Today’s blog post has been contributed by Nutritional Therapist, Grace Kingswell. The topic of seed oils is complex and there is a huge amount of conflicting information on the internet and in mainstream guidelines, which is why I wanted to tackle this extremely important subject with the help of a professional.
There’s something exciting happening in the medical world, in the nutrition and nutritional therapy and the functional medicine spheres...people are starting to talk about toxic seed oils. Have you ever wondered why your barista oat milk has rapeseed oil in? Do you cook your food or bake your cakes with sunflower or rapeseed oil (aka vegetable oil)? Do you consume vegan spreads or margarine? Then please, please read on...
Seed Oils and the Omega 3 and Omega 6 Ratio
The first thing to discuss is the balance of omega 3 to omega 6 in seed oils such as:
- Rapeseed (canola oil)
- Cottonseed oil
- Sunflower oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Safflower oil
We need both omega 3s and omega 6s to be healthy, but we need them in a ratio of anything from 1:1 to 1:4 omega 3 to omega 6. Alarmingly, we are now seeing ratios of 1:40, that’s 1 omega 3 to every 40 omega 6. I personally have had blood work come back in my clinical practice with ratios of 1:30. It’s shocking. In a 2011 study, The estimated per capita consumption of soybean oil increased >1000-fold from 1909 to 1999.* The availability of linoleic acid (LA) increased from 2.79% to 7.21% of total energy consumption. Fast forward a few more years and this trend has only increased further.
Research suggests that our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed omega-3 and omega-6 fats in a ratio of roughly one to one. So pretty much the same amount of Omega-3 to the same amount of Omega-6. Importantly, today’s hunter-gatherers( the very few tribes that still exist in 2021 who we can look to and study), still mimic those ratios and they do not have modern inflammatory diseases like heart disease and cancer and diabetes.
Why is the balance important?
The balance between these fats is so important because our cells are made of fat, our brains are made of fat (a specific balance of fats) and if our fat cells are constantly flooded with omega-6 fatty acids, the cellular membranes do not operate in the same way. They might not be able to receive and excrete other molecules in the way that they are usually supposed to, they may not have the fluidity of movement that they are supposed to, they may not proliferate the way that they are supposed to. We see that fat cells actually do not divide properly when we have a specific imbalance of Omega-3 to omega-6.
It is also a problem because too many omega 6s, as found in nuts, seeds, grains and seed oils, drive inflammation in the body (that’s a simple scientific fact). Omega 3s, on the other hand, are really protective of these inflammatory cascades and pathways which is why, as a clinician, I often give high dose omega 3 supplements to people suffering from inflammatory conditions like eczema, allergies, acne, joint pain, PMS, endometriosis etc.
It’s also crucial to remember that inflammation is at the heart of every single ailment, illness and chronic disease in western society. Decrease your inflammation, feel better - it’s as simple as that.
Now, if you do some googling, you’ll see that rapeseed oil, which is the most widely used seed oil in all UK products from plant milks to crackers, to crisps, to ANY food you’d eat in a restaurant, to pre-made pasta sauces and hummus etc, has actually quite a favourable ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids of 1:2. So actually using some cold-pressed, un-processed rapeseed oil on a salad for example, isn’t a massive issue. But, it’s not just about the balance of these fats, it’s about how they’re handled, treated and stored.
So rather than the specific ratio of O3 to O6, the really concerning issue is the ability of these seed oils, as used in plant milks, vegan butter, margarine, cheap pastry and pre-packaged foods, to become rancid or inflammatory due the way they’re processed.
Unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (what we know as vegetable oils, but are actually seed oils), are very unstable and they degrade and become rancid in the presence of:
I would just like to point out here that our bodies run at 37 degrees (pretty hot), and are full of oxygen…. So the problem isn’t just what’s happening in the plant milk manufacturing facilities, storage containers, and eventually when they get to our homes and into our milk frothers, it’s actually what happens inside our bodies too. So for the most part, I would not recommend using seed oils at all and certainly not consuming packaged products with seed oil ingredients.
Saturated fats, on the other hand (butter, coconut oil and other animal fats) are stable and safe, and this comes down to their molecular structure. With omega 3s, the first double bond occurs on the third carbon atom and with omega-6s, the first double bond occurs on the sixth carbon atom. This is important! Because of this they operate differently and the body utilises them differently too. They are more stable and they have different roles in the body. Unstable fats damage our cells and create inflammation, which is why saturated fats are much safer to cook with than rapeseed, sunflower etc.
And just anecdotally, I’m seeing a lot of my patient population and people online who have ditched plant milks and the other sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids like rapeseed and sunflower seed oil, heal from conditions of acne and breakouts (even though this is, of course, well researched too as acne and spots are just inflammation on the skin).
I haven’t even begun to mention hormones yet! But if you suffer from PMS, painful periods, endometriosis etc then you might also want to be a food detective and start removing these toxic, inflammatory oils from your diet.
It’s safe to say that this is an area of health that is wildly underestimated. We are all walking around assuming that plant based diets made up of grains, legumes, plant milks, vegetable oils and margarines are firstly doing our bodies good and secondly saving the planet. Well I hate to tell you that it’s not true. All of these foods are high in omega 6s, and cost our earth a huge amount to produce. Monocropping, genetically modifying, pesticide spraying...Whereas good, healthy clean fats from animal sources (organic and regeneratively farmed), are being demonised.
But isn’t saturated fat bad for us? Stay tuned...next week’s blog post is all about cholesterol and the big fat lie...