The Shocking Origins of Vegetable Oil – Garbage

Looking back over the last 40 years, it’s hard to understand how we could have been so gullible. We believed that fat, and more specifically saturated fat (found primarily in animal foods), was thought to increase cholesterol and cause heart disease.  Instead, we should switch to ‘heart healthy’ vegetable oils, like cottonseed, corn, safflower and soy oils. But recent evidence suggests this was a Faustian bargain. The industrially processed seed oils were much, much worse. It was all a terrible mistake that began with Crisco.

Cotton plantations for fabric were cultivated in the United States as early as 1736. Prior to this, it was largely an ornamental plant. At first, most cotton was home-spun into garments, but the success of the crop meant that some could be exported to England. From a modest 600 pounds of cotton in 1784, it grew to over 200,000 by 1790. The invention of the cotton-gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 led to a staggering 40,000,000 pounds of cotton production.

But cotton is actually two crops – the fiber and the seed. For every 100 pounds of fiber, there was 162 pounds of cotton seeds which were largely useless. Only 5% of this seed was required for planting. Some could be used for livestock feed but there was still a mountain of garbage. What could be done with this garbage? Mostly it was left to rot or simply dumped illegally into rivers. It was toxic waste.

Meanwhile, in the 1820’s and 1830’s increased demand for oil used in cooking and lighting from a rising population and decreased supply of whale oil meant that prices rose steeply. Enterprising entrepreneurs tried to crush the worthless cotton seeds to extract the oil, but it was not until the 1850s that the technology matured to the point that commercial production could commence. But in 1859, something happened that would transform the modern world. Colonel Drake struck oil in Pennsylvania in 1859 introducing a massive supply of fossil fuels to the modern world.  Before long, the demand for cottonseed oil for lighting had completely evaporated and cottonseeds went back to being classified as toxic waste. 

With lots of cottonseed oil, but no demand, it was added illicitly to animal fats and lards. There was no evidence that this was, in any way safe for human consumption. We don’t eat our cotton T-shirts after all. Similarly, cottonseed oil, being light in flavor and slightly yellow was blended with olive oil to reduce costs. This led to Italy completely banning the adulterated American olive oil in 1883. The Proctor & Gamble company used cottonseed oil for the manufacture of candles and soap, but soon discovered that they could use a chemical process to partially hydrogenate cottonseed oil into a solid fat that resembled lard. This process produced what are now called ‘Trans’ fats, making this product extremely versatile in the kitchen, even if nobody actually knew whether we should be shoving this former toxic waste into our mouths.

It made pastry flakier. It could be used for frying. It could be used in baking. Was it healthy? Nobody knew. Since this new-fangled semi-solid fat resembled food, and the decision was made to market this as food. They called this revolutionary new product Crisco, which stood for crystallized cottonseed oil.

Crisco was skillfully marketed as a cheaper alternative to lard. In 1911, Proctor & Gamble launched a brilliant campaign to put Crisco into every American household. They produced a recipe book, all of which use Crisco, of course, and gave it away for free. This was unheard of, at the time.  Advertisements of that era also proclaimed that Crisco was easier to digest, cheaper and healthier due to its plant origins. That cottonseeds were essentially garbage was not mentioned. Over the next 3 decades, Crisco and other cottonseed oils dominated the kitchens of America, displacing lard.

By the 1950s, cottonseed oil itself was getting expensive and Crisco once again turned to a cheaper alternative, soybean oil. The soybean itself took an improbable route to the American kitchen. Originally from Asia, soybeans were introduced to North America in 1765, having been domesticated in China as far back as 7000 BC. Soybeans are approximately 18% oil and 38% protein, making it ideal as food for livestock or for industrial purposes (paint, engine lubricants).

Since Americans ate almost no tofu prior to World War II, little or no soybeans made it into the American diet. Things began to change during the Great Depression, when large areas of the United States were stricken by severe drought – the Dust Bowl. Soybeans could help regenerate the soil through their ability to fix nitrogen. It turns out that the great American Plains were ideal for growing soybeans, so they quickly became the second most lucrative crop, just behind corn.

Meanwhile, in 1924, the American Heart Association was formed. As Nina Teicholz reports in her book, The Big Fat Surprise, It was not the powerful behemoth it is today, but just a collection of heart specialists meeting occasionally to discuss professional matters. In 1948, this sleepy group of cardiologists were transformed by a $1.5 million donation from Proctor & Gamble, (maker of hydrogenated trans-fat laden Crisco – yay). The war to replace animal fats with vegetable oils was on. The Faustian deal was made – the health of a nation for some filthy lucre $$$.

By the 1960s and 1970s, led by Ancel Keys, the new dietary villain was saturated fats, the type found in more frequently in animal foods like meat and dairy. The American Heart Association (AHA) wrote the world’s first official recommendations in 1961 recommending that we “reduce intake of total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Increase intake of polyunsaturated fat”. In other word, avoid animal fat and eat ‘heart-healthy’ vegetable oils, high in polyunsaturated fats, like Crisco. This advice carried forward to the influential 1977 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The American Heart Association threw its now considerable market-moving influence into making sure that America ate less fat, and less saturated fat. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), for example, declared the switch from beef tallow and other saturated fats to trans-fat laden partially hydrogenated oils as “a great boon to Americans’ arteries’. Don’t eat butter, they said. Instead, replace it with the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (read: trans-fats) known as margarine. That edible tub of plastic was much healthier than the butter that humans had been consuming for at least 3000 years, they said. Even as late as 1990 the CPSI refused to acknowledge the dangers of trans fats writing, famously their bottom line – “Trans, shmans. You should eat less fat”.

In 1994, the CSPI struck fear into movie-goers hearts with a brilliant scare campaign. Movie popcorn at that time popped in coconut oil, which was largely saturated fats. The CSPI declared that a medium sized bag of movie popcorn had more ‘artery clogging fat than a bacon-and eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings – combined!” Movie popcorn sales plunged, and theatres raced to replace their coconut oil with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Yes, trans-fats. Before that, the war to rid the American public of beef tallow, the secret ingredient of McDonald’s French fries, resulted in the switch to, you guessed it, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

But the story was not yet done. By the 1990s, these trans fats that the AHA and the CSPI told us were supposed to be so healthy for us were implicated as major risk factors for heart disease. New studies now indicated that trans-fats just about doubled the risk of heart disease for every 2% increase in trans-fat calories. By some estimates, trans-fats were responsible for 100,000 deaths. The very ‘heart-healthy’ foods the AHA recommended we eat were actually giving us heart attacks. The irony. The irony. By November 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration removed partially hydrogenated oils from the list of human foods ‘Generally Recognized as Safe’. Yes, the AHA had been telling us to eat poison for decades.

Industrial seed oils, such as cottonseed are high in the omega-6 fat linoleic acid.  Linoleic acid is called the parent omega-6 fat because other omega-6 fats, such as gamma linolenic acid (GLA) and arachidonic acid are formed from it.  During evolutionary times, the intake of linoleic acid would have only come from whole foods, such as eggs, nuts and seeds, whereas isolated omega-6 intake from industrial seed oils would have been zero. However, Crisco, introduced an isolated and adulterated type of linoleic acid into our diet.  Thus, the intake of linoleic acid has dramatically increased and from a source that humans have never consumed before. These omega-6 seed oils can now be found in nearly all manufactured foods and are also found in grocery aisles in plastic bottles for cooking.  Unfortunately, these oils are highly susceptible to heat, light, and air and are exposed to all three during their processing.  Thus, while linoleic acid coming from whole foods such as nuts and seeds may actually be beneficial, the adulterated linoleic acid found in industrial seed oils is not.

So how do we know which are healthy fats, and which are unhealthy fats? Unsurprisingly, natural fats, whether they come from animal (meat, dairy) or plant sources (olive, avocado, nut) are generally healthy. Highly processed, industrial seed oils tend to be unhealthy. Let’s face the facts – we ate vegetable oils because they were CHEAP, not because they were healthy.

 

For more information see the fantastic book by Nina Teicholz The Big Fat Surprise.

2018-08-23T00:10:30+00:0022 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Fung is a Toronto based kidney specialist, having graduated from the University of Toronto and finishing his medical specialty at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2001. He is the author of the bestsellers ‘The Obesity Code’ and ‘The Complete Guide to Fasting’. He has pioneered the use of therapeutic fasting for weight loss and type 2 diabetes reversal in his IDM clinic.

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Nina Teicholz
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Nice article. I think it needs to mention that it is almost entirely taken from my book, http://www.thebigfatsurprise.com by http://www.ninateicholz.com Thank you!

JohnM
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JohnM

Thank you for the clarification! Just ordered it, arriving Thursday. Always more to learn.

BobM
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BobM

Ms. Teicholz’s book is probably the best-written and easiest-to-understand book about how we got to where we are in “nutrition”. If you haven’t read Gary Taubes’s books, those are also excellent but different. (And Dr. Fung’s books are worthwhile, too.) You may then progress down the rabbit hole and into the dark side and realize much if not all of what you thought was true may not actually be true or at least likely is not scientifically sound. Myself, I pretty much don’t believe anything — and I mean anything — I used to believe. And I now question my… Read more »

W
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W

Perhaps out of the rabbit hole and back in reality, is more appropriate.

Pete Kaye
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Pete Kaye

Love your book. Happy to see the good doctor promoted it!

NicL
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NicL

Yes Nina, you did fantastic groundwork uncovering just how filthy these oils actually were.

glib
Guest

I too have enjoyed your writing. Well written and a clear case to avoid all seed oils.

XANDRA
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XANDRA

Can someone explain to me why the last week this German Harvard professor is getting enormous exposure by completely trashing coconut oil and calling it pure poison…..worse than lard. It is incomprehensible that this happens in 2018….. But when you have a professor title the audience looks up to you…… Even though the industry might be behind her paycheck indirectly.

Stephen T
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Stephen T

Xandra, the speaker was Karin Michels, professor of the department of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. I think that makes her one of Walter Willett’s vegetarian circle and they seem to be permanently stuck in the saturated fat causes heart disease theory. This has been refuted by three separate meta-analysis, including by the Cochrane Collaboration, and the Women’s Health Initiative. The problem for some vegetarians is that the acceptance of coconut oil undermines their alarmist and inaccurate warnings about eating animal fat. So, they are the last defenders of the low-fat diet and go easy on… Read more »

Patrik Holmqvist
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Patrik Holmqvist

I’m buying all you guys books. Not because I don’t already know what to eat because of all the information you give out for free. But because I want to support and they look great in the bookshelf and on the coffee table and can be the start of interesting discussions. Thank you! 🙂

JR62
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JR62

And some day the information may be lost in web, but the book is still available on my bookshelf.

nicholas cremato
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nicholas cremato

I will order one right away, we need to support people who do the real research!

Ravi
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Ravi

Thanks for your constant sharing of knowledge Dr Fung.
I guess butter, ghee , animal fat is fine…what about avocado oil? Is it any good?

glib
Guest

Avocado oil has the excellent property of having by far the highest smoke point. I was shocked the first time i used to saute’ something. The oil after sauteeing tasted exactly like raw avocado oil. Other than that, fluid oils will always be inferior to solid oils, due to oxidation, and vegetable oils always inferior to animal oils, due to long chain Omega 3 and 6 fats. AO is similar to olive oil in composition but the method of pressing may include more heating than OO.

Patti A. Johnson
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Another brilliant post, Dr. Fung! Will be sharing this with everyone!! BIG HUGS & LOTS OF LOVE! 🙂 <3

Michael Trumper
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Michael Trumper

What is not mentioned is that PUFA also at a biochemical level is more fattening than SFA or MUFA as it has it increases fat cells storage capacity through insulin sensitivity. Most of the excess fat that people are carrying around these days is PUFA. You really are what you eat.

Andrew N
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Harvard professor calls coconut oil ‘pure poison’ in viral talk on nutrition – Chicago Tribune

Can you help with this or update from your Drs?

Stephen T
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Stephen T

Andrew, I’ve commented above in reply to Xandra.

Veronica
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Veronica

Ah… there is a story that adds a bit of humanity told by Malcolm Gladwell on a recent podcast – worth a listen (while waiting for the next Obesity Code podcast): http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/20-the-basement-tapes

Michael A Stickland
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Michael A Stickland

We ate what was said to be good for us. Most modern working folks have their heads down trying to earn a living and eat what is said to be healthy,

TERRY K
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TERRY K

I, of course, like & agree with the end points of the article. But the first half dilutes the point you are trying to make and, more importantly, might encourage intelligent non-believers into thinking you’re just being a reactionary against big business. Just because cottonseed was originally thrown away does not equate with it being nutritional garbage. I don’t even know if it is good animal fodder—maybe it is, or maybe not. The real devil is in the chemical processing, turning it into Frankenfood. I really am on your side! I want your message out there! Thus said, I hope… Read more »

nicholas cremato
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nicholas cremato

As someone who’s family has been employed by the US government since 1856. There is an underlying reason besides money for the changing us to cheap and sickening oils. Canola oil was once called Canada oil and was used for cars. Now Rapeseed and grapeseed oil is mistakenly considered healthy for people to consume. The truth is this planet has too many people. I have attended more than a dozen UN conferences and over 10 government meetings to talk about solutions to overpopulation. In 1975 I wrote a paper concluding that the worldwide population should be limited to 200 million… Read more »