I've been slowly poisoning my family. And myself, apparently. Sorry, I just found out.
Maybe it's because I avoid social media, but I somehow only recently learned there was an entire anti-seed oil discourse. I can barely keep track of whether grains are good or bad today, or if protein is overrated.
I didn't even know what "seed oil" was. "Is that, like… sesame oil?" I naively asked a colleague. And then I promptly flung myself down a Google rabbit hole of memes, Joe Rogan references, words like "evil" and "toxic," and a lot of absolutely wild YouTube videos. And now I know, if you want something to blame for everything from cancer to heart disease, dementia to age spots, there are a whole lot of people out there who will tell you the culprit is lurking in your pantry, ready to fry your dinner in sizzling malevolence.
The term "seed oil" usually refers to the refined cooking oils like corn and canola that many of us keep on hand in our kitchens. They also frequently show up in products like salad dressings and fast food. As Andrew Zaleski explained in GQ last year, they're a relatively modern creation, a product of 20th century processing innovation that generations of us grew up referring to as "vegetable oil" and associated with the lighter, healthier connotations of those words.
Today, you can find #seedoilfree memes and recipes, often from self-proclaimed seed oil "disrespecters," all over social media.
That image has, in recent years, undergone a shift, thanks in no small part to a 2020 appearance on Joe Rogan's show by Dr. Paul Saladino. Saladino — who, despite having the word "salad" in his name, goes by "Carnivore MD" — told Rogan that there were "negative effects of eating too many plants." Saladino uses highly technical language in his discourse with Rogan: "the Nrf2 system," "environmental hormesis," and other ten-dollar words, which I had to Google to try to figure out what any of this has to do with Wesson oil.
In any case, the interview with Saladino resonated with Rogan's curious, hungry, and enormous audience. Today, you can find #seedoilfree memes and recipes, often from self-proclaimed seed oil "disrespecters," all over social media. In my research, I stumbled upon a seemingly miraculous before and after photo of a woman emancipated from her seed oils, to which one blunt Redditor commented, "Girl you just lost weight because you stopped eating fried dogsh**t."
There seems to be overlap between the seed oil disrespecting community and the COVID vaccine-skeptical one.
Yet you can also find plenty of anti-seed oil traction on more conspiracy-minded corners of the internet — there seems to be overlap between the seed oil disrespecting community and the COVID vaccine-skeptical one. Recently, Vice also pointed out the surprising connections it also has to, of all things, Bitcoin influencers. I honestly can't tell how much among any of this is irony versus sincere crackpottery (or, perhaps, legitimate health research).
What's truth and what's hype here? Maybe we start by agreeing that eating lots of fried, processed foods is never going to be good for you, regardless of which oil you're frying it in. Beyond that, though, there are compelling reasons to think twice about commercial oils, most notably those with an abundance of omega-6 fatty acids in them.
As Jesse Feder, a personal trainer and registered dietitian with StrengthWarehouse USA, explains: "When it comes to all seed oils, they get a bad reputation for the high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids compared to omega-3 fatty acids. A lot of the processed foods we eat have high amounts of these oils, which usually gives us way more omega-6 than we need. When you have a diet high in omega-6 and low in omega-3, inflammation and increased cholesterol can occur. However," he adds, "this does not mean seed oils are bad. We still need omega-6 fatty acids in our diets."
The reason omega 6 fatty acids have been linked to inflammation is that one omega-6 fatty acid, called omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid arachidonic acid (ARA), is a "precursor" to other compounds that promote inflammation. A 2018 research study noted that this relationship is why it is "commonly believed" that eating more omega-6 fatty acids will increase inflammation. Yet they caution that studies in humans have not found that increasing consumption of such compounds leads to an increase in inflammation. "The interaction of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids [...] in the context of inflammation is complex and still not properly understood," that study, which was published in the journal "Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids," concluded.
The lack of clear science here hints that the bigger picture — overall oil consumption — is more telling when it comes to health. "The main component of seed oils, like many other oils," Feder explains, "is fat. The most important thing is the type of fat and the quantity that is being consumed when determining if an oil is good or bad for you."
"Using the highest quality, virgin, cold-pressed oils you can find will ensure you are getting the most nutrition per teaspoon possible for that kind of oil."
That seems logical. I recently saw a social media post with the hashtag #seedoilfree — it was was a photo of a sausage pizza. Then there was another one, of a bag of olive oil potato chips. I'm not a food scientist, but I'm pretty sure a diet rich in these kinds of foods isn't the best plan.
Some cooks say that the devil is in the details of how the oil is processed, which is perhaps more crucial than the type of oil. Sylvia Fountaine, a Spokane chef and CEO of Feasting at Home, said she was cognizant of the "debate over the dangers and benefits of seed oils," and suggested looking for oils that had been processed in specific ways. "Using the highest quality, virgin, cold pressed oils you can find will ensure you are getting the most nutrition per teaspoon possible for that kind of oil," she said. "Using each oil appropriately so it doesn't burn, and in moderation, is probably the best choice if you want to consume oils consciously. Be intentional about your sources of oil . . . Local oils that are organic and cold pressed will usually have a better nutrient profile than the bulk jug of vegetable oil you can find at Costco."
And Dr Ritesh Jain, a consultant respiratory and sleep medicine physician at WhatASleep, offers a similar perspective, noting, "One truth is that the nature of the oil depends on the way it is processed." Jain worried about polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in oils like sunflower and sesame, warning that they would cause "inflammation and toxin accumulation," yet I could find no scientific literature that seemed to confirm this statement. If anything, polyunsaturated fatty acids seem to be relatively benign.
As in all things, common sense, moderation, and a skeptical but not paranoid attitude are a pretty healthy, livable approach to life and food. The majority of my everyday cooking requires modest portions of my favorite olive oils and butter, so I'm probably not actually poisoning anybody. I do still like to fry up some hush puppies or churros now and then, and knowing what I know now, I'll probably in the future splurge for a quality unrefined vegetable oil with a higher smoke point to do the job. But I'm definitely not going to stress out, or demonize any one category of foods I consume. Maybe that just makes me a seed oil disrespecter disrespecter.