Updating the Primal Stance on Vegetable Oils: High-Oleic Varieties

the updated primal guide to vegetable oil in lineMany years ago (I initially wrote that in jest, but it has been almost seven years), I wrote a definitive guide to oils, covering the benefits and drawbacks of over a dozen of the most common edible oils. Seven years is plenty of time for new data to come out, new perspectives to develop, and even new oils to hit the market. How would I go back and update my previous recommendations?

Most of it stands. The fatty acid breakdown and overall assessment of each oil remain valid and sound. Olive oil is still olive oil (unless it’s not). 2016 peanut oil is identical to 2010 peanut oil. If you’re interested in the basics or want to see my 2010 take on edible oils, go ahead and read through the Definitive Guide to Oils.

The reason for my recommendation that people avoid making most oils a large part of their diet also stands: they contain too much linoleic acid, a fragile fatty acid that becomes inflammatory when exposed to heat and creates oxidative stress when incorporated into our cell membranes and lipoproteins. The historic human diet contained very little linoleic acid; the modern industrial diet contains excessive amounts, mostly thanks to our reliance on these oils.

Everything compelling us to avoid vegetable oils lies downstream of the linoleic acid issue.

Rancidity: Higher PUFA oils are more prone to rancidity. Unless they were pressed yesterday into amber-colored bottles and shipped in cold storage, most high-PUFA vegetable oils arrive with some degree of rancidity.

Fragility: Linoleic acid has a bad tendency to oxidize when exposed to heat. Since these oils are being used in deep-fryers, sauté pans, and processed (cooked) food all over the world, the majority of the linoleic acid people consume has been partially oxidized.

Lack of historical precedent: Our current levels of linoleic acid are without precedent. Before industrialization, we had neither the means nor the need to extract edible oils from soybeans, canola, and other high-linoleic seeds. In 1909, we got about 2.7% of our calories from linoleic acid. By 1999, it was 7.2%. I have to imagine it’s even higher today.

Even the supposed benefits to heart health linoleic acid provides haven’t held up to close scrutiny. Uncovered data from the ancient studies used to support this idea show that replacing saturated fat with linoleic acid-rich oils give no benefit. If anything, it’s actually worse, reducing cholesterol (“good”) and increasing mortality (unequivocally bad).

And so when we talk about “limiting vegetable oils,” our main beef is with the linoleic acid content. It’s too fragile, it’s too ubiquitous, and it fails to deliver the promised benefits.

What if vegetable oils weren’t so high in linoleic acid? Producers are increasingly breeding “high-oleic, lower-PUFA” versions of many oil seeds, including canola, soybean, sunflower, safflower, peanut, and even corn. These newer varieties have more monounsaturated fat and far less polyunsaturated fat than the standard oils. Some have fatty acid profiles rivaling olive and avocado oil.

Does it matter? Are these oils actually healthier than their high-linoleic counterparts?

Corn oil: Compared to others oils, high-oleic corn oil produced the fewest polar compounds (a measure of lipid oxidation) in response to 20 hours of frying at 190 °C.

Canola oil: Humans who eat high-oleic canola oil have more oleic acid in their LDL particles. More oleic acid in your LDL particles means greater resistance to oxidation (and presumably greater resistance to heart disease).

Soybean oil: The only human study I found showed that compared to other types of soybean oil, high-oleic soybean oil results in greater increases in HDL. Whatever you want to say about the reliability of using lipid numbers to divine health status, higher HDL is pretty much always a good thing.

Sunflower oil: High-oleic sunflower oil is extremely stable in frying conditions, with any instability being attributed to its linoleic acid content.

Safflower oil: Remember what I’ve written about the colorectal carcinogenicity of high-PUFA seed oils? Compared to rats given high-linoleic safflower oil, rats eating high-oleic safflower oil were protected from colon cancer.

Peanut oil: Eating high-oleic peanuts improves cognitive and cardiovascular function in overweight adults. It wasn’t the isolated oil, so other peanut components could have played a role.

Now, these aren’t healthy oils. These are still refined oils largely depleted of the phytonutrients that naturally occur in the seeds, and they’ll still be used to create shelf-stable junk food and deep-fried fare. But at least they’re no longer actively unhealthy. They can become neutral cooking vehicles to be used for good or evil. All in all, I think widespread replacement of high-PUFA oils with high-oleic versions will bring huge benefits to everyone:

If you replaced the high-PUFA corn and soybeans given to pigs and chickens with high-oleic version, we’d see huge improvements in poultry and pork fatty acid composition. One study found that adding high-oleic sunflower oil to pig feed produced lard that was more resistant to oxidation. Another found the same thing happens in chickens given high-oleic sunflower feed.

Restaurant food wouldn’t be so bad. You could actually enjoy McDonald’s fries again as a treat.

People who can’t afford (or don’t know the difference) healthier food won’t be jamming so much oxidized linoleic acid into their mitochondrial membranes.

College kids grabbing a burger and fries at 2 am after the party lets out won’t be flooding their ethanol-compromised livers with linoleic acid that makes the hepatic situation worse.

Pregnant women who can’t stomach anything but processed junk in the first trimester won’t be constructing their future children out of rancid vegetable oil.

Folks who can’t drop $25 on a skinny pastured chicken can pick up a standard-issue fryer for $10, roast it, eat the crispy skin, and use the drippings to cook root veggies without worrying about their LDL particles filling up with linoleic acid and oxidizing.

Can these high-oleic oils replace high-oleic stalwarts like olive oil, mac nut oil, or avocado oil?

Definitely not.

There is far more to olive, mac nut, and avocado oil than the superior fatty acid profiles. They come from internationally renown, time-tested whole foods with incredible health benefits. They’re rich in phytonutrients. They taste great. They’ve undergone extensive vetting in the scientific literature.

And many of the high-oleic seed oils, like corn, soy, canola, sunflower, and safflower, tend to be highly processed. Whereas you can crush an olive or smash up some coconut flesh and get plenty of oil, extracting oil from something like corn or soy requires extensive processing and unpleasant solvents.

Certain produces have figured out how to make cold-pressed sunflower, safflower, and canola oils, but I don’t really get the point. Oils are often refined for a reason: the unrefined oil tastes terrible (or at least unremarkable) and contains unwanted compounds, like canola oil’s erucic acid.

These aren’t prized for their phytonutrient constituents. No one’s dipping their crusty French bread into virgin canola or going to safflower oil tastings. They were chosen simply as a cheap source of (somewhat) edible fatty acids. Going high-oleic doesn’t change this.

But it’s undoubtedly a positive development. Let’s hope the food and agricultural industries take note and adopt the high-oleic varieties.

For now, speak out. Ask your local restauranteurs if they know about high-oleic oils. Email the chains. Talk to the chicken guy at the farmer’s market—what’s he feeding his flock? Express interest.

Thanks for reading, everyone.


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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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52 thoughts on “Updating the Primal Stance on Vegetable Oils: High-Oleic Varieties”

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          1. I love that song so much. “not a prisoner, I’m a free man!”

  1. I am happy to change my diet because its whats good for me and I need to do it, however the last thing I am going to do is ask my server about oils used in cooking. When I go out, I resign myself to eating meat, potato and salad. It’s the safest thing and typically its hard to mess up

  2. Many of the Asian restaurants like sushi bars and Thai places use rice bran oil. They claim it is the most healthy. It does have a high smoke point but it is just about all Omega-6. Anybody have an opinion on rice bran oil?

  3. We don’t do a lot of frying, particularly with high heat. I don’t ever deep-fry. Whenever we do pan fry anything, we use rendered bacon fat or a combination of bacon fat and butter (to prevent burning). Sometimes we just use butter, as for eggs. I’ve cooked this way for years and much prefer the flavor to various other oils, including coconut oil. I also have EVOO and avocado oil on hand but mainly use them for salads or homemade mayo.

    1. A few more words about various oils… If food that should be fresh tastes rancid, it has probably been cooked in soybean oil, which imparts a strong “off” flavor to whatever is fried in it. A lot of people I know like peanut oil for frying, but IMO it’s too thick. Like cooking with glue. Years ago my mother fried everything in corn oil or Crisco. My dad developed heart trouble and died at age 75. Just sayin’… Maybe it wasn’t the oil that caused his heart attack, but it probably didn’t help matters either. People didn’t know about trans-fats and bad oils in those days.

      1. Ah, yes. Crisco my mother kept a can on the refrigerator for most of my school years and probably later. All those yummy trans fats. And margarine instead of butter except for butter cookies.

        And we had a lot of diesel fuel in the food.

  4. I do ask when I go out to eat. I eat paleo but I am allergic to rice and corn so I want to make sure they arent in my food. I dont take any chances with oils. I always ask.

  5. Checking to see if the posting issue on your site is fixed yet. After you changed over to the new design, I could no longer post comments nor replies.

  6. In a perfect world perhaps or when we the consumers put enough pressure on manufactures to change their ways. And this is from a July, 24, 2012 article by you on high-oleic/high-stearic sunflower oil. “Verdict: Primal. Just be sure to go for cold-pressed (which preserves vitamin E and reduces oxidation).”

    Based on your recommendation, I decided to try a bottle. It was organic and cold press and came in a nice and dark bottle, but mistakenly, it turned out to be “based on healthy Omega 6 Linoleic acid” per the manufacturer claim to fame. And it was expensive too but the fault is all mine. I’m yet to see any seed oil that is high-oleic/high-stearic based.

    Tip: Seed oils are great for cleaning the grease of your hand after fixing your bike etc’; pour a little into the palms of your hands, rub well and wipe clean with paper towels. So if you have an old bottle, keep it for those occasions.

    1. It’s good for greasing the sides of your oven racks to make them slide more easily too.

    2. good to know, I am always messing with my bike (my transportation to work)

    3. I also use some old peanut oil to get the sticker glue off jars or other objects.

    4. Diesel fuel or perhaps oil for lamps. Remember that “Saturday Night Live” add for the product that was a floor wax AND a dessert topping?!

  7. Does any one know if “light” flavored olive oil; that is refined olive oil, ok?

    1. Correct. Many mistaken the light for less calories, while in fact, it’s higher smoking point and neutral taste make it suitable for frying. Its extracted via 2nd pressing (using heat) and include pressing the seeds.

      1. So do you think that second pressing could oxidise the oil? I’m interested as I use this to make aioli which I use daily. I also make it with advo oil but like the lighter flavor.

        1. For a lighter and sweeter/milder taste, try virgin olive oil instead of extra virgin, as it is pressed from riper olives (later harvest) and have higher acidic value than that of the extra virgin. You can also experiment with different olive oil varieties (not brand names) if listed on the bottle. I hope that helps.

  8. Does anyone know if light flavored olive oil – that is “refined” olive oil, ok?

  9. I’ll stick with my avocado oil, (real) olive oil, and macadamia nut oil every now and then. They all taste amazing. But nice to know that highly processed vegetable oils can at least be somewhat neutral, instead of terrible for you!

  10. While oils with less linoleic acid will be less inflammatory and help the cholesterol profile, how do they affect satiety and/or weight gain?

  11. I enjoyed reading the little narrative about how I might be able to enjoy McDonald’s fries occasionally, and crispy chicken skin, in the event of these “high-oleic, lower-PUFA” seed based oils entering the main stream. To be honest, I totally eat both of those things occasionally anyway – but for a moment I felt less guilty.

    1. Mark mentioned a while back that our bodies aren’t as fragile as we tend to think they are. The trick is to keep the not-so-healthy indulgences to a minimum.

  12. I visit Whole Foods markets in many states to buy my meals. I have noticed they use “virgin” canola oil in all their hot food bar foods …if canola is no good how can they consider it healthy food? I know it’s cheap oil but just saying’.

    1. Many things in Whole Foods aren’t healthy. You have to read the labels there just like everywhere else. Canola is cheap and has been heavily promoted as healthy. Most people (and/or companies) don’t do the research, but go with the prevailing wisdom/propaganda. Do some research on canola, and I bet you won’t ever use it again.

      1. Much with flour products in the entrance room of my local Whole Paycheck and skim milk with chocolate or strawberry flavor (probably both flavors ersatz). And a boat load of sugar. The “milk” is no fat — of course.

  13. Where does duck fat fit into the equation? I recently broiled some potatoes with that and the flavor was amazing.

    1. I don’t think duck fat “fits into” the equation as much as it floats to the top. It’s in a class all by itself.

  14. For some reason, everytime I’ve tried cooking in coconut oil, the taste isn’t very nice at all.
    I stick to EVOO and butter, safe, tastes great, and most importantly, no complaints from Hubby!

    1. Very true. The flavor of coconut oil is problematic simply because it tastes like coconut, which doesn’t always complement the food you’re frying in it. I do use it, but only when I’m happy with the addition of coconut to the flavor profile of the dish. For instance, frying green plantain chips in coconut oil is yummy. Or when I’m making a curry. But not for burgers. The flavor issue with coconut oil can be resolved by buying the refined oil, but then you miss out on nutrients. So it has its place, but it’s limited.

  15. Wow, consuming gmo corn, soy, etc…is “no longer actively unhealthy”? I’m shocked to read that. Plenty of reasons to avoid anything made of corn or soy.

  16. I find it ridiculous how some oils are healthy and others are not. Oh, but this one is “lighty processed”. It takes apx 44 olives to equal one tbsp of oil. Would you normally sit down and eat 44 olives along with an entire meal? Even if so, isn’t it like drinking orange juice vs having an orange. Where the fiber slows down absorption? And does your body even know what to do with this tbsp of pure added fat? And if you dig into the nutrition content/antioxidants of the oil it’s pretty much 0 even where it’s supposed to shine. 120 calories of nothingness. It’s like if Mark said a twinkle is suddenly healthy because it has 1% of your daily value of vitamin c in it. Someone please prove me wrong.

    1. Why not get fats from whole foods. Or a handful of olives?

      1. Because other foods cooked in fats taste great, provide good mouth feel and make us generally enjoy our food more. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want all my food to taste of olive, or coconut, or… and yes I think your body knows exactly what to do with GOOD fat. That said Im not about to start frying anything in canola oil anytime soon, not with much better options available. What is good to know is that there are less dangerous options, that communities are putting pressure on companies to be accountable and make better choices. It’s about helping other ignorant people enjoy better health. It’s not all about oneself. So it’s a good thing surely? Some parents will always feed their kids McDonalds, so if the fries are cooked in something healthier than oxidised, rancid, free radical forming oils then, cool. It’s about time.

        1. For the most part I have good complexion. But if I start cooking my food with oil or even drizzling some EV olive oil on food my skin breaks out. The this oil is good and this oil is bad seems bogus.

          I enjoy food and life the same. Now I can taste my food and not only the fat.


  18. Soybean oil is high in gamma tocopherol

    a Japanese study reported that the levels of total carotenoids and gamma tocopherol, but not alpha tocopherol, were significantly lower in patients with cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract, i.e., cancer involving either the upper respiratory pathways or the upper digestive tract.5 At the same time, however, higher gamma tocopherol levels were found to be associated with certain cancers, such as invasive cervical cancer. There may be several reasons for this, including possible excess consumption of commercial vegetable oils and slower degradation of gamma tocopherol in the presence of inflammatory cytokines. The impact of inflammatory cytokines on tocopherol metabolism makes it probable that the higher plasma gamma tocopherol levels found in some cancer patients are likely to be the effect, not the cause, of the disease.

  19. I am on the Keto Diet and try to eat a serving of almonds everyday for the magnesium content. I have mostly been eating raw almonds since ALL of the roasted ones seem to use a bad oil! However I recently found one at Whole Foods, 365 Roasted & Salted (with sea salt!), which uses “expeller pressed canola oil.” Is this ok to consume? Please help, I can’t find much info about it online! Thank you so much!

  20. oil seed have phytic acid too . you should make an article on that.

    https://www.food.dtu.dk › Pub-2011 › P…PDF
    Résultats Web
    Phytate – a natural component in plant food – DTU Fødevareinstituttet
    “In oil seeds such as sunflower seeds, soybeans, sesame seeds, linseeds and rape seeds the phytic acid content ranges from 1- 5.4% (dmb). In soy concentrates a content of 10.7% (dmb) has been reported.”

    “T he main sources of phytate in the daily diet are cereals and legumes, but also oil seeds and nuts. ”
    “Cereals are rich in phytate containing approximately 1% phytic acid on dry matter basis (dmb)”

    so just to say, vegetabke oil have phytic acid and perhaps others antinutrients.

  21. Out of all the industrial oils sunflower has the most promise. It s actually decent when unrefined, and it’s the only one who can be enjoyed in its natural state, even unripe sunflower seeds taste great. Soy or canola would kill you.