What’s The Problem with Seed Oils?

by | Mar 6, 2023 | Blog

Have you heard of seed oils? If you have, chances are you know they aren’t good for you. But, I’d bet you have some questions. What are they? What is the problem with seed oils? Are they really that bad? How important is it that I avoid them? What are seed oils found in? What should I use instead?

We’re going to dive into all that and more. If you’d rather listen to this and hear a conversation about seed oils, tune in to episode 1069 of the Primal Potential podcast. And, if you have any questions about this topic, let me know so I can do a part 2!

What Are Seed Oils?

Seed oils are oils that come from seeds or grains. Grains are classified as seed oils because grains are seeds of grasses. Seed oils are a subcategory of vegetable oils.

Seed oils are the most abundant source of linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fatty acid. Linoleic acid is naturally found in lots of foods, but the concentration in seed oils is exponentially higher than other foods. Why? Think of it this way: there’s linoleic acid in brown rice, but you need more than 30 cups of brown rice to make a couple tablespoons of brown rice oil, so there’s more than 30x the amount of linoleic acid in brown rice oil than there is in brown rice.

You can find seed oils in nearly every processed food out there and they’re used in the dramatic majority of restaurants because they’re cost effective and flavor neutral. They’re in coffee creamers, salad dressings, condiments, crackers, chips, candy, protein bars, orange juice, bread, pasta, biscuits, cookies, popcorn, granola, ice cream and more. More on this in a bit.

The History of Seed Oils

Seed oils started as machine lubricants. No joke. They were a waste product and someone decided that ground up, they might pass as a lubricant, and they were right! Where there is innovation, there’s opportunity for financial gain so people started to find other ways to use this waste. It was light, cheap and didn’t spoil. They packaged it up and Crisco was born.

Prior to this “innovation” and introduction into the food supply in the early 1900s, only about 2-3% of our calories can from linoleic acid. Unfortunately, that percentage has 10x’d since then. We’ll explore why that’s a huge problem for human health and chronic disease.

In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower suffered from a heart attack and national attention switched to heart disease. The US government put forth recommendations to reduce saturated fat consumption, creating a huge market for polyunsaturated seed oils. (If you aren’t familiar with the corruption and flawed science behind those recommendations and the whole low fat movement, do some research on Ancel Keys as a starting point. It’s fascinating and horrible.)

Consumers began to shun saturated fats from animal products like lard and butter and opt for canola oil and other seed oils. Since then, vegetable oil consumption has increased by more than 1,000x. Yes, 1,000.

It’s important to note that correlation does not equal causation, but trends do matter. Over this time, every known chronic disease increased dramatically. Rates of overweight and obesity soared as did cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, mood disorders and fertility disorders. Fortunately, we have much more than this correlation. Research consistently demonstrates that the consumption of seed oils is linked to all these diseases and more.

What’s the Problem with Seed Oils?

This is where things get a bit technical. If you’d rather hear this discussion than read it, tune in to episode 1069 of the Primal Potential podcast.

It’s important that we understand the chemistry. The concerning compound within seed oils is primarily linoleic acid. Again, linoleic acid is found in many foods, but it’s the exponentially higher concentration in seed oils that’s problematic.

Linoleic acid is an omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acid. When we talk about fats, we can classify them as saturated or unsaturated. When we’re looking at unsaturated fats, there are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. This is determined by the presence and number of double bonds.

Fatty acids are combinations of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. They are chains of carbons with a carboxyl group at one end and hydrogen atoms down the length of the chain. If there are no double bonds in the chain, it’s saturated fat. If there are double bonds, it’s an unsaturated fat (meaning it’s not fully saturated with hydrogen). If there’s only one double bond, it’s monounsaturated. If there is more than one double bond, it’s a polyunsaturated fatty acid. Olive oil, for example, is primarily monounsaturated fat. Seed oils are primarily polyunsaturated fats.

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature (think lard and butter). Most polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature (canola oil, olive oil, sunflower oil, etc).

Saturated fats are more chemically stable than unsaturated fats. They do not have loose electrons while unsaturated fats do. This makes unsaturated fats more likely to oxidize. When we think of fat oxidizing, we usually think of it going rancid, and this is true. At the molecular level, however, oxidation is the loss of electrons. Electrons are a big piece of the puzzle when we’re trying to figure out the problem with seed oils and why they are so dangerous. An unpaired electron is known as a free radical. Free radicals are highly reactive. They create a cascade effect of electron theft which is essentially an unchecked cascade of damage and instability. When the unpaired electron is lost/stolen within a polyunsaturated fat is “stolen”, that fat becomes what is known as a lipid peroxide. This process is magnified when heat is applied, as is often the case in the use of seed oils (anytime they’re cooked or heated).

What is even more damaging than linoleic acid itself are the byproducts of linoleic acid in the human body.

Linoleic acid produces toxic byproducts including acrolein, 4-hydroxy-2-nonenal (HNE) and malondialdehyde (MDA). Acrolein is one of the toxins found in cigarette smoke known to cause lung damage. It’s a biocide, meaning it kills life. HNE and MDA are cytotoxic and mutagenic, which means they kill cells and alter DNA. NHE is always found in damaged brain tissue and when we look at animal models, it causes amyloid plaque formation in the brain. Amyloid plaque is associated with many neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimers.

A study on mice showed that diets high in canola oil are shown to significantly impair memory and lead to amyloid plaques.

HNE has been shown to damage mitochondrial ATP generation — the fuel needed for your brain.

Cancer is caused by oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction and genetic damage. Seed oils have been shown to cause all three. One of the mechanisms here is cardiolipin damage. Cardiolipin is one of the primary phospholipids found in our mitochondria. One of the markers of cancer presence and proliferation is cardiolipin damage.

HNE has been shown to damage the p53 gene, which is a tumor suppressor.

How Do You Know If Something Contains Seed Oils?

First and foremost – read the labels! Here are some of the ways seed oils will be listed:

  • Rapeseed oil
  • Canola oil
  • Palm oil
  • Palm kernel oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Cottonseed oil
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Rice bran oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Vegetable oil
  • Hydrogenated vegetable oil

This is not an exhaustive list! If you aren’t sure, google it! This is serious enough that you really want to know.

How Do You Avoid Seed Oils?

A fantastic place to start is not purchasing or using oils like canola, corn, safflower, etc. If you have these in your pantry, throw them away. Have a can of Crisco? Please toss it.

Avoid processed foods! If you’re going to consume something processed, check the labels! This is important for everyone but especially important for children! I said goodbye to Roman’s favorite Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies after doing my research for this topic. Why? The second ingredient is a seed oil. Just because you perceive something to be healthy because of something like the word “organic” does not mean it’s healthy at all! A lot of protein bars and protein shakes have seed oils!

How Are Seed Oils Different from The Seeds Themselves?

The primary difference is the concentration. Dr. Paul Saladino recently put forward a video about rice bran oil, explaining that a single meal at Chipotle is prepared using a few tablespoons of rice bran oil. Doesn’t sound bad, right? Wrong. Why? Because it takes approximately 34 cups of brown rice to make those few tablespoons of oil. So the massive difference here is in the concentration. You’d never eat 34 cups of rice in a day, but you could easily have tablespoons worth of the oil in one meal or a part of one meal. And of course, people aren’t having these oils at just one meal or in just one component of meals. That’s why our intake is up 1000x.

My Personal Takeaways

I’ll be honest – I knew that seed oils were bad news but I didn’t consider just how bad they are and I hadn’t gone through the research until preparing for episode 1069 of the Primal Potential podcast. One thing I did right away was throw away my son’s Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies. It’s a no for me.

Another sad shift – I’m not much of a protein bar gal, but I do sometimes treat myself to a crumbled up PowerCrunch bar in greek yogurt. Not anymore. It’s not worth the risk. I’ll find an alternative free from seed oils.

I use The Consistency Calendar to track certain habits each month and for the next upcoming month, one of the habits I’ll be tracking daily is “Zero seed oils”.

Want to know more?

Head over to the Primal Potential podcast and listen to episode 1069! If you have questions, be sure to let me know so I can do a follow up episode!

Chris Kresser is an incredible research if you want to dive down the rabbit hole further. Here’s a fantastic overview on seed oils he put together.

To read more about saturated fat, here’s a good paper.

Research specific to polyunsaturated fats.

On omega 3 versus omega 6 over the decades

BHA as endocrine disrupter

Vegetable Oils and CVD risk

The Rise of Seed Oil Consumption

The Primal Potential Podcast

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