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Vegetable oil. Friend or foe?

Much has been written about the benefits of replacing animal fats in the diet with vegetable oil and vegetable-derived fats. There are, however, many types of vegetable oil and they are not all as natural or safe as you might think.

Think of vegetable oil and the likelihood is that you probably think either of olive oil (especially if you are a European) or the corn oil and sunflower oil commonly used for making french fries. Whilst it is true that both come from plants, they are VERY different products with massively different health effects.

What are vegetable oils?

We use vegetable oils all the time, but very few vegetables would be considered as "oily" (with the possible exception of olives and avocados). What, then are vegetable oils and where do they come from?

Actually, "vegetable oil" is the name usually given to any oil product derived from a plant of any description, be it fruit, vegetable or anything else. Some oils, such as olive oil, are derived from the fruits of the plant. Others, like sunflower oil or peanut oil are pressed from the seeds. Still others, such as herb oils are usually extracted from the leaves or roots, often using steam or another heat source to aid the process.

Some oils, such as those extracted from herbs and plant roots are thought by many to have direct medical effects. Usually these oils are very potent and are used in minute quantities, diluted with other oils or lotions, as in aromatherapy. Such, essential oils are also the basis for virtually all of the frangrances and perfumes widely available.

In more general terms though, vegetable oils are the oils we use in the kitchen, whether it be as a component of salad dressing, the batter for cakes and pastries or the liquid we use for frying.

What are the health effetcs of vegetable oils?

In general, we consider vegetable oils to be healthier than fats derived from animals. this is largely thanks to the efforts of commercial vegetable oil producers to link the modern problems of cancer and heart disease with animal fat (especially saturated fat) consumption.

The truth is somewhat different.

Pure vegetable oils, such as olive oil have been in use for thousand of years, and their benefits as part of a balanced diet are well understood. In fact, most vegetable oils are probably alright as part of a balanced diet and would certainly be unlikely to do any harm (except in excessive amounts) if it were not for the fact that they are chemically altered before they are used.

These oils now form a massive proportion of all the vegetable oils used worldwide, but particularly in the Western world and more especially North America. Whilst many liquid oils, such as sunflower oil are largely unadulterated, the solid forms of vegetable oils, such as margerine, shortening and some liquid oils are chemically altered forms of the natural oils, commonly known as hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Hydrogenation (explained here) changes these oils from their natural state to a dangerous, unnatural one which has major detrimental effects on health. If you are concerned in any way about the fat in your diet (and, as you ar reading this, I suspect you are!) you MUST understand the effects that hydrogenated oils have on the human body.

Related Links

Cholesterol
Public enemy number one. Or is it - find out why cholesterol is not the baddie it has been made out to be and why you need it!

Essential fatty acids
Otherwise known as "brain food", these fats can't be made in the body and must be in the diet. Unfortunately, in many cases they are almost toally missing, leading to numerous health (and psychiatric / social) problems.

Saturated animal fat
Red meat, dair products, lard dripping and suet - a recipe for disease or the means to prevent it?

Hydrogenated oils (unsaturated or poly-unsaturated fats)
Margarine, shortening and other "low-cholesterol" fats. Find out why these have caused more damage to health than any other type of oils or fats.

Other Nutrient groups:

Antioxidants
Amino-acids
Carbohydrates
Essential fatty acids
Minerals
Plant extracts
Proteins
Trace elements
Vitamins

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