variety of cutting edge hybridizing techniques (such as radiation and chemical mutagenesis) to create seed varieties very high in a particular type of unsaturated fat (MUFA, monounsaturated fatty acid) and also very heat stable. High oleic sunflower and high oleic safflower oil came to market first, but high oleic canola, high oleic soybean, and high oleic corn oils are now vying for their share of their of this lucrative market. In summary: High oleic oils are oils made from new varieties of plants. While they are hybrids rather than genetically modified plants, they are not created by the use of traditional methods, instead radiation and toxic chemicals are used to speed up the process. No one has eaten these varieties for any length of time and this is a red flag for me. We know which foods are healthy, which spices, and which herbs are beneficial based on a long history of humans ingesting them. Instead of gold standard double blind medical studies, we rely on thousands of years of use to guide our choices.
I am always skeptical of any food that does not either have traditional usage or solid medical research data proving safety. And there is a basis for my conservative view. A recent New York Times article confirms that as we hybridize plants to get sweeter vegetables that travel and store well, we consistently trade off one benefit for another. And often what we lose is nutrition. A sweeter hybrid berry is lower in omega-3 fats than an heirloom berry. An apple hybridized to travel well has fewer antioxidants than an heirloom variety. That, of course, raises questions about the changes they are making to the fat ratios of our soy, canola, corn, safflower, and sunflower seeds. What other changes occurred in the seed hybridized with radiation and toxic chemicals. Do we know?
We do not. We do not even know that a sunflower seed oil with a higher MUFA content is better for us. The assumption that it is better comes from research showing that olive oil with a high MUFA content is healthier for you than margarine filled with transfats. We assume that yet more MUFA is better simply because we tend to believe that more is always better. The fact that we do not know that more MUFA is better is a problem. The fact that we do not know what else may have changed in the oil seeds as scientists selected for higher MUFA content is a bigger problem.
The third strike comes from the nature of the companies working to create and market these oils. The big players in this arena are: Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and BASF. The former are two of the big players in the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), said to use tactics such as threatening to sue cooperatives like PCC for informing the public of research linking high fructose corn syrup and fatty liver disease. BASF is a German chemical company. I am reluctant to accept assurances from these companies that their new creations are healthy innovations that I should include in my diet.
The fourth strike (and you are only allowed three) is that I see no benefit to me from these oils. High oleic oils are marketed based on the following benefits:
1. High oleic oils can be used both in the deli and in high heat frying. So stores such as Whole Foods, PCC, and Safeway can use the same oil in their deli salads and in the deep fat fryer or skillets. They only need to stock one oil and can buy it in greater volume which saves money.
2. High oleic oils are less expensive that traditional oils such as EVOO.
3. If high oleic oils are used, the oil in the deep fat fryer does not have to be changed as often. Fish can be fried in the oil and then chicken can be fried in the same oil without the chicken taking on the flavor of the fish.
None of those advantages interest me. None of those advantages benefit me.
I am very skeptical of the concept of better living through chemistry. I distrust the food giants Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and companies like BASF. I actually am troubled that that Cargill and BASF are combining their efforts and hundreds of millions of dollars to genetically enhance the omega-3 content of canola oil. I am also concerned with Cargill’s Clear Valley heat stable omega-3 oil. The fragility of omega-3s is at the core of their benefit, they are, and should be, highly reactive compounds. I do not believe that these new fats will prove healthy. Remember, we were told transfats were better for us than butter and olive oil. Many ended up paying for believing those marketing promises with their health. Now they are marketing high oleic as preferable to EVOO. Are you ready to buy into those marketing promises? I am not.
Unfortunately, the health food industry has. Today most of our “healthy” chips, crackers, cookies, deli salads, and more increasingly contain high oleic oils. Nutritionists at PCC assure us that the HOS in the deli salad is beneficial to you. I think it is time for us consumers to speak up. We should stick with our old tried and true foods. We should demand EVOO for the deli salads and, if a high heat oil is needed, maybe some heirloom sunflower oil for the fryer but no high oleics of any type.
Read Jo Robinson’s on losses and gains when foods are hybridized here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/opinion/sunday/breeding-the-nutrition-out-of-our-food.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
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