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Danger foods: Bad oils

Chef Lance Seeto
Sunday, December 04, 2016

ACCORDING to the Ministry of Health, four out of five Fijians are dying from non-communicable diseases including diabetes, cancer, lung and heart disease. Many of these deaths may have been prevented if we better understood the cause and effect relationship between what we eat and NCDs. In this special food series, Chef Lance Seeto identifies the danger foods we should be eating less of and how to substitute them in your diet.

In case you didn't know: Vegetable oils are bad. Bad news. Bad for your health. Bad for the environment. Just bad. I get a lot of questions about what fats and oils I use for cooking and why manufactured vegetable oils should be minimised.

The word "vegetable" makes these oils sound good and healthy for us but nothing could be further from the truth and when we consider how much oil we are consuming each day, it is not hard to understand why vegetable oils are considered an NCD-causing food.

Vegetable Oils: What are they really?

Vegetable oils are oils that have been extracted from various seeds. The most common include rapeseed (canola oil), soybean, corn, sunflower, safflower, and peanut.

Unlike virgin coconut oil or olive oil that can be extracted by pressing, the manufactured oils have to be extracted in very unnatural ways.

Unlike traditional animal fats such as cow's butter and pig's lard, our industrial vegetable oils are a very new addition to the food chain. In fact, they were practically non-existent until the early 1900s.

But with the invention of certain chemical processes and a need for "cheap" fat substitutions including margarines, the world of fat hasn't been the same since. Consider that at the turn of the 20th century that amount of vegetable oils consumed was practically zero.

Today the average consumption in the US is 30 kilograms a year; per person! Even today, despite the fact that heart disease and cancer continue to rise at an alarming rate while butter consumption is down (and vegetable oil consumption is at an all-time high), people are still believing the hype and buying this very non-traditional, non-healthy food-like product.

Vegetable oil are bad: an unnatural process from the start.

Before we talk about the process by which vegetable oils are made, let's first look at one of cooking's favourite traditional fats: butter — not the artificially coloured and flavoured margarine, real cow's butter or ghee. Butter is a simple process that comes when cream separates from milk.

This is a natural process that only takes a little patience. Once the cream and milk have separated, all you need to do is skim off the cream and shake it until it becomes butter.

Now let's compare that with the production of canola oil. Canola oil is actually made from a hybrid version of the rapeseed, most likely genetically modified and heavily treated with pesticides.

These seeds are heated to high temperatures so that they oxidise and are rancid before you ever buy them.

They are then processed with a petroleum solvent to extract the oils, which are then treated with more chemicals to improve the colour to look like a clear, yellow oil.

The oil is then deodorised to mask the smell from the chemical processing. Whilst our bodies know how to process animal fats, this "plastic oil" is a major culprit in the fight against non-communicable diseases because it is foreign and artificial.

So why are vegetable oils bad?

Like all NCD-causing foods, processed oil is a disruptive food that does not belong inside any living species, and if consumed, should be flushed as soon as possible.

Tens of thousands of years of human evolution has adapted us to eat and absorb natural foods that fuel and nourish our cells, but when we subject our body to processed foods such as vegetable oils we put extreme pressure on our health and longevity.

Vegetable oils are bad because they contain very high levels of polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). But did you know that the fat content of the human body is about 97 per cent saturated and monounsaturated fat? Our body needs fat for rebuilding cells and hormone production.

And it can only use what we give it. Polyunsaturated fats are highly unstable. They oxidise easily, meaning they cause inflammation and mutation in cells. That oxidation is then linked to all sorts of potential diseases. Vegetable oils also contain a very high concentration of Omega 6 fatty acids. These fatty acids also oxidise easily.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce inflammation and protect against cancer. Unbalanced levels of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats have been linked to many types of cancers and a host of other problems.

Beyond the unnatural levels of polyunsaturated fats and Omega-6 fatty acids, there are all the additives, pesticides, and chemicals involved in processing and making vegetable oils.

Many vegetable oils contain BHA and BHT (butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene).

These artificial antioxidants keep the food from spoiling too quickly, but they have also been shown to produce potential cancer compounds in the body.

The bottom line is that processed vegetable oils cause havoc inside our bodies.

A few years ago I was invited to examine the blood samples of some of Castaway Island staff, and was as shocked as the doctors to see that many vials of blood contained a thin layer of oil which floated to the top of the vial when shaken.

These samples were indicative of people who not only consumed too much oil, but were not flushing from their system; leaving the dangerous oil to float around their body to poison cells.

So what is safe to use?

In a world that seems overrun with these highly unnatural and toxic fats, it can seem overwhelming when looking for better solutions.

Of course cholesterol must be considered when choosing the right fats to eat, but at least the natural fats are less likely to cause an NCD.

Luckily, we don't have to be a nutritionist to know the best fats to use. Look to your ancestors. Look to what food was before the chemical and industrial age came in and made a mega-mart of imposters.

In the Pacific islands, the safest and most nutritious oil is virgin coconut; but you knew that right?

In European countries it is virgin olive oils. When it comes to any food, keep in mind that where it comes from and how you store it can matter greatly. Good oils should be cold-pressed; organic when possible.

Cow's butter and ghee are fine to use in moderation. Extra virgin olive Oil is generally the first pressing of olives and are great for non-heat dishes such as salad dressings, hummus and mayonnaise, and can be used in cooking at lower temperatures or when combined with another saturated fat like butter or coconut oil.

Avocado and nut oils are also good for non-heat dishes. Other fats (not necessarily for cooking, but essential to good health) include meats, eggs, dairy, and fish (nuts are also good in moderation as they have a high level of polyunsaturated fats).

Oils to avoid completely

Junk foods are major source of bad oils and before you think you're not eating much oil, think again.

They are used to fry chicken, fish and chips. They are added to biscuits, cakes and bread. They are disguised as artificial and fake butter.

Bad oils are in every packet of crisps, peanuts, salted peas, instant noodles and nearly every snack food.

They go by many names that are designed to make them sound healthier but in fact all processed oils are bad; including "vegetable oil", corn, canola, soybean, baking shortening, sunflower, safflower and peanut oils. And don't get me started on margarines.

Of all the bad oils that Fijians consume too much of, margarine is one of the hidden oils, as its artificial colour and texture is blended to look like cow's butter but it is essentially made of manufactured oil.

It is spread so thickly across bread and biscuits that is akin to eating teaspoons of oil disguised as food.

Flush out the bad oils

It's hard to completely avoid rancid vegetable oils if you are eating out, and I personally try not to stress about the occasional night at a restaurant, barbecue or takeaway shop.

By keeping these bad oils out of my home kitchen, I have limited their use at home. But the key to allowing some processed oil in the diet (who can't resist fish and chips!) is to ensure to flush it out as quickly as possible.

And that means training your gastrointestinal system to "dump" the unwanted waste within 6-8 hours of eating it.

Asian people drink hot black tea with every oily meal to flush, whilst other cultures eat lots of "water foods" with oily foods like raw vegetables, salad and fruit to help digestion.

Walking for at least 30 minutes after a meal is also critical to ensuring that food is being digested quickly and that any harmful ingredients do not get the chance to stay inside your body for longer than necessary.

Changing our mind-set about eating and learning the cause and effect of everything we consume is crucial in the battle against NCDs.

Learning why vegetable oils are so bad for us may come as a shock to many readers, but the information and research is readily available online.

It took me years to figure out this whole "healthy" eating thing, and that's because the world is full of confusing information. Every "expert" is telling us something different, and it seems our lists of "shoulds" and "should not" eats are changing faster than we can keep up but for most Fijians the rule is simple — eat mainly the foods of our ancestors, and minimise foods and those ingredients that come from a factory and not the farm.

Prevention and early detection of non-communicable disease may save your life or of a loved one. See your doctor regularly for a full medical assessment and dietary advice.

* Lance Seeto is a celebrity chef and culinary ambassador for Fiji Airways and the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism.

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