Selecting A Good Oil – Good enough to eat.
There are hundreds of different oils available to the cosmetic chemist or therapist today. From Almond, Argan and Avocado all the way to Wheatgerm, Watermelon or Walnut.
So how on earth are you expected to pick one?
Well I guess that’s just it, you don’t HAVE to pick one unless you are playing a weird mind game but it does help if you can step back and evaluate the oily landscape in one easy swoop. So, that is what we are going to begin here today. First up I want to put the oils into families based on how good they are to eat (Why? Because some strange folk go by the ‘what’s good in the body is good on the body’ philosophy), how nice they feel (for the hedonists amongst us, who cares how they got here right?) and how they perform (this one is for the scientists and includes some facts and figures on a spreadsheet – sort of….)
So that I can write a bit about each one I’ll do this in three parts over three separate articles. That way you don’t go getting eye issues!
Good enough to eat.
A short history of man will show you that before we all woke up to the fact that animals have feelings animal fat ruled the cosmetic world. Very few of us were lucky enough to live near to naturally oily plants (relatively speaking) and therefore had to make do with what came out of our dinner. Whatever your take on the matter this tallow style fat does have the benefit of being chemically similar to us humans – not in the way that we say that Jojoba oil is like sebum, it is much more similar than that…..
Then came the chemical revolution where people LOVED science and started sciencing with anything and everything. They turned oil into liquid gold and all of a sudden the ingredient you needed to slap on your chops was petroleum-based. Petroleum oil made its way into the food arena but not in the way that animal fats did. It was never the basis for cooking fat and as such wasn’t really a progression for our ‘you are what you eat and wear’ philosophiles.
And so came the summer of love, some bad karma, BSE (Mad Cow Disease) and a few other major issues and we realise that the future we need is green. The chemical revolutionists had struggled to get enough petroleum during the 70’s and while still feeling all loved-up and beautiful from that summer festival they decided that it would be a grand idea to try squashing vegetable seeds to relieve them of their oil.
Only in a vision……
Vegetable oil became the next big thing which was good because after the summer of love people got the munchies, started to eat too much and needed to go on a diet. Lucky for them the late 70’s and 80’s were big into power eating and cheered on by the slogan that ‘fat makes you fat’ the vegetable oil revolution was born.
Filling this in with some chemistry you might know that animal fat is saturated fat as is the fat that comes from coconuts. However, fats from vegetable sources such as Canola (Rapeseed), Rice bran and Soy are mainly poly unsaturated in its chemistry. The food and diet industry had the crazy thought that putting something completely alien into our bodies seemed like a fabulous idea and more importantly would stop us getting fat (as this fat isn’t REALLY fat? I don’t know)….
Meanwhile in the morgue.
Regardless to how much extra fat we lug around it is mainly saturated with only around 10% being polyunsaturated like the kind found in most vegetable oils. Our natural polyunsaturated fat is an Omega-9 or Linoleic Acid (C18:2) – a guy called Eckstein found that out in 1925 (don’t ask me how).
The food industry sales pitch centred around the fact that saturated fats are hard (they are) and so harden inside the body and clog our arteries (maybe they do, I don’t know that much)
These polyunsaturated oils are liquid (they are) and don’t harden inside the body so can’t clog our arteries and lead to our premature death (I have no idea what happens to these liquid fats).
I get the visual appeal of this but feel that it might just be a tad over-simplistic especially given that the fats don’t just slosh around our veins and arteries. I don’t yet know enough about the biochemistry of it but I do know that the tide (and dietary advice) on fats is changing as more and more people realise that the saturated fat health bomb is not all that its cracked up to be – we are still getting fat and dying of fat diseases DESPITE our love of veggie oils (check out any Paleo site to get a bit more info).
So where are we today?
Today the ‘good enough to eat’ mob are probably pitched in a few different camps depending on what they are aiming to achieve. Here are my thoughts.
The Paleo and Paleo Vegetarian/ Vegan Crew.
These are the ‘back to my roots’ gang who only want to eat as a cave man or woman would. They understand that evolution takes many thousands of years and believe that our digestion is best suited to a hunter gatherer diet. With that mentality in mind the oils that might suit for Paleo inspired skin care would look like this (minus the animal and /or fish products for the vegans/ vegetarians):
- Fish Oils (Rich in Omega 3’s)
- Coconut Oil
- Palm Oil (supply chain issues aside)
The next would be the Back Yard or organic Veggi crew.
This group is more motivated by the growing conditions and environmental issues surrounding the oil rather than any biochemical considerations. The key questions here would be about farming practices, ethics of the supply chain, oil extraction process and seed stock. Many vegetable oils are extracted from the plants seeds and depending on the oil content of these seeds yields can be very low and the oil can be very tricky to extract. In these cases it is usual for a solvent to be used to help make the process viable. This excludes the oil from organic certification or pushes up the price gap between organic and standard grades.
When it comes to oil pricing the higher the yield and easier the extraction the cheaper the oil (just so long as the supply and demand equation is in your favour) As you might expect Olive is a relatively high yielding vegetable oil while pumpkin and corn are at the lower end of the scale. Maybe it is worth thinking of percentage yields when choosing oil stock, especially if valuing resources is your thing.
- Organically Certified Oils.
- Certified palm (non certified would be a no-go).
- Non GMO’s.
- Higher yielding (less process intensive, more return per hectare of land).
Finally would be the anything edible goes vegetable crew.
For these guys the sky (or rather earth) is the limit and anything really is possible. The processing method isn’t really a concern as long as the product is food quality. The long-term health benefits are not really a key consideration but what is important is how the oil feels on the skin or hair. As for the environment, while important isn’t the main focus. This (rightly or wrongly) is where the majority of the cosmetic industry fall and here are three of the oils that I find the most interesting that fit into this ‘anything goes’ category.
For your information, solvent extraction of seed oils is usually performed using food grade hexane. Hexane is a petrochemical based solvent (sounds nastier than it is, environmental issues aside) that is fully removed before the oil gets to market. It is also useful to note that sometimes the seeds are roasted before extraction and sometimes not. These differences in processing methods will manifest to one degree or another in the chemistry of the final oil.
- Watermelon Seed Oil
Watermelon is a beautiful light oil that can be extracted via solvent or cold pressed. This is a medium viscosity oil with a hefty price tag due to the low yields produced. The oil is popular in West African cuisine and is known to be a good source of Beta Carotene and some lycopene although the majority of both chemicals are found in the liquid extract rather than the oil.
- Cucumber Oil
Available as either cold pressed or solvent extracted this oil smells just like pure, clean, fresh cucumbers and is a delight to handle and use. It is a painstaking process getting oil from those pesky little seeds so expect to pay a hefty price for this pretty little oil but when you do you will find an oil that is light on the skin, stable for between 1-2 years and rich in Omega 3 so that Paleo crowed may come a knocking…. Ironically this tasty morsel of an oil is not often seen as a food ingredient per se but it is used in food flavouring and commercial cooking.
Pistachio is unmistakably Iranian thanks to it being a staple ingredient in their wide and varied cuisine. It may be either cold processed or solvent extracted. Pistachio contains a high percentage of unsaturated fatty acids which make it less stable than say cucumber oil but have seen it gain favour with the ‘fat makes you fat’ brigade (30% polyunsaturated fats). We grow excellent Pistachios in Australia which is another reason I love this oil (buy local = save carbon) but the best part is that for a nut oil this is one of the most stable, it is rapidly absorbed into the skin and is not too expensive! Being a tree nut this can be an allergy issue for some with the cold pressed oil being potentially more allergy triggering than the solvent extraction (due to it being potentially more complete – I’m not sure how much study has been done into this).
So to sum things up for our ‘good enough to eat’ tribe we have those that want to live primal and only touch things that are edible and credible (from the primal mans perspective), the pure and healthy crew who focus on supply chain ethics plus the edible criteria and finally the anything goes brigade. All very interesting and each with their own unique perspective on what makes for a good oil.
Next time I am going to concentrate on how these oils feel and will pick some light, medium and heavy oils from each of the above categories. Hopefully by the end of this we will have a whole spreadsheet full of oily goodness.
Oh my goodness what a job.