Cooking oil is a common food ingredient and an essential component in frying as a heat transfer medium. There are different types of oils available to consumers, each coming from different sources. These oils comprise a mixture of fatty acid molecules such as triacylglycerols and diacylglycerols. Aside from frying, oils are also used for salad dressings and bread dips.
Although there are animal-based cooking oils available, the vast majority of the commercially available cooking oil is practically vegan. Vegetable oils such as canola oil, olive oil, sunflower oil, avocado oil, rapeseed oil, soybean oil, corn oil, peanut oil, and more are all derived from plant sources. However, many vegans do tend to avoid palm oil. Although palm oil is also completely devoid of animal products, palm oil raises environmental and sustainability concerns regarding its production. Thus, environmental vegans consider palm to be non-vegan.
Oil is simply the term used for lipids that are liquid at room temperature. Comparatively, fats are lipids that are solid at room temperature. Despite the distinction, the constituents that make up the two are highly similar and the culinary usage between oils and fats often overlap.
Since the majority of the oils that are used in food are plant-based, oils are practically vegan. These are substances that are extracted through various processes from plants and are completely devoid of any animal product.
However, it should be noted that this is the case for vegetable oils. Butter and lard, animal fats that are also used the same way as cooking oils are, cannot be considered vegan since they are direct animal products.
Another point to emphasize is the issue regarding palm oil. Despite palm oil being a popular vegetable oil, there are some vegans that avoid palm oil due to environmental concerns. Due to the rising demand for highly cost-effective palm oil, large patches of rainforests are cleared to give way to oil palm plantations. The encroachment on rainforests not only reduces the overall forest cover left on the planet but countless animals are displaced as their habitats are removed. Many of these affected animals are endangered or face extinction due to the very practice of palm oil production.
Due to the evolution of the definition of veganism, many environmental vegans do not consume palm oil.
There are also cases where coconut oil may not be vegan. It has been reported that it is not an uncommon practice in Thailand to use monkeys to pick coconuts from trees. This PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) investigation exposed that one of the country’s major coconut milk producers practice the use of monkeys for picking coconuts (1). PETA found enough evidence to remove the brand from major stores such as Kroger, Albertsons, Target, Costco, and Wegmans.
However, this has not been proven yet whether the same practice is used in the production of coconut oil.
There are so many different types of oils and fortunately for vegans, most of these oils available in the market are vegetable oils – oils derived from plant sources. These vegetable oils include olive oil, coconut oil, canola oil, avocado oil, peanut oil, soybean oil, sesame oil, and so on.
Aside from the different sources of these oils, these vegetable oils can be further classified depending on how many industrial processes they have undergone. An example of such distinction is the difference between virgin olive oil and regular olive oil. Virgin olive oil is produced from cold extracting raw olives. On the other hand, regular olive oil is a mixture of virgin olive oil and other types of refined oils.
Aside from the production processes involved, other characteristics that differentiate vegetable oils from one another include taste, aroma, chemical constituents, culinary usage, and smoke point (2). The smoke point is an important factor to consider as it dictates whether which types of vegetable oils are preferable for searing, browning, deep-frying, baking, oven cooking, stir-frying, sauces, dips, dressings, and so on.
For example, almond oil has a distinctively nutty flavor. It is also characterized by being high in monounsaturated fatty acids which are considered to be healthy types of fat. With a high smoke point, almond oil is excellent for searing, browning, and deep-frying.
On the other hand, coconut oil is a little sweeter with medium-chain triglycerides and saturated fat. Since saturated fat is considered unhealthy, it is a type of fat many people would prefer to avoid. With a medium smoke point, coconut oil is heavily used in light sauteing, sauces, and low-heat baking.
Although they are not typically considered oil, many people lump animal fats in the same category as vegetable oils. This is because the usage of animal fats and vegetable oils often overlap in the kitchen. These animal fats include products such as butter, lard, and ghee.
Palm oil is a very popular and frequently used type of oil in the food industry because of its price (3). Compared to other types of vegetable oils, palm oil is considered to be highly productive due to its yield when compared to its production cost. Due to these factors, large tracts of land in the tropics are dedicated to palm plantations.
Although palm oil is technically vegan since it is completely obtained from palm trees, it is considered to be a controversial product within the vegan community. The issue with palm oil arises from environmental concerns.
Palm oil is dominantly produced in Africa, Asia, America, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Due to the high demand for palm oil, more and more land is dedicated to growing oil palm trees for palm oil production. However, palm oil has become controversial with vegans due to the increasingly unsustainable practices associated with palm oil production.
Since large tracts of land are required for increasing palm oil production, it has been heavily documented that large patches of rainforests have been cleared away for palm oil production. Not only does this reduce floral biodiversity in an area, but it also strips away habitats for countless animals. This is especially problematic for rainforests that support endangered animals such as orangutans, tigers, rhinoceros, bears, elephants, leopards, and monkeys.
Many species have been found to face extinction primarily because of palm oil production and the subsequent clearing of rainforests.
Although veganism is originally defined as the exclusion of animal products in an individual’s lifestyle, the definition of the movement has evolved throughout the years. Many vegans believe veganism should also stand for other principles such as human rights, fair trade, and environmentalism.