Environmental Impact of Cooking Oils

What do you know about your cooking oil?

Have you ever considered the environmental impact of the cooking oil you routinely buy to stock your pantry? Maybe you should.

Take a moment to picture the cooking oils you have in your home right now. Some of you may have visualized one bottle while others saw a collection of bottles.

The thing is every household in the world probably holds at least one container of cooking oil. It is inconceivable that those hundreds of millions of bottles, jars, and cans of cooking oil do not cause environmental harm. The questions roaming about in my head were how much and does it matter.

I decided to try to find out and share what I learned in this post.

What is Cooking Oil?

Cooking oil is used to transfer heat from a pan to food, keep food from sticking to the pan, and in some cases to impart flavor. Oils do not mix with the water contained in food which is why French fries maintain a crusty exterior as long as you do not cook them long enough to cook all the water out of the potatoes. If you do, your fries will be soft and oily.

Before embarking on this project, I needed to rope in (persuade) my spouse to participate because as the family chef my spouse would be the one cooking with a variety of different oils. I would be fulfilling the role of taste tester and researcher.

At our local grocery market, I selected seven different oils using the totally non-scientific method of picking bottles that I thought would make an attractive photo.

Back at home, I placed the bottles of oil in our pantry and we proceeded to put away the rest of our groceries. When I opened the refrigerator, I was confronted with a covered dish containing half of a stick of butter and a jar of coconut oil. Hmm, were these cooking oils, too?

That led to the question “What constitutes cooking oil?”

I did not find a definitive answer. Generally cooking oil is a fat derived from a plant that is liquid at room temperature such as olive, canola, and peanut oil.

Terrific that seemed straightforward except…

Coconut oil is plant-based oil but it is solid at room temperature. Is it still oil? What about butter? Butter is derived from an animal and is used for cooking, but is solid at room temperature. Oh, and what exactly makes something a fat?

I wanted answers so I approached my son who is a physicist and is skilled at explaining science to non-scientists like me. He gave me the French fries example above.

From my son, I learned about fatty acids, lipids, and glycerol, which you can read about using the links at the left.

One thing that I found fascinating is that edible fat molecules and inedible petroleum molecules are more similar than you might think. They are both slippery meaning good at lubricating stuff. However, edible fat molecules also have a molecular handle that allows other molecules in your body to grab onto them to run your biological machinery and keep you healthy.

Model of a Triglyceride (Fat) Molecule

This is a molecular model of a fat or triglyceride. Note the three fatty acid chains attached to the central glycerol (red) portion of the molecule. Image – Wikipedia.

To summarize cooking oils are fats that your body needs to function. These fats come from plants, animals, and are sometimes synthesized in laboratories. Cooking oils are generally liquid at room temperature but not always.

Growing Oil Crops

In this post, we are discussing plant-based cooking oils that are derived from tree fruits (e.g., avocado and olive), nuts (e.g., walnut and peanut), and seeds (e.g., canola [rapeseed] and sunflower).

Oil crops can be grown in harmony with nature intermixing with other plants and animals and growing up without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Cooking oils that meet certain environmental standards and are certified by an independent third party can be marketed as USDA organic.

On industrial-scale farms, trees and plants are often grown as monocrops which is the practice of growing a single crop on the same section of land year after year. This type of agriculture kills the soil so synthetic fertilizers must be applied to provide nutrients for the plants. In addition, monocrops are susceptible to being wiped out by insect pests and taken over by plant pests (weeds) so massive amounts of pesticides are used in an attempt to prevent these problems.

Blooming Canola Field in Saskatchewan, Canada with Storm Clouds
This is an industrial-scale monocrop canola field in Saskatchewan, Canada – photo credit Nas2/Wikipedia.

To combat the monocrop pest problem some growers use GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds that have been genetically engineered to withstand the application of ever more powerful pesticides. Nowadays, in the U.S., most soybeans and canola plants are grown from GMO seeds.

Oil trees and crops grow in a variety of climates and some are thirstier than others.

Problems for people and other members of nature arise when huge swaths of land are cleared to make way for monocrop tree plantations and agricultural fields. The repercussions are significant and cumulative meaning they get worse over time. Habitat loss, soil erosion, sedimentation in streams, air and water pollution, and the destruction of biodiversity endanger the health of ecosystems all over the world that support life on Earth.

Of course, the environmental damage caused by growing monocrops on an industrial scale is universal and not just confined to oil crops.

Making Cooking Oil

Peanuts in Shells in a Bag

Plant-derived oils are made by squeezing the oil out of the flesh of fruits like avocados and olives, from nuts such as peanuts and almonds, and from seeds like sesame and safflower. Photo credit – American Peanut Council.

Some oils are then refined, bleached, and deodorized to change their color and to remove the flavor of the source plant. Extraction and processing methods affect the look, taste, and sales price of cooking oils.

Cold-Press – in this process, the fruit is ground into a paste and then pressed through a series of disks using hydraulic pressure without producing heat. Sometimes the paste is pressed multiple times to extract every last bit of oil. Extra virgin olive oil is produced from the first press.

Expeller Pressing Machine

Expeller Press – is a machine used to extract oil from nuts and seeds by squeezing them under continuous high pressure. The friction created by this process heats the oil which may affect the nutrient content and taste of the oil. Photo credit – Matthewsr2000/Wikipedia.

Decanter Centrifuge – uses high rotational speed to separate fruit, nut, and seed pulp from the oil contained within them. Edible oils like olive oil may use a 3-phase separation process that makes it possible to separate the oil, water, and solids in one step.

Solvent Extraction – involves using a substance that can dissolve other substances to extract oil from oil crops. Hexane is a highly flammable chemical made from crude oil that is used as a solvent to extract vegetable oils from crops such as soybeans and canola.

Cooking Oil Tests

Seven Cooking Oils for Testing
These are the oils we used for our cooking oil tests (left to right) – sunflower, olive, hemp, canola, safflower, grapeseed, and avocad0.

Over a period of several months, our family taste-tested six of the seven cooking oils I had selected at the grocery market. Some oils like olive oil imparted more flavor than others such as sunflower oil but none of the oils interfered with the deliciousness of any of the dishes my spouse prepared using them.

The hemp oil is still sitting in the cupboard unopened. That is because when I actually read the label I discovered that its low smoke point makes it unsuitable for cooking. We do not make a lot of salad dressings or often sprinkle oil on food so we have not had a reason to try the hemp oil.

What is the Most Eco-Friendly Cooking Oil?

After reading dozens of articles and blog posts and a couple of research reports, I had learned about cooking with various oils, land use issues, oil extraction methods, GMO seeds, unintended consequences, different types of fat, and fake olive oil.

It was time to go back to the questions that I had been attempting to answer. What is the environmental impact of cooking oil? Does it matter?

You guessed it. The answer to the first question is it depends. Small-scale farms using organic and/or regenerative agriculture practices probably create significantly less harm than huge monocrop operations that gobble up forests and encourage the proliferation of pesticide use.

Other factors to consider are the amount of water, land, and energy required to grow and process the oil. The source of the energy affects the carbon footprint of the oil (e.g., coal versus sun).

The number of miles your cooking oil travels from the field to the processing facility to the store to your home is important, too. For instance, consider a bottle of artisanal olive oil sitting on a California grocery market shelf that was produced by a small organic outfit in Spain. The product itself may be eco-friendly but the fact that it has traveled thousands of miles to get to your pantry is not.

That brings us to the other question. Does the environmental impact of cooking oil matter?

Well, there are many things that are much worse like fracking for natural gas or raising livestock animals for meat. It would be easy to say that the environmental footprint of cooking oils is not something to be concerned about. However, the sheer volume of something small like cooking oil when taken collectively can indeed make a significant impact so it is probably worth at least a little consideration.

Which Cooking Oil is Right for You?

As it turned out, for our family, the most eco-friendly cooking oil we can buy is the organic extra virgin olive oil we purchase by the gallon at our local farmers market from Mt. Olive Organic Farm. There are so many reasons this is a good choice for us.

Mt. Olive Organic Farm Booth at Farmers Market in Cambria, CA on February 7, 2020
Kaylee and James at the Mt. Olive Organic Farm booth during the farmers market in Cambria, CA on February 7, 2020.

The Mediterranean climate in our region is good for growing olive trees. Mt. Olive Organic Farm uses organic farming and processing practices. The olive oil travels less than 35 miles between the farm and the farmers market which is about a quarter of a mile from our house. At home, we pour the olive oil from the one-gallon jug into a smaller bottle and put it in our cupboard. When the original bottle is empty we return it, buy a new bottle, and the old bottle gets reused.

Equally important to us is that by buying this and other locally grown and made products we are supporting the livelihoods of the people who live here not in some distant place hundreds or thousands of miles away. Plus we have the opportunity to meet and talk with the people who are growing our food.

We keep organic canola oil and sesame oil on hand, too.

There are so many different plants that can be used to make cooking oil it seems likely that locally grown and produced oil is probably available to almost anyone. You just have to look for it.

Now, I hope you feel at least a little informed about the environmental impact of cooking oil. Please take a few minutes to consider your own cooking oil choices and decide whether you want to try something new.

Featured Image at Top

These bottles of six different plant-derived cooking oils are shown with their corresponding seed, fruit, or nut – photo credit iStock/AlexPro9500.

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A Future Forest Resides within a Tiny Seed

Think globally, plant locally.

Growing a tree from a seed and then planting it is good for you and the planet. Try it and you will understand what I mean.

My tree planting experiences began after my spouse and I moved to the California Central Coast over a decade ago. We live in the midst of one of the few remaining native stands of Monterey pine trees in the world. This is a special place.

Drought, disease, and climate change are stressing our forest. Mother Nature needs assistance or our forest will die. This means we must help take care of the forest that remains and we need to plant trees to replace those that have died. We also need to plant trees to restore previously forested land that was cleared for some reason but is no longer being used for that purpose.

“When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be.”

Peter Wohlleben

Over the years, my spouse and I have planted trees in our yard for various reasons that include doing our part by attempting to restore our tiny patch of forest and to fulfill our commitment to plant at least two trees every year we buy a Christmas tree. In addition, we have planted Monterey pine tree seedlings during volunteer days on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve near where we live.

But I had never grown a tree seedling from seed—until last year.

It gave me a new appreciation of how awesome Mother Nature is and that in my own small way I can give her a hand in keeping Earth beautiful and healthy. You can, too, and so can everyone else.

I have been recounting my tree seedling growing experience on Green Groundswell. This is the final chapter of the story that began on a cold January evening in 2019 when I met Rick Hawley from Greenspace at a Cambria Forest Committee meeting and began coveting his rack of 98 tiny Monterey pine tree seedlings.

A few months later, my spouse and I became the stewards of our own rack of newly planted seeds.

Monterey Pine Tree Seedlings on Our Deck - January 17, 2020
This is our Monterey pine tree seedling rack on January 17, 2020. The rack holds 100 seedlings (there are two tubes with two seedlings). We transplanted six seedlings that were doubled up. Four have been growing in 1-gallon pots and two went to live in our yard.

If you have not read the previous posts and want to find out what it was like trying to grow itty bitty tree seedlings from seed, then you might want to read Mother Nature Needs Our Help – Let’s Plant Trees, Arbor Day 2019 – Let’s Plant Trees, and Imagine if Everyone Planted One Tree. Otherwise, pick the story up here, put on a raincoat, and grab a shovel because it is time to plant tree seedlings.

This is Your New Home

Unlike their wild cousins who live their entire lives wherever their seeds land and find acceptable growing conditions, our tiny tree seedlings have grown up in yellow plastic tubes in a rack on the deck outside of our kitchen. I do not know if they have been conversing with the mature Monterey pine trees in our yard but if they have I can imagine a conversation going something like this.

Seedling: “Have you lived in that spot all your life?”

Tree: “Yes and do I have some great stories to tell.”

Tree: “What is that yellow thing around your roots and why are you living in that weird formation with your cousins?”

Seedling: “I don’t know, but I heard that we might be moving soon.”

Tree: “Really! I wonder what it would be like to live somewhere else.”

Before Moving Day

Since Earth Day in April 2019, my spouse and I and some thirty-odd other individuals and families have been growing Monterey pine seedlings at home. The local schools have been participating, too.

Rick and other Greenspace volunteers made it easy for us. They provided the seeds, potting soil, and rack of tubes. All we had to do was plant the seeds in the tubes, place the rack in a sunny location, and provide water.

The seedling growers had been informed that we would be planting our seedlings sometime during the winter after the rainy season began so the seedlings would have a chance to become established in their new homes before the dry summer weather set in.

Land owned by California State Parks was chosen for the planting location. The land had previously been deforested and grazed by livestock animals so at this point it is basically grassland near a Monterey pine forest.

Greenspace Monterey Pine Seedling Project Google Map Showing 30 Planting Plots
This is a Google map view of the planting area on California State Park land outside of Cambria, CA. My spouse and I planted our tree seedlings in plot 13 – image Greenspace.

Before we could plant seedlings, several things needed to occur.

The area was covered with 4-foot tall dead grasses and plants that would make trekking through it and digging holes very difficult. Cal Fire did a controlled burn to clear the land.

Then Rick and a small band of volunteers measured out thirty circular plots and placed 2,940 yellow flag markers to show us where to plant our seedlings. This is to ensure that the trees have adequate room to grow without crowding their neighbors.

Greenspace Monterey Pine Seedling Project Volunteer Plot Flag Setters
Greenspace flag setting volunteers – photo Greenspace.

The next thing was to set up a schedule and communicate it to the seedling growers. You can imagine how chaotic it might have been if we had all showed up on the same day at the same time to plant almost 3,000 tree seedlings. Again Greenspace made it easy. We received an email with a link to a list of available planting days and times and were asked to pick one. After conferring with my spouse, I signed us up for a 3-hour slot on Monday, January 20, 2019.

Moving Day

That afternoon my spouse loaded up the car with our seedling rack, four 1-gallon pots holding our overflow seedlings, and some shovels. I donned jeans, a California Native Plant Society t-shirt and hat, and my hiking tennis shoes. After filling up my reusable water bottle, I grabbed a jacket and a pair of elbow-length gardening gloves. I was ready to plant tree seedlings.

Almost the instant we got in the car it began to rain.

As we drove to the planting site a few miles north of town I wondered if the day’s planting would be canceled. As we turned the corner onto the state park road I could see cars parked ahead on the side of the road and a group of people milling around.

Greenspace Monterey Pine Seedling Project Volunteer Group on January 20, 2020
This is our group of Greenspace volunteer seedling growers and tree planters getting ready to plant tree seedlings on January 20, 2020. The photo was taken by Rick using Ron’s phone.

We joined the group and added our seedling rack to the staging area. I noticed that most of the other seedlings were taller and greener than ours and wondered if we had done something wrong. Rick assured me that maybe the parent trees from which the seeds were harvested were not as hardy as some of the other seeds. That was a nice thing for him to say.

Rick showed us how to dig a hole the right size for the seedling, get it out of the tube, and plant it correctly. He explained the flag system and pointed to a distant spot with a red flag marker in the center and 98 yellow flag markers radiating out from it. The group headed up the road behind Rick carrying shovels and lugging racks of seedlings.

My spouse and I spotted a red flag maker on a slight rise and peeled off from the group. It did not take long for me to realize that I was not going to excel at digging holes so my spouse agreed to do it. My job was to carry the rack around and plant seedlings. Rick came over at one point and helped us dig some of the holes. In between digging holes, my spouse planted some of the seedlings.

Greenspace Monterey Pine Seedling Project Plot 13 before Planting on January 20, 2020
This is plot 13 where my spouse and I planted our tree seedlings. You can see the post with the red flag in the upper-middle of the photo and some of the yellow flag markers surrounding it.

The rain continued to fall gently stopping periodically. Soon the knees of my pants and my gloves were smeared with mud. Later on, I noticed two guys wearing knee pads. Hmm, they must have done this before.

Slowly the rack became lighter and after a couple of hours, all of our seedlings were in the ground. I stood next to the pole with the red flag and surveyed the area that we had planted. In the distance, I could see the other groups planting their circles. I was wet and muddy—and exhilarated.

My spouse volunteered to carry our stuff back to the car while I hiked around the field asking the other tree planters if they would be willing to have their photo taken. Some were and some were not. I also asked them if they would mind sharing why they were planting tree seedlings.

The responses I received included several variations of “I love trees and/or forests.” and “I want to give back to the community.” One person expressed concern about the climate crisis. Someone else answered the question by saying “Two words, Australia and Amazon.” following up with the statement “Forests are the lungs of the planet.”

Greenspace Monterey Pine Seedling Project Leader Rick Hawley on January 20, 2020

As I headed back to the car, I spotted Rick Hawley digging holes with another group. I thanked him for all of his hard work putting this whole thing together, suggested we do it again this year, and told him I would love to learn about collecting seeds.

Later that night, I began feeling the effects of kneeling and getting up 60 or 70 times over the course of a couple of hours. My legs hurt so bad it was painful to go up and down the stairs in our house for a day or two. Still, it was totally worth it!

I am looking forward to visiting our trees and watching a forest reappear where once there was none.

You can grow tree seedlings and plant trees, too. There is sure to be a group in your community or region growing seedlings and planting trees. So look for them. Then join tens of millions of people all over the world who are growing and planting trees.

“There can be no purpose more enspiriting than to begin the age of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us.”

E.O. Wilson
Featured Image at Top

I took this photo on January 28, 2020, while walking with my spouse through the Monterey pine forest on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA.

Note for Readers

I was fortunate to be at the November 2019 meeting of the San Luis Obispo chapter of the California Native Plant Society when Nikki Nedeff gave a presentation about Monterey pine forests. At the meeting, I bought a copy of The Monterey Pine Forest: Coastal California’s Living Legacy, second edition published by The Monterey Pine Forest Watch in 2018. If you are interested in Monterey pine trees and forests, this is an excellent book chock full of information and wonderful images.

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