Do you ever stand in the grocery store aisle paralyzed with indecision as you stare at the multitude of vegetable-oil bottles?
Oils can add exquisite flavor to foods, be beneficial to our health, but also can have a negative impact on the environment.
We need oils in our diet to distribute fat-soluble vitamins (A, D and K); to keep our skin hydrated and supple; and for vital eye and brain development. They supply us with omega 3 (heart healthy) and omega 6 fatty acids, which our bodies are unable to produce.
However, one fat humans can completely do without is trans fat or hydrogenated oil. According to the American Heart Association, trans fat can increase your risk of developing heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
Americans, in general, eat too much fat, so monitoring your intake is wise. Read nutritional labels on products to learn the percentage of daily dietary fat needs. Americans tend to get too much omega 6 fatty acids, found in oils such as palm, soy, canola and sunflower oils, throwing off the benefits of the omega 3.
Increasing monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, can provide a healthy balance. Although coconut oil is 90 percent saturated fat, which needs to be eaten in moderation, preliminary studies have shown that it might improve blood cholesterol ratios and provide other health benefits, because it contains lauric acid.
Using the appropriate cooking oil will help your culinary skills and your health. If oil smokes while cooking at a high heat, it can lose nutritional value, give food an unpleasant taste and may form cancer-causing properties. Read labels to find oils made for high heat.
Air, heat and light cause oils to oxidize and turn rancid, causing the oil to smell like crayons and taste stale. Rancid oils may promote cancer and heart disease. Therefore, store oils in airtight containers in a cool, dark location.
Refined oils can be used at higher heat, but are less nutritious. Unrefined oils are more nutritious and flavorful, but can become rancid faster than refined oils, so buy in smaller quantities and more often. The nutritional value of unrefined oils is diminished with heat, so they are best used fresh or in low-heat cooking. Try to buy expeller-pressed oils where chemicals are not used to extract the oil.
For more than a decade the demand for vegetable oils has been growing at an unsustainable rate, leading to massive tropical deforestation, becoming a major contribution to global warming, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. Palm and soy oils have contributed the most to deforestation. One of the USC's recommendations is for farmers to use better management practices to improve crop yields and plant on nonforested areas.
The nonprofit Rainforest Action Network reports that wild orangutan populations have plummeted because of the destruction of their habitat for palm-oil plantations. According to RAN's website, "Scientists warn that these gentle and intelligent animals, among humankind's closest kin, could become extinct within our lifetime if their rainforest homes continue to be destroyed for palm-oil plantations."
Other species threatened include the Sumatran tiger and elephant. Palm oil is found is approximately 50 percent of all the processed and packaged food we eat, especially since palm oil has been substituted for trans fat in many food items.
Because palm oil is often found in processed snack foods, RAN has petitions to put pressure on the 20 major producers of snack foods to stop using palm oil tied to rainforest destruction and orangutan extinction. Because standards need to be set for deforestation-free palm oil, at this point palm oil may be a good ingredient to avoid. Try eating foods closer to their natural state and not processed. It may help your waistline, your carbon footprint and the fate of the orangutan.
GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are plants or animals created through the gene-splicing techniques, creating an organism that would not be found nature.
If you do not want to use GMO products, then you should avoid using corn, soy and canola oils, because approximately 90 percent of these crops are GMOs. If you want to use these oils, buy certified organic or verified by the Non-GMO Project.
Grape seed oil is a byproduct of the winemaking industry and therefore a source of oil that does not cause habitat destruction through creating new cropland and makes a valuable product from "waste."
Buying organic oils will reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides from being added to the environment.
Taste is a personal choice, so experiment with oils to find your favorites and ones that do not negatively affect your health or the environment. To learn more about palm oil and to see a video of an orangutan using sign language, see http://ran.org/palm-oil.
Anne Mazar is an environmental advocate and a member of the Mendon Land Use Committee.