Vegetable oil refers to oil from plant sources. The vegetable oil on grocery store shelves can come from a range of these sources. Oil extracted from numerous plants has been widely used for much of human history and has been around since ancient times.
Early people learned to use the sun, fire, and a variety of tools for getting oil from plants. Olive oil was being pressed to extract oil as far back as 6000 BCE in what is today Israel and Palestine. Native Americans were using rock slabs to mill hickory nuts for oil extraction around 4000 BCE.
Other vegetable oils like poppyseed, almond, and safflower were used in Central Asia as well as in the Middle East and Africa during the Bronze Age. During this era, the Chinese and the Japanese were learning to make oil from soy. Palm oil is a vegetable oil made from palm kernels, and the earliest evidence of its use dates back to around 3000 BCE. Throughout history, vegetable oil has been used in cooking as well as medicine and for lubrication.
The Chinese shifted to vegetable oil for cooking and away from animal fats during the Song Dynasty, which began during the 10th century and lasted until the 13th.
In 1901, a German chemist named Wilhelm Normann came up with the process of hydrogenation. Hydrogenated vegetable oil would be the basis of both shortening and margarine and result in the development of trans fats.
At the end of the 19th century, vegetable oil came into fashion in the United States with the introduction of cottonseed oil. Up to that point, animal fat in the forms of lard and butter had been the primary cooking fats. Cottonseeds and the oil they contained were regarded as a waste product of cotton production until Procter & Gamble discovered how to make it into a food product.
The oil was partially hydrogenated to make it look and function like lard by solidifying at room temperature, and thus the first popular American vegetable oil was created. They called it Crisco to evoke crispness. The company then engaged in an extensive marketing campaign to replace lard.
Early in the 20th century, vegetable oil was being used to fuel diesel engines and as heating oil. Soybean oil arrived in the US in the 1930s and would be the most popular vegetable oil in the country by the 1950s.
The technology to extract some vegetable oils is relatively new. For example, corn oil didn’t become available until the 1960s, even though corn has been cultivated for millennia.
Vegetable oil flavor profile
Vegetable oil is formulated to have a neutral flavor, which means that you are not supposed to taste the oil at all.
Health benefits of vegetable oil
Vegetable oil has health benefits that come from compounds like:
- Vitamin E: Vegetable oils can provide very high levels of vitamin E, which is an antioxidant and can protect you from free radicals.
- Omega 3 fatty acids: Important for cardiovascular and brain function, omega 3 fatty acids are found in a variety of plants used to make cooking oils.
Vegetable oil in your diet can help you to treat or prevent:
- Heart disease: Studies show that vegetable oil can reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
- Breast cancer: Regular use of vegetable oil has been shown to make the development of breast cancer less likely.
All oils come with downsides in terms of health. The trans fats formed during the hydrogenation of vegetable oil have been connected to heart disease, higher LDL cholesterol, and inflammation. Vegetable oil is also high in calories, so excessive consumption can lead to weight gain.
Vegetable oil is best for stir-frying and other high-heat cooking methods.