A Difficult Topic: Consuming Oil
Chiu-Nan Lai, Ph.D.
Once a simple conversational starter, “cooking oil” has become a complex topic in modern times. There is too much information, too many choices and new research findings that conflict with old findings. What cooking oil should we take to be healthy? Many people are confused and in the last decade, the response has been “it doesn’t matter” – eat what we like. The consequence is that obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer have been on the rise in America. In particular, obesity has become very common.
Researchers are like the proverbial “blind men touching the elephant”. This year, they touch the elephant’s ear and next year, they touch the tail. Hence, their understanding is always adjusting. However, many people have full confidence in the latest research findings. If they follow these findings, they sometimes seem like leaves being swept by the autumn wind—flowing here and there.
Take oil as an illustration. Early medical research findings found that consuming too much saturated fat mainly from beef, pork or chicken, etc. will increase the incidence of heart disease. Therefore, the American Heart Association began to encourage people to eat more vegetable oil since it is non-saturated. However, this led to other problems. What is sold in the market is largely Omega-6 oil from corn, soybean, grape seed, peanut, cottonseed, safflower, sunflower and so on. Omega-6 oil is relatively more stable than Omega-3 oil and new varieties of oil generally have lower Omega-3 content to preserve its shelf life. However, increased consumption of Omega-6 oil actually leads to an increased incidence of heart disease.
Besides Omega-6 and Omega-3, unsaturated oil also includes Omega-7 and Omega-9. It seems that odd-number Omega oil has a protective effect on the heart. The main source of Omega-7 is from Hawaiian nuts, while that for Omega-9 is the olive.
One reason why Omega-3 became well known is that some Danish researchers went to Greenland (part of Denmark) to investigate the fatty acids in the blood of the Eskimos. These Eskimos consume lots of fat, but experience almost no heart diseases. Their sources of fat come from the meat of whales, halibut and seals. This source of fat is different from that derived from fish, pigs or cattle bred in captivity. Because of this research finding relating to the Eskimos, the consumption of fish and fish oil became popular. This is like touching the ear of the elephant. This early research was conducted in the 1970s. When the Eskimos adopted a western diet and started taking vegetable oil, their incidence of heart disease began to rise. By 1988, this heart disease proportion was close to that of the mainland Danes and by 2003, it was identical. The incidence of modern diseases also increased among the Eskimos, even though they continued to eat their seals and fish, etc. This health trend of Eskimos is similar to people of Okinawa in Japan. For the past 50 years, their incidence of chronic diseases has been rising, even though they also eat fish. The reason is that their consumption of vegetable oil had a threefold increase compared to the past.
An unbalanced diet is the source of diseases. Food that is processed will be easily oxidized with the balance of its nutrients destroyed. When we eat processed oil, we can easily lose the balance between Omega-6 and Omega-3. Currently, Americans’ consumption of Omega-6 is 25 times that of Omega-3. The healthy ratio is under 4.
For example, consuming a tablespoon of safflower oil will exceed more than 50% of the daily appropriate intake. Furthermore, safflower oil does not contain Omega-3. Similarly, a tablespoon of grape seed oil also exceeds appropriate daily intake. Processed unsaturated oil is easily oxidized. This is the second reason why we should not consume processed oil. Omega-3 is particularly unstable, thus the food industry does not use Omega-3 oil.
On this earth, the greatest supply of oil is that of Omega-3 and Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA) is an essential Omega-3 fatty acid. All green leaves and green algae are rich in Omega-3 as long as not too much Omega-6 is present.
Within an animal’s body, a part of ALA is converted to the Omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is present at the highest levels in the brain and eyes. A mother’s breast milk also has high DHA content and it contains the nutrients for the infant to most rapidly grow. In the absence of breast milk, DHA can be supplemented by using DHA extracted from green algae. Some infant products in the market contain DHA supplements.
Green leaves are sources of ALA (Omega-3), while seeds are the sources of linoleic acid or Omega-6. We need both types of oil, but this has to be balanced. The problem lies in excessive Omega-6, which can inhibit the conversion of ALA into DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). EPA has anti-inflammatory functions. In recent years, the view is that inflammation is the source of all diseases, including heart diseases.
Over a hundred years ago, Dr. Rudolf Steiner emphasized that green leaves provide the best source of fatty acids. Twenty years ago, there was no research to support this view, but it has now been found that green leaves contain higher than expected higher fatty acids, all of which contain Omega-3. For instance, the purslane contains four times Omega-3 fatty acids than farm-grown spinach. Wild vegetables contain more Omega-3 than those grown in farms.
Plants store their fatty acids in their seeds. In general, when the seed germinates, Omega-6 is converted to Omega-3. There are some exceptions where Omega-3 is relatively high in the seeds. For instance, 50% of the fatty acid in the flaxseed is Omega-3. Other good sources of Omega-3 are hemp seeds, walnut and many legumes such as green peas and large red beans.
Why has the consumption of Omega-6 increased significantly? The average American’s body contains several pounds of Omega-6 oil. It takes about 3 years to balance the amount of Omega-6 and Omega-3 in the body. In the 1970s, the government actively subsidized industrial-style farming, along with the mass production of soybeans and corn. This cheap supply of cereals and oil significantly changed the source of food.
Livestock farms use corn and soybean as animal feed, and the animals that are reared this way do not contain much Omega-3. Similarly, fish fed with corn do not contain much Omega-3. Soybean and corn are commonly used as ingredients in processed food. Corn chip is a common fried snack and corn syrup is commonly used in snacks. This cheap source of oil is sold all over the world, vastly changing the eating habits of people.
Even people living in places that traditionally eat coconut milk have also converted to taking corn oil that is high in Omega-6. This cheap vegetable oil has affected the people’s health in many countries. Earlier, it was mentioned that the deterioration of the Okinawa peoples’ health is associated with the consumption of vegetable oil. Another previously inexplicable puzzle relates to the deterioration of the health of Israelis, and this is associated with their consumption of linoleic acid (Omega-6) oil. Their incidence of heart diseases and mortality has been rising. Their consumption of vegetable oil is highest in the world (30 grams or more per day). They have lower animal fat, cholesterol and calories than Americans but their incidence of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and many types of cancers is similar to that of Americans. This was previously a puzzle because there was no distinction between the types of unsaturated oil people consumed. The Israelis are the best examples of how eating Omega-6 fatty acids do not prevent but instead cause many chronic diseases.
Author Susan Allport used herself as a guinea pig in an experiment. For 30 days, she increased her intake of Omega-6 but did not change her other diet. She replaced salad dressing oil with that made using corn oil. She also replaced olive oil that she had used as salad oil with a mix of soybean oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil. She continued to eat fish twice a week, but changed her dairy intake from that derived from cows fed with grass to those fed with general animal feed. During this time, her blood’s fatty acid content had a significant change: the Omega-6 content increased while the Omega-3 content reduced, such that the ratio rose from 2.9 to 6.1.
With this decrease in Omega-3 levels, her weight did not change but her abdominal fat increased by half a pound. Her metabolic rate also slowed down from 1367 calories to 1291 calories. What was most surprising to experts was that her arm vasoconstriction reduced by 22%, and the elasticity of her blood vessels also fell. She was very brave because she was fully aware of the effects of Omega-6 on her body. In Allport’s book titled “The Queen of Fats”, she talked about how Omega-3 has disappeared from the American diet.
Many people are affected by one-sided reporting of research results and believe that eating fish is the best source of DHA and EPA. In fact, if they do not take Omega-6 and the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is not more than 2.3, the body will effectively convert ALA into DHA and EPA.
Several studies have proven this. The first study involves 14,422 participants. The results showed that there was no significant difference in the DHA and ALA in the blood among those who ate fish, those who did not eat fish but ate other animal products and vegans. Although there was a big difference in the absorption of Omega-3, the DHA of the vegans was higher than that of the fish-eaters.
Ralph Holman has conducted research on fatty acids for many years. He collected blood of people around the world to analyze their fatty acid content. His American control group consists of 100 healthy people from Minnesota. He was surprised to find that the Omega-3 within the blood of his American sample was lowest, below that from India, Sweden, Australia, Africa and Nigeria. The Omega-3 in the blood of infants from the United States was less than 4%, and that of infants from Nigeria was higher than 13%.
One of Holman’s post- doctoral students was a Nigerian. He sent Holman the blood sample of 38 of his fellow Nigerians living in a small town called Enugu in inner Nigeria. They did not have much fish to take. Surprisingly, Holman found that the Omega-3 in their blood was higher than any other test sample, and double that of the Minnesota group. These Nigerians took a lot of green vegetables, did not take Omega-6 oil, and ate a little palm oil. In this case, the saturated fatty acids did not counteract the Omega-3 fatty acids.
Holman discovered thirty years ago that to derive benefits from Omega-3, the intake of Omega 6 must be reduced. In 1985, he started using Omega-3 to treat people with depression, attention-deficit and post-natal depression. It was also from this time onwards that there was a growing divide in opinion on the effects of fatty acid among researchers, government agencies and medical associations.
In the New York Times Number 1 bestseller book titled “Fork Over Knives”, it was emphasized in the recipes section that if we eat whole plant foods, there is no need to be concerned about supplementing our Omega-3 intake. We just need to be careful not to use oil that has high Omega-6 content or use any processed oil in our food while taking a small amount of seeds, coconut, avocado and olives.
Many years ago, I encouraged the use of water to cook vegetables. After 30 to 40 years, there is more research to support this view. Use water to cook vegetables and eat an appropriate amount of flaxseed, hemp seeds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, coconut and other nuts.
The proportion of Omega-3 and Omega-6 in flaxseed is 3.9. Thus, it is easy to achieve a balance in the Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio by adding a small amount of flaxseed. Most people can take 2-4 tablespoons a day of flaxseed. Freshly grounded flaxseed powder can be added to porridge, energy soup, or other dishes (e.g., grain-based dishes). Adding a big bunch of greens to energy soup is a good way to supplement Omega-3. If it is available, it is best to add purslane. It is good to chew slowly because Omega-3 fats are very susceptible to oxidation. Hence, it is best to purchase whole flaxseed and grind it only when you are about to consume it. Any excess can be kept in a fridge, to be consumed within seven days. Whole flaxseed can be kept for a year.
The following is one way to supplement our Omega-3 intake:
Sunflower seeds flaxseed sauce
1. Soak 1 cup sunflower seeds in water for 6 to 8 hours. Drain the water and allow the seeds to germinate.
2. Grind 3 tablespoons of flaxseed to powder form. Add 6 tablespoons of water and a few drops of saturated brine.
3. Use a food blender to grind the above and add some spices such as coriander, basil or curry powder. This mix can be eaten as a jam for biscuits or taken with salad. Alternatively, it can be compressed (to ¼ inch thick) and baked as cookies under low heat. The ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is 1.6. With the use of sunflower seeds, the ratio is 3:2.
When making any pastry or grain-based product, you can add 1 to 2 tablespoons of flaxseed powder to 2 cups of grains. You can also add flaxseed powder when cooking porridge.
We will soon publish a recipe book titled “Grandma’s Kitchen—Lapis Lazuli Light Recipe Book II” that contains many ways of eating fermented grains that can complement the use of flaxseed.
• Allport, Susan, The Queen of Fats, Why Omega-3s were removed from the Western Diet
The original Chinese article is published in the Nov 2013 issue of Lapis Lazuli Light magazine