Oil is an essential part of many recipes, whether it is used as a dressing, a cooking agent or to add body to a sauce, salsa or dip. There are many different cooking oils available and they vary in appearance, flavour and what they are best used for. Whilst oils, such as olive, sunflower and rapeseed, remain the most popular, there are an increasing number of options entering the mainstream.
For a vegan chef, the most important quality of any item of food, including an oil, is whether or not it is vegan friendly. Forget smoking point, micro-nutrient profile, flavour or anything else, if a certain cooking oil isn’t vegan, it is obviously out of bounds. So, let’s take a look at olive oil and some of the other most commonly used cooking oils and see if they are vegan or not and if there is anything users should be aware of.
In addition to that, we’ll also investigate the pros and cons and major uses of each option to help you decide which of the many available vegan oils is best for your culinary needs. Note that many of them also have applications outside the kitchen but that is not our concern here.
Is Olive Oil Vegan?
Olive oil has been consumed for thousands of years and is a mainstay of the cuisines of Italy, Spain, Greece, the Levant and many other countries. Its use in the UK, other northern European countries and the US is significantly lower but over the past 30 years it has increased. But, is olive oil vegan friendly?
Well, the short, sweet and wholly clear answer is yes, olive oil is vegan, in the very same way that olives are. Olive oil can be made from many different varieties of olive, including both black and green ones. Often a blend of varietals is used, with Arbequina, Koroneiki, Mission and Arbosana just some of the cultivars used. What’s more, there are many different grades of olive oil depending on how it is processed, with the Olive Wellness Institute listing the following Australian classifications (though also noting that this varies in different parts of the world):
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Virgin Olive Oil
- Lampante Olive Oil
- Refined Olive Oil
- Olive Oil
- Crude Olive-Pomace Oil
- Refined Olive-Pomace Oil
- Olive-Pomace Oil Composed of Refined Olive-Pomace Oils and Virgin (or Extra Virgin) Olive Oils
No matter what grade of olive oil we are talking about or what specific cultivar of olive has been used to produce it, the starting point is always the humble olive (botanical name Olea europaea, meaning European olive and native to the eastern Mediterranean). A huge majority, somewhere around 90%, of the overall olive harvest goes into producing oil. Olives, you will hopefully be unsurprised to hear, are part of the plant kingdom and therefore are vegan friendly.
How Olive Oil Is Made
Olive oil is made by pressing, essentially crushing, whole olives. The flesh that surrounds the seed, or stone, is around 30% oil and so this is a relatively simple process. No animal products are used in order to do this, nothing is added and olive oil in no way breaches any of the other requirements of a vegan food. So, yes, to repeat ourselves one final time, olive oil is most definitely vegan.
Is Olive Oil Healthy?
It isn’t hard to find people who claim that olive oil should be avoided and that it isn’t healthy. Finding any real evidence to back that up is far more difficult. In fact, more or less every major health and nutrition body accepts that olive oil is one of the healthiest fats around. The concept of “good” and “bad” fats is itself considered to be a little pseudoscientific by some but the current consensus is that most plant-based fats are better than most animal-based ones and that unsaturated fats are healthier than saturated ones.
Unsaturated fats have fewer hydrogen atoms and are liquid, not solid, at room temperature. Olive oil is more than 85% unsaturated fat and most of that is in the form of monounsaturated fat, as opposed to polyunsaturated. There has been an increasing focus on monounsaturated fats over the past 20 years or so, even though the initial research suggesting they might be linked to good health dates back to the 1950s.
Seven Countries Study
In the Seven Countries Study, researchers wanted to look at whether “the rate of coronary disease in populations and individuals would vary in relation to their physical characteristics and lifestyle, particularly in fat composition of the diet and serum cholesterol levels.”
The scientists involved were interested in the fact that people in the Mediterranean, in particular Greece, consumed a high fat diet but had a very low incidence of heart disease. Ikaria, a small Greek island, is one of the world’s Blue Zones where people tend to enjoy longer, healthier lives. Their diet is thought to be about 6% olive oil, a significant level; though this is far from the only part of their diet likely to lead to good health and increased longevity.
We are going off the topic somewhat here but to return to the matter in hand, in short, many believe that olive oil is one of the healthiest oils around and that its high levels of the monounsaturated oleic acid are the reason for that. The researchers involved in the Blue Zone project state the following:
We cannot say that olive oil is the only healthy plant-based oil, but it is the one most often used in the blue zones. Evidence shows that olive oil consumption increases good cholesterol and lowers bad cholesterol. In Ikaria, we found that for middle-aged people, about six tablespoons of olive oil daily seemed to cut the risk of dying in half.
How is Olive Oil Used?
Olive oil is, as we have stated, vegan and it is also, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests, healthy. But how is it used? The different grades of olive oil have slightly different characteristics but in general we can say the following:
- It has a relatively low smoke point, especially extra virgin, so is less favoured for frying, especially at high temperatures
- It has a strong flavour so can be used as an ingredient in its own right to add flavour (again, especially true of extra virgin olive oil)
- Typical flavours include grass, tropical fruits, herbs, pepper and nutty or bitter flavours
- It has a relatively strong flavour, which is often unsuitable when neutrality is required, such as in frying or in some emulsions
- It is relatively expensive, especially for virgin and extra virgin products
Is Sunflower Oil Vegan?
Much of what we have said about olive oil also applies to sunflower oil and yes, it is also vegan. This is great news, especially given so many food products, for example crisps, are fried in sunflower oil. Sunflowers are relatively new to European shores, having arrived from North America in the 16th century as a decorative bloom. As such, mass production of sunflower oil is far less established than that of olives, although its production now far outstrips that of the Greek staple.
How Is Sunflower Oil Made?
Sunflower oil is produced not from the fruit of the plant, as is the case with olives, but from the seeds produced by flowering Helianthus annuus (to use the horticultural name). This type of oil, derived from a seed or nut, is more common, with olives unusual in that regard. The composition of a sunflower seed is fairly typical when compared to other seeds, as we can see below (values are percentage by weight).
As we can see, around half of the sunflower seed is oil in terms of its mass and this is extracted by one of two main methods. Much of the sunflower oil used in the west is refined, meaning the oil is extracted using solvents and relatively high temperatures (approximately 150 degrees Celsius). This has some benefits but much of the flavour is lost, along, some argue, with many of the health-giving compounds.
Cold pressing on the other hand is a more traditional method still commonly used in the Caucasus, for example. This method essentially squeezes the oil out using pressure and is sometime called “expeller-pressed” oil. Whilst the mechanical pressure causes friction and some heat, the process is undertaken at a much lower temperature than with solvent extraction, thus the more unstable, delicate compounds and flavours are retained.
Sunflower seeds themselves are an excellent source of vitamin E, a great way for vegans to get protein and also contain good levels of iron and B vitamins. Whilst much of the nutrient value is lost when the oil alone is consumed, sunflower oil remains a relatively healthy option, especially if we are talking about an unrefined product.
Uses & Characteristics
According to Harold McGee’s revered “On Food and Cooking” sunflowers are the only plant indigenous to North America to have become a major global crop. Sunflowers are now grown around the world, chiefly for their seeds and the oil within, with sunflower among the biggest oil crops on the planet.
Ukraine and Russia lead the way and, according to the UN, they produced more than 8m tonnes of the stuff in 2014. Perhaps surprisingly, given sunflowers originate in the American southwest, the USA produced a “mere” 147,000 tonnes, lagging way down the list of global sunflower oil producers.
Such vast quantities of oil are needed because sunflower oil is used in just about every nation on the planet in a range of ways. Refined oil in particular is hugely flexible and is suitable for frying at just about any temperature. Many brands of crisps, including lots of vegan-friendly crisps, are fried in sunflower oil and it is good for both deep and shallow frying, as well as sautéing.
Unrefined oils, which are far less common, are used for dressings, especially in countries like Georgia and Ukraine. Consumers in the west may be amazed by the nutty complexity such products have, being so accustomed to bland, refined sunflower oil.
Is Rapeseed Oil Vegan?
Rapeseed oil has become the number one choice for many top UK chefs over the past five or 10 years, and with good reason. Michelin-starred Paul Welburn explained more:
Rapeseed oil is fast becoming a popular ingredient here, and with its nutritional benefits it’s a great alternative to olive oil. It has a great nutty flavour and the colour is incredible in emulsions and dressings. Don’t get me wrong, I love olive oil – but as a British ingredient rapeseed is certainly on the up.
First of all, although you may have figured this out, rapeseed is vegan. If only vegans could live on oil alone, life would be a lot simpler! Rapeseed oil is vegan and so that means it is another option when it comes to cooking oil but why and how would one use it? Is it healthy? And before all that, what is it?
How is Rapeseed Oil Produced?
Rapeseed oil is produced from the plant Brassica napus (got to love a botanical name, right?). Those with a decent knowledge of food will realise that this is part of the Brassicaceae (that’s about as hard to type as it is to pronounce by the way) family that is also known as the cabbage family. That includes cruciferous vegetables and brassicas such as cabbage, of course, plus cauliflower, kale, broccoli and more.
The bright yellow flowers of the plant are a feature of much of the English countryside in spring and the oil-rich seeds produced are used to make the product that is proving evermore popular. Called canola oil in the US, this type of vegetable oil is one of the most commonly used around the world.
Much, much older than sunflower oil, rapeseed oil may even be older than olive oil, having been one of the earliest plants to be extensively cultivated. Whilst relatively new to Europe it was grown in India at least 6,000 years ago and may date back as far back as 10,000 years ago.
India is one of the biggest growers and producers of rapeseed oil but is well beaten by China and, perhaps a little surprisingly, Canada. The Great White North produced 18.4m tonnes of the good stuff in 2016, about 30% more than China.
There are a number of reasons why rapeseed oil is growing in popularity. For a small country, the UK is a big producer, and so there are environmental benefits to use it thanks to reduced food miles. Equally some consumers like to support the UK economy and especially the many smaller producers who offer high quality, cold pressed oils.
Health Benefits of Rapeseed Oil
Increasing awareness of the health benefits of rapeseed oil is another reason why more people are switching to it. All rapeseed oil is a decent option but the unrefined versions are especially good. Rapeseed has the lowest levels of saturated fats of any major cooking oil and very high levels of monounsaturated fats too.
Another factor that has made it popular also means these health benefits are, in essence, more obtainable, and that is the fact that even in its healthiest, unrefined form, it has a relatively high smoke point. Even the best extra virgin rapeseed oil can be used to fry foods at high temperatures, whilst they also have enough flavour to make great dressings and dips without being too powerful and overwhelming.
It is extremely versatile, therefore, both in the type of cooking methods it can be used for and also in terms of the range of dishes that its flavour profile suits. Returning once again to Paul Welburn, chef at The Oxford Kitchen:
It’s a very versatile ingredient and can be used in many different cuisines depending on the flavour profile you’re looking for. It’s great in desserts for adding a subtle, nutty flavour to dishes and great in fresh, light and earthy recipes, especially in the summer months where flavours are less heavy and rich. For example, I use it to dress my dish of Nutbourne heirloom tomato, avocado, smoked goat’s curd and pea shoots.
So, in short, rapeseed is absolutely vegan, very healthy, has lower food miles than many oils and works in just about any dish you might care to use it. Sounds good to us!
Palm oil is rarely used as cooking oil in the UK, although it is in some parts of the world. Whilst it finds its way into a huge range of food items, as well as non-food ones, it does not really sit alongside olive, sunflower or rapeseed in terms of how most people utilise it.
We include it in this piece for two main reasons. Firstly, because – as we discuss in our longer palm oil feature – some people consider it not to be vegan, or at least not something most vegans would want to consume.
This leads us onto the second issue and another reason – side from the ethical considerations – why many seek to avoid palm oil: it isn’t very healthy. As shown in the table above, palm oil is 50% saturated fat, making it far less healthy than the other fully vegan cooking oils we have looked at.
So, aside from palm oil, there are no issues vegans should be aware of when it comes to the major cooking oils. Or are there?
Fat Content in Oil
Refined or not, sunflower oil actually has less saturated fat than olive oil, with a typical split of around 89% unsaturated fat to around 11% saturated fat. However, whilst olive oil is far more abundant in monounsaturated fat than poly, sunflower oil has a more even split of the two different types of “good” fat.
This is shown by the table below, which looks at the split between saturated and unsaturated fats and how this unsaturated content is split between monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. It also includes information for some other key oils, with values in percentage terms.
|Oil||Saturated Fat||Unsaturated||Of Which Mono||Of Which Poly|
|Rapeseed Oil (cold pressed)||8||92||64||28|
Note that values are chiefly taken from the USDA Nutrient Database and have been rounded. We have looked at the figures for “standard” oils where relevant as the nutrient values can vary significantly depending on the type, quality and processing methods of the oil.
Environmental Issues with Large Scale Agriculture
Whilst palm oil is routinely demonised as being the root of almost all ecological ills in some parts of the world, the truth is that no large scale agriculture is without issues of some kind. It has been reported that the use of pesticide on oilseed rape can harm bees and other animals. Anyone who has even the slightest interest in ecology and biodiversity knows how important bees are and the more intensive farming of rapeseed using strong pesticides certainly poses issues.
There are ways to grow this flower that don’t rely on pesticides and such methods may be the sustainable future of rapeseed production, especially in the UK. Ultimately though any crop grown on such a mass scale, be it rape, olives, sunflowers or anything else, is sure to have some impact.
Minimising this impact and making production as sustainable and ecologically sound as possible is vital. As consumers we can help encourage this through the choices we make so look out for producers who trumpet the methods they use and/or who are organic or, better still, veganic.
Vegan Cooking Oils: Conclusion
Perhaps unsurprisingly all cooking oils are vegan. By “oil” we tend to automatically mean a plant-based product, with animal fats usually being referred to differently or by their specific name, e.g. lard, goose fat, et cetera. Oil is not generally processed using any non-vegan additions or methods, in the way, for example, that some wine might be.
Moreover, given these oils have been around for millennia, they have not been subject to any animal testing and so, by all but level five vegan standards, they are unquestionably vegan. Whilst concerns around pesticides and habitat loss are hard to avoid, there is no doubt that such oils are better for the environment, and for all aspects of the vegan ethos, than the animal-based alternatives.
Moreover, when compared to such animal fats they are also almost universally considered to be healthier. Olive oil and rapeseed oil in particular seem most likely to offer extra benefits beyond simply being low in saturated fats and these are store cupboard essentials in any vegan kitchen.