This Food Might Be Making You Sick—And It’s Nearly Impossible to Avoid

Get back to your pre-century roots.

By Edie Horstman
Modern Farmhouse Kitchen - Home of Helene Henderson - Malibu Farm - fresh produce and summer veggies - meal prep

Healthy eating is a slippery slope. What can begin as an honest attempt to live healthier can quickly segue into a rigid set of rules and restrictions. Been there, done that. Instead, the goal is to take a balanced, non-dogmatic approach. This allows for flexibility, spontaneity (hello, afternoon ice cream cone!), and pleasure. At the same time, nutrition is key for longevity. It empowers us to reach for nutrient-dense foods—like colorful produce, quality protein, and nourishing fats. Today, we’re diving into the dark side: the not-so-feel-good fats. Aka, industrial seed oils.

Did you know that industrial seed oils play a significant role in a slew of chronic diseases? And unfortunately, they’re hard to avoid. You’ll find them in mainstream packaged foods, baked goods, protein bars, salad dressings, and more. Let’s uncover what industrial seed oils are, how to spot them, and why they’re making many of us sick. Plus, healthy ways to swap them out.

Edie Horstman
Edie Horstman

Edie is the founder of nutrition coaching business, Wellness with Edie. With her background and expertise, she specializes in women’s health, including fertility, hormone balance, and postpartum wellness.

The Power of Real, Whole Foods

Before we dig into industrial seed oils, let’s talk about minimally processed foods—and why they reign supreme. For context, they’re what you’ll find on the perimeter of the grocery store: foods as close to their natural state as possible. Real foods are primarily free of chemical additives and rich in nutrients. The benefits are a dime a dozen. Eating real food means you’re getting important vitamins and minerals, fiber, and at least one macronutrient (carbs, protein, and healthy fats). Eating real food can also help curb sugar cravings, aid in satiation, and help balance blood sugar. And good news—healthy food swaps don’t have to break the bank.

Rigatoni with Brussels Sprouts, Kale Pesto, and Lemon--easy and healthy pasta dinner recipe
Image by Michelle Nash

What are Industrial Seed Oils?

The truth is, most processed foods come with a long list of ingredients. They’re typically packed with additives, preservatives, sugar, and industrial seed oils. These are inflammatory to the body. In turn, they’re harder to digest and assimilate. So, what are industrial seed oils? They’re highly-processed oils, extracted from soybeans, corn, rapeseed (the source of canola oil), cottonseed, and safflower seeds. They’re devoid of nutrients and calorically dense. Unlike traditional fats—such as olive oil, coconut oil, butter, ghee, and lard—industrial seed oils are a very recent addition to the human diet.

Fats That NourishFats that Inflame
Avocado oilCanola oil
ButterCorn oil
Coconut oilCottonseed oil
Duck fatGrapeseed oil
Goose fatPeanut oil
LardSafflower oil
Olive oilSunflower oil
TallowSoybean oil

The Rise of Industrial Seed Oils

Americans started consuming industrial seed oils in the early 1900s. We swiftly began replacing animal fats with their seed counterparts. Since then, these oils have influenced most Westernized diets. In fact, they’re deeply ingrained in our food system, used in virtually all ultra-processed package and frozen foods. A vast majority of restaurants use them too. After all, they’re cheap. But here’s the thing—they’re not entirely useless. Canola oil, for example, makes for a great lubricant for machinery. Seed oils are being studied as alternatives to non-renewable petroleum products (for fueling cars, making plastic, and even formulating printer ink). But should we be eating them? That’s up for debate.

How Industrial Seed Oils are Made

For some chemistry…

  1. First, seeds are gathered from soy, corn, cotton, safflower, and rapeseed plants.
  2. Next, the seeds are heated to extremely high temperatures. This causes the seeds’ unsaturated fatty acids to oxidize. Thus, creating harmful byproducts.
  3. The seeds are then processed with a petroleum-based solvent. This maximizes the amount of oil extracted.
  4. Next, industrial seed oil manufacturers use chemicals to deodorize the oils, which have a very off-putting smell. The deodorization process produces trans fats (double trouble for heart health).
  5. Finally, more chemicals are added to improve the color of the industrial seed oils.

Why Are Industrial Seed Oils Making Us Sick?

Based on that process, you can glean why. Historically, industrial seed oils represent an evolutionary mismatch (unlike what our ancestors consumed: olive oil, butter, etc.). These oils raise our omega-6-to-omega-3 fatty acid ratio, are unstable and oxidize easily, and contain harmful additives. They’re derived from GMOs and when repeatedly heated, they are even more toxic. But don’t fret, we have a full list of healthy oils you can swap instead! As often as possible, crowd out industrial seed oils to make space for satiating, nourishing fats. Your body, mind, and the planet will thank you.

3 Reasons to Avoid Industrial Seed Oils

Previously marketed as healthy oils, emerging evidence says otherwise. Here are three (of the many!) reasons to avoid industrial seed oils—both for your health and the health of the planet at large.

They’re Derived from Destructive Agriculture

These GMO oils are derived from destructive mono-crop agriculture. This depletes our soil and farmland. They’re also the top genetically modified crops (corn, soy, cottonseed, and canola). As staples in the ultra-processed food industry, they also help make the food monopoly of Big Food, Big Seed, Big Ag, and Fertilizer companies thrive and persist. When those industries are thriving, so are widespread chronic health problems, environmental destruction, political and scientific corruption, and even social injustice.

They Play a Significant Role in Chronic and Inflammatory Diseases

Eating industrial seed oils raises our omega-6-to-omega-3 fatty acid ratios. Over time, this can pose serious consequences for our health. We need both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. However, the standard American diet tends to skew the ratio in favor of omega-6 fats (thanks largely to industrial seed oils). This can contribute to system-wide inflammation, increasing the risk of cardiovascular issues, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, rheumatoid arthritis, digestive issues, and cancer.

They’re Devoid of Nutrients

Unlike avocados, coconuts, olives, butter, and other animal fats, industrial seed oils are not nutrient-dense. They don’t contain vitamins A, E, etc. In fact, they’re very unstable and oxidize easily by heat, light, and air. Said differently: they’re nutrient-poor and are full of unsavory chemicals and toxic byproducts.

Président Unsalted Butter and Bread
Image by Hannah Haston

Eat These Oils, Instead

The best thing you can do for your own health—and the health of your family—is to toss the vegetable oils in your house. Replace them with ghee, clarified butter, pastured-raised beef tallow, coconut oil, avocado oil, etc. And when shopping for plant-based butter and cheese alternatives, be mindful to read ingredient labels. For vegan swaps, Violife is our go-to! Source pure extra-virgin olive oil from Italy, Spain, or Greece. Look for cold-pressed and first-pressed. More on healthy cooking oils and their smoke points, here.