If you've hung around here much, you'll know we're all about investigating the food world. We like to think that by so doing, we can save you some pitfalls and missteps. Today's topic, grape seed oil, might just qualify as such.
Any kitchen worth its salt needs a decent selection of oils, taking advantage of their specific taste profiles, cooking uses, and health benefits. M and I are no longer spring chickens, so we pay more attention to the health thing than we might have when we were younger; naturally, oils deserve significant scrutiny.
Ask the question, “What are the healthiest oils you can use in your kitchen,” and the answers might be more complex than you anticipated. We lean toward proven winners like olive, canola, coconut, peanut, and clarified butter. If the peanut oil and clarified butter surprise you, they shouldn't, by the way; used in moderation, they're quite healthy, and no oil in that list has higher heat tolerance than clarified butter. Olive oil, with generous amounts of monounsaturated fats and vitamin E, is the hands down health winner, but what to use when you want something with a lighter taste?
Onto the stage strides a relative newcomer, grape seed oil. Purveyors claim a host of pluses, from the subtle, nutty taste and a relatively high smoke point, to a raft of health benefits, including abundant vitamin E, zero cholesterol, low levels of saturated fat, and the highest concentration of heart-healthy omega-6 polyunsaturated fat, (AKA PUFAs), of any cooking oil. And the fun doesn't stop there. Google grape seed oil and you find claims for everything from anti-aging to curbing hair loss. Can all this be true? As far as the constituent claims, the answer is yes, but a qualified yes. As for the other stuff, remember what P. T. Barnum said about suckers?
Grape Seed oil is indeed pressed from grape seeds, predominantly wine grape seeds. This sits well with wine makers, naturally, as it provides the opportunity to convert a waste product into a significant profit source. The first potential downside for this stuff lies with the fact that it's not cheap. Peruse your favorite grocery shelf and you'll find that the per ounce cost of grape seed oil rivals that of high quality olive oils. Why is that? The answer is twofold; one, all those sexy claims allow makers to charge premium prices, and two, grape seeds are relatively small and do not yield their oil easily. As such, makers must employ fairly expensive pressing processes to extract the oil.
Or not: If you come upon surprisingly inexpensive grape seed oil, it's likely to have been chemically extracted. If the label doesn't reveal the extraction method, peruse the product: If the oil is crystal clear and light in color, chances are good it's chemically extracted. Mechanical extraction tends to produce slightly hazy oils, as small quantities of proteins and other plant matter remain in the oil. The solvents used for extraction are toxic; the most common is hexane, a known carcinogen. As with so many food products, manufacturers are not required to tell you how they extract the oil. If the oil doesn't specifically state that it was pressed, chances are it wasn't.
If the oil is pressed, you want to know if the process used was expeller or cold. Expeller pressing can heat the oil it is generating, especially when the seeds are stubborn, as grape seeds are. Doing so can change the quality of the oil and reduce the health benefits as well. Cold pressing avoids this by adding temperature control to the process; as such, it's the most expensive method of production, but produces the best quality oil.
So, what's the potential downside of this stuff? The answer lies in that very high level of omega-6 polyunsaturated fat. Grape Seed oil averages 70% omega-6 PUFA, with some brands claiming levels as high as 77%. Compare that to the 19.0% found in canola oil or the 10% in olive oil, and you get an idea of how high too high is.
The problem is that human bodies just don't tolerate sustained high levels of PUFA intake without incurring health problems. We're just not built for the stuff; throughout almost all of human history, we consumed only a very small amount of polyunsaturated fat, whatever was naturally present in the foods we ate. The industrialization of our food supplies changed all that. Read our post on ranch dressing if you've not already, and you get a broader view of what this means. As a result, we've been consuming more and more polyunsaturated fats, concentrated in processed foods and modern cooking oils. According to WebMD, we consume over a thousand times more more PUFAs today than we did 100 years ago. That’s a lot, by the way…
The problems exacerbated by this trend include a myriad of ills brought about by free-radical damage. If you're unfamiliar with that issue, allow Jeffrey Blumberg, Professor of Nutrition at Tufts University, to explain: “Free radical is a term often used to describe compounds that are missing a critical molecule, which sends them on a rampage to pair with another molecule. These molecules will rob any molecule to quench that need. If free radicals simply killed a cell, it wouldn't be so bad, the body could just regenerate another one. The problem is, free radicals often injure the cell, damaging the DNA, which creates the seed for disease. When a cell's DNA changes, the cell becomes mutated. It grows abnormally and reproduces abnormally, and quickly.”
In terms of our cooking oils, free radicals form when PUFAs are oxidized by heat, light, and pressure. PUFAs are extremely fragile and heat-sensitive, their carbon bonds break easily. Industrial oils that are heated and pressurized by processing are especially likely to contribute free radicals into our systems, but even cold-pressed PUFA oils will oxidize when heated for cooking.
So, what is a healthy strategy for dealing with the potential health hazards? All things in moderation. We recently wrote about arsenic in rice; here's another situation where intelligently limiting your intake will go far. No more than 4% of total caloric intake from a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 will do the trick. That level and ratio closely emulates what occurs naturally in grass-fed meats, dairy, eggs, and plant foods.
We do have a nice little jar of high end, cold pressed grape seed oil in the pantry by the way. We stick to Olive and canola oils as our every day go-to's, and use the grape seed for what it is best at; really nice salad dressings. The nutty flavor and light mouth feel is truly delightful. Again, all things in moderation, they say, and educated moderation is best.
One final note; the high heat claims for this oil are sort of true. It stacks up very closely to Olive oil, but lower than peanut or clarified butter. We prefer those two for frying, frankly; they're far cheaper and probably healthier.
4 Ounces Grape Seed Oil
1 Ounce Rice Vinegar
1 small Lemon
2 teaspoons Chervil
Rinse, zest and juice the lemon.
Combine oil, vinegar, half the lemon juice, chervil, a pinch of salt and a twist of pepper and whisk thoroughly to incorporate. Taste and adjust lemon, salt, and pepper as desired. Allow to rest for 15-30 minutes before use.
3 Ounces Grape Seed Oil
1-2 Ounces Apple Cider Vinegar
1 teaspoon Savory
Tasmanian Pepper Berry
Combine oil, vinegar, and savory with a pinch of salt and a twist of pepper. Whisk thoroughly to incorporate, adjust vinegar, salt and pepper as desired. Allow to rest for 15-30 minutes before use.
4 Ounces Grape Seed Oil
2 Ounces Champagne Vinegar
1 small lime
1 teaspoon Cilantro
Grains of Paradise
Rinse, zest, and juice the lime. Mince 1 tablespoon of shallot.
Combine oil, vinegar, half the lime juice, zest, cilantro, a pinch of salt and couple twists of grains of paradise. Whisk thoroughly to incorporate. Adjust lime, salt, and grains as desired. Allow to rest for 15-30 minutes before use.