My mother recently told me a story about my late grandfather who suffered a heart attack back in 1964 – he was one of the army officers who had walked along PM’s Nehru’s funeral procession from Teen Murti to Shantivan and it was assumed that my grandfather had taken ill because of the long march on that rather hot, blistering May afternoon back in 1964. 

He was admitted to the Army Hospital in the Delhi Cantonment area and my grandmother would routinely spend time with my hospitalised grandfather. On one occasion, she was feeding him home-cooked desi ghee parathas, thinking it would be a healthy change from the bland military hospital food. 

The duty doctor caught her feeding him and ticked her off – for feeding a heart patient with ghee parathas! When my grandfather was discharged, my grandmother determinedly began cooking food for the entire family in Saffola, a seed oil, touted as a safer alternative than ghee. 

Today, the entire focus has changed. Health experts are admitting that seed oils – those ever-popular Omega 6 seed oils which are labelled as ‘Vegetable Oils’ and are found in canola (rapeseed), corn, cottonseed, grapeseed, rice bran, safflower, soy, and sunflower oils are distinctly toxic. Critics have dubbed them the ‘Hateful Eight’ and these oils are being blamed for a host of illnesses, among them heart disease, headaches, obesity, type 2 diabetes and foggy thinking. It seems the effects of seed oils and sugars on health are more or less similar.  

Prominent investigative science journalist and author of the worldwide bestseller, The Big Fat Surprise, Nina Teicholz, explains how vegetable oils go through 17 stages of processing such as deodorizing, winterizing, bleaching, hydrogenation and other treatments for rancidity before landing in the food on your plate. Worse, Hexane – a hydrocarbon from petroleum spirit is used to separate seed oil from the seed.

In her research presentation at the launch of her book, she revealed how Procter & Gamble literally took over as sponsors of the then unknown American Heart Association (AHA) back in 1948 and flooded them with millions of dollars through a sponsored radio show. Soon after, the AHA began convincing Americans en masse that vegetable oils like Crisco produced by P&G were good for health and that they prevented heart disease. 

Margarine, a hardened ‘vegetable seed oil’, was also rolled out into the market around this time. The dairy industry looked upon margarine as a major threat to their livelihood, but by World War II, Crisco and margarine had become acceptable on the dining tables of the wealthy. The other advantage was that they were reasonably priced compared to butter and ghee. 

Arjun Pereira

Soon, the then US President, General Dwight Eisenhower suffered a major heart attack and Ancel Keys, a US physiologist and nutrition expert blamed saturated fats and cholesterol for the President’s heart attack. This was the impetus the seed oil industry needed and soon, it was flooding supermarket shelves. No wonder, it soon reached India and our households were invaded by vegetable oils. The traditional desi ghee was soon forgotten. 

It was only much later that some diligent scientists began collecting another set of data that proved that heart disease had, in fact, risen since the introduction of vegetable oils in the market in 1911. 

Wikipedia has some more interesting tidbits to offer — that when Proctor & Gamble introduced vegetable seed oils in the United States, they advertised that it scored over traditional saturated fats like tallow, suet, butter and lard as it was cheaper, easier to stir into a recipe, and could be stored at room temperature for two years without turning rancid.

And ever since the 90s, when the snack food industry took off in India, seed oils became even more popular. 

The average American now uses as much as 25 to 30 times more oil than is good for the body. While I couldn’t dig up data about Indian consumption patterns, going by the number of people around me suffering from health issues such as diabetes and heart ailments, I am sure it may be worse or similar to the Americans.  

Scientific research tells us that all saturated fats and trans fats are bad for our health as they create LDL cholesterol that eventually causes coronary artery disease. Trans fats also deplete HDL, our good cholesterol that eventually leads to inflammation, which in turn causes coronary artery disease. 

Nuts and seeds also contain Omega 6 seed oils, but these are not harmful when taken in smaller quantities as they also contain phytonutrients and even lower cholesterol, heart disease risk and blood sugar when taken in controlled quantities. 

Health experts say that steering clear of all seed oils will help you lose weight and ramp up your energy, besides saving you from the harmful effects of diabetes and heart disease. 

So, what is the alternative to seed oils? Opt for avocado, coconut, or olive oil. Avocado and olive oils contain monounsaturated fats, and are more heart healthy. But 82 per cent of the fat in coconut oil is saturated, so don’t have too much of it. However, it is great for the brain and recommended for dementia patients.

Choose cold-pressed oils, as these are healthy options as they are extracted without heat or chemicals and are expeller-pressed. But these are expensive and  consumers often choose cheaper extracts. 

Dr Eric Berg who runs a popular health channel on YouTube says both seed oils and sugar are bad for health, but says that at least one can get off sugar and burn off its bad effects. The same is not true of oil as it remains in the body for up to 600 to 680 days in your body cells. 

Arjun Pereira, a writer and editor, is also a singer, composer, lyricist and guitarist. He loves the outdoors and is often seen enjoying a vigorous game of tennis both mornings and evenings. He has worked for several leading publishing houses and corporates and loves to travel, soaking in new experiences and cultures.

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