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Is Oil Really a Processed Food?
Oil can be a controversial subject among plant-based diet advocates. There are many who believe that omitting meat, eggs, milk, and other animal products like cheese and yogurt is enough of a dietary change to improve our health. I wholeheartedly agree that removing all animal products from our diet is an important step towards maintaining or regaining our health. In fact, most health advocates take it a step further. In addition to eschewing animals and their products as food, most plant-based proponents say we must add lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains to our diet for their rich array of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. Again, I completely support increasing our intake of fruits and vegetables and agree that our health improves when we add more produce. I likewise agree that whole grains are superior to refined grains and their products. But it's usually about this point in the discussion where the respectful parting of ways often begins.
I believe that not only must we avoid animal products and emphasize plant foods, but I firmly advocate that plant foods most benefit our health if they are WHOLE plant foods. No one would make the argument that "vegan foods" like an Oreo® cookie is a whole food. If we read the label, we'll find a myriad of ingredients, many of them easily identifiable as refined products. But if we pick up a bottle of oil from the grocery store shelf and read the label, there's only one ingredient. Simple is good, right? In the case of oil, maybe not. Even though the ingredient list is short, the trip from the farm to the grocery store took a long detour through a factory where the original plant food underwent many steps in order to become a pourable product in a bottle. Oil is a highly processed food, not a whole food.
Watching it Happen Helps Us Understand
In the video below, we can see exactly how much of a processed food oil really is. [Please note: This video was produced for the general public who eat the standard American diet (SAD). Before showing us the drastic processing required to produce canola oil from the whole seeds, the narrator declares canola "one of the healthiest cooking oils" while covering a salad with oil and then showing a piece of steak frying in oil. The fact that the narrator sees no problem with either of these practices should be our first clue that this video is not truly about health foods. I am showing this video so that we can watch what happens in the factory as a whole plant food is processed into oil. I would never advocate pouring oil on a salad nor eating steak — that is, unless someone was trying to develop cardiovascular disease!]
After watching this video from Science TV on canola oil processing, Cathy Fisher of StraightUpFood.com commented that she "couldn’t believe how many steps it takes to make it. By the end I would have a hard time calling this food." And that pretty much sums up my response. Whether it's canola, soy, sunflower, or olive, all oil is a highly processed food. While some oils may undergo fewer processing steps than others, all oil is a far cry from the whole plant food from which it is derived. Do you know how many olives it takes to make a tablespoon of olive oil? Depending on the variety, it can take between 20 - 40 olives to produce the amount of oil many people pour onto their lunch salad. Not many of us would be willing to sit down and eat that many olives at one meal. And that's the point: oil is a concentrated food, not a whole food. To ensure that we enjoy the best health available to us, we need to eat "From Sun - to Plant - to Plate." That means enjoying our food as close to the way it is grown as is possible and palatable.
Facing the Fats in Oil
Research tells us that oil-laden foods decrease the efficient functioning of our arteries within a short time after eating them. And even oils that have the erroneous reputation of being "heart healthy" cause atherosclerosis because all oils contain some amount of saturated fat. For example, while canola oil primarily contains monounsaturated fats, 6.7% of its fat is saturated. Olive oil is 14% saturated fat. When saturated fat hits our liver, we produce more cholesterol. That's a big part of how Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., MD, is able to help his patients reverse their heart disease; he instructs them to avoid any foods with free oil or even any naturally high-fat foods like nuts. Arteries can heal when we stop eating high fat foods. Further, oil can easily double the caloric value of a green salad or other healthy vegetable dish. It has precious little nutrition other than fat. As John McDougall, MD, famously says, "the fat you eat is the fat you wear." Registered dietitian Jeff Novick, MS, defines junk food as foods that give us calories with no nutrients. He labels sugar as "the epitome of a junk food" because a tablespoon of sugar has 50 calories while its single nutritional value is 12 grams of carbohydrates. He places olive oil in the same category because per tablespoon, olive oil has 120 calories and 14 grams of fat and only minuscule amounts of any other nutrient.
After watching the above video on the making of canola oil, it's easy to see why olive oil (or any other oil) would have nothing left to offer nutritionally except fat. Every other nutrient has been squeezed, filtered, heated, or chemically processed out of it. Yet if we were to eat the whole soybean, corn, sunflower seed, or olive, we would get the benefit of the fiber and full nutrition that nature packs into produce. The path to optimal health is paved with whole, natural plant foods that come from the farm, not the factory.
(Quick note: Due to olives' intrinsic bitterness, they are generally inedible straight off the tree. The common process of preparing table olives involves high amounts of sodium plus an oxidation process for the black olives. On the rare occasions when I serve this naturally high-fat food, I look for olives packed in only water and salt and which haven't undergone the oxidation process that turns them a uniform, glossy black. As of this writing, Trader Joe's Ripe Medium Green Olives fit that description. Whole Foods Market also sells unoxidized olives packed in salt water as does Graber Olive House.)
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Is Oil Really a Processed Food?