A vegan lifestyle calls for a lot of research and scrutiny. How many fruit and vegetable products have you thought to be vegan but turned out to have animal products in it? A lot, I bet. So if you wonder the same about cooking oils, I cannot blame you.
This time I’ll talk about one of the cheapest and most popular cooking oils you’ll see today: corn oil. Is corn oil vegan? Are there health benefits we can get from it?
With the amount of commercial food products that contain corn oil these days, don’t you think it’s worth asking?
The Demand For Corn Oil
Like soy and palm, corn has a consistent big demand in the market. This is because it is easier to cultivate and is much cheaper than other oils in general. Edible oils are an indispensable ingredient in the food industry today. So it’s no surprise that the cheaper ones dominate the scene.
Did you know that U.S. is the biggest producer and exporter of corn around the world? A total production of 371 million metric tons in just a year alone, says just how much that demand is. That doesn’t even include yet the other millions of metric tons that other major producing countries add to it.
This of course includes the supply for other corn products, with it being a staple in kitchens among many countries. However, a big part of it goes to corn oil as it still remains to be one of the top cooking oils. In fact, its market alone is expected to go over $7 billion by the year 2022. Whoa!
Said to be the most important grain in the world, corn is also known to have some good nutrients in it. But how much of it can you really get once you only have the oils left from it?
Natural Nutrients In Corn
So let’s take a look first at all the nutrients you can get from the actual corn itself. Also known as maize, corn, in its many varieties, contain these nutrients in general:
- Insoluble fiber
- B vitamins thiamin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, and niacin
- Vitamin C
- Ferulic acid
- Carotenoids (lutein and zeaxanthin)
- Phytic acid (also an antinutrient!)
These nutrients will vary among the many varieties of corn. There are corn varieties that may also contain some of these nutrients only. However, what is notable here is the presence of phytic acid.
Also known as phytate, phytic acid is an antinutrient because it inhibits the absorption of other nutrients in the body. This means that despite its rich nutrient content, it’s NOT a good idea to consume a lot of corn. If you do, it can lead to nutrient imbalance especially if you don’t have a healthy diet to begin with.
Corn oil is also found in a lot of processed foods, and is a major ingredient in margarines. So if you want to count how much corn products you consume in a day, check the labels too. You may want to do that later, I’m telling you.
How Is Corn Oil Made?
The oil comes from the germ part of the corn, which is in the middle. To get the germ, corn grains are cleaned and soaked for at least 30 hours. This leads to swelling and softening. Afterwards, the corn grains will be ground coarsely to completely loosen the germ from the rest of the grain.
Once all the germs are separated, it undergoes cleaning again to get rid of stray particles. Oil is then initially extracted from the germ by expelling using machines. To maximize oil extraction, solvents are used, which are eventually removed through evaporation.
The final oils will undergo several refining and filtration processes to make it suitable for cooking. These processes alter the composition of the oil to make it more stable in heat. Refining also prolongs shelf-life, removes odor and may include bleaching to improve color.
Some of the nutritional components of corn may also be lost once it undergoes refinement. This means you won’t get to enjoy most of the nutrients in the list above. However, manufacturers can also choose to just replace these nutrients by fortification, although it’s not a common practice.
Smoke Points: What Happens When You Heat Up Corn Oil?
Depending on the source and extraction method, cooking oils vary in smoke points. What is this smoke point? Well if you haven’t heard about it, it’s an important measure of quality for any edible oils that you heat up in cooking.
A smoke point is the maximum level of temperature or heat that an oil can tolerate before it starts to burn and oxidize.
Aside from its origins, many factors can affect the smoke point of an oil, including environmental conditions. However, these two are the biggest factors:
- Amount of refinement
- Fat content/acidity (free fatty acid)
The more refinement it undergoes and the more fats it has, the longer it takes for an oil to reach its smoke point. Consequently, in general, this also means that the lower the quality of the oil, the higher the smoke point is.
However, oil brands with high smoke points will call it “high quality” since this quality is preferable for cooking. Well, that’s only for cooking, because in terms of nutritive value, refinement means the very opposite.
Here are the varying smoke points of corn oil:
Refined – 230⁰C / 446⁰F
Unrefined – 160⁰C / 320⁰F
These figures are only an estimate since they will slightly vary per brand and refinement method. Once an oil reaches its smoke point, aside from smoking, it will also start to give off an off-putting smell.
To give you an idea, frying will require temperatures between 350⁰F and 450⁰F. Corn oil’s smoke point falls either in between or on the borderline of this temperature range. That means that you should not heat up corn oil too much.
Also, repetitive heating of oil increases its fatty acid content. This is why most brands recommend to reuse oil for up to two times only.
So why, exactly, do smoke points matter?
When oils begin to burn after reaching its smoke point, oxidation and hydrolysis occur. Both refers to the breakdown process of cooking oils, and when oils break down, there are resulting byproducts. These byproducts are free radicals and carcinogenic chemicals.
In simpler terms, the gas that it turns to after burning, are potentially toxic substances.
Sunflower oil and corn oil, in particular, produces aldehydes which are known to have links to illnesses such as cancer, dementia, and heart disease. To back this up, a study published in 2012 shows an increase in levels of more toxic substances among people with direct exposure to cooking oil fumes.
The study was conducted in a Chinese military camp, with cooks and office personnels tested for urine samples. The tests were done before and after a 5-day work week, where exposure to cooking oil fumes occur continuously. Tests were also done to determine the level of airborne particulates of the toxic substances in the kitchen during cooking.
It’s also worth noting that the traditional methods of Chinese cooking includes stir-frying and deep-frying. Both of these methods are known to produce more oil fumes.
After the 5th day, there is a significant increase in the biomarkers of PAH exposure and oxidative DNA damage. PAH or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons is only one of the many toxic substances in oil fumes. It also produces heterocyclic aromatic amines, benzene, and formaldehyde, all of which can cause DNA damage.
Safety Concerns About Corn Crops
The high demand for corn crops has also driven producers to resort to genetic engineering. According to the Center For Food Safety, 92% of the corns currently grown in the U.S. are GMOs. That’s A LOT!
Well I guess this should be no surprise with U.S. being the top producer and exporter of corn. But what does this mean for consumers? Modifying a plant’s genetic makeup can make them more resistant to pests and diseases. It may even hasten maturation or ripening, which means more crops in less time.
However, this unnatural alteration that poses health risks isn’t the only problem with GMO crops.
In many cases of genetic modification, animal genes (and even human genes!) may also be added to plants. For example, GMO tomatoes with antifreeze genes from the winter flounder fish is actually a thing! The problem though, is your food’s packaging will never tell you this much detail.
In the case of GMO corn, while genes from several bacteria species are common, jellyfish genes are also an option. This will of course make the resulting corn crop no longer vegan. But again, us consumers may never know.
It is also a popular idea that the consumption of GM foods can lead to health issues. However, there are not enough studies on humans to prove this. But this is also the same reason that many people prefer to avoid it.
Not much is known yet about the real effects of eating GM food products. But the thought of tampering with mother nature is often scary. This is why choosing non-GMO products is always the preference of vegans. Thank goodness for non-GMO labels!
Is Corn Oil Healthy?
Just like any other edible oils, corn oil is also a “liquid fat”. Although it’s from a plant, by the time you get all the oils, it will only be fats mostly. While some may say that there are healthier oils, the truth is there’s no such thing as a good oil. Why? Because they are all made of fats. Vegetable fats, to be exact.
Specifically, 100 grams of corn oil contain:
- 884 calories
- 49g saturated fats (the unhealthy fats!)
- 37g monounsaturated fats
- 9g unsaturated fats
- 49g Omega 6 (pro-inflammatory!)
Also, corn oils are heavily processed, and you know what that means. It’s just another thing that makes oils unhealthy. So, what are the health risks exactly?
- Exposure to toxic oil fumes when cooking in high heat (hello cancer!)
- Excessive consumption of fats can lead to heart disease
- Imbalance in Omega 3 and 6 ratio (can lead to inflammatory diseases)
- Weight gain from too much calories if you don’t burn them
Again, corn oil is NOT HEALTHY!
If you’re pretty stubborn and still want to use corn oil, please keep these in mind:
- Choose non-GMO and organic corn oils
- Look for brands with a higher smoke point
- Try NOT to cook in excessively high heat
- Do NOT reuse it more than twice
- Use the smallest amount of oil possible when cooking
For more information about cooking oils, you can find more details in this article.
BONUS: To learn more about oil alternatives that you can use, check out the video below!
Is Corn Oil Vegan?
There is a small risk of GM corn crops being non-vegan, although this can be rare (for now). Manufacturers also do not disclose such details, so the only way to avoid this is to choose non-GMO corn oils.
In terms of the manufacturing process, as it only requires a few chemicals, corn oil, in itself, is vegan. However, veganism isn’t just about eating plants and plant products, and animal welfare. Largely, it’s also about health, nutrition, and wellness.
Although corn oil is vegan, the health risks that come with it puts it in the list of vegan foods that I will NOT recommend. Yes, there is such a thing, believe it or not. In other words, corn oil is NOT worth having.
Corn oil is vegan in general but is NOT healthy. Genetic modification of corn crops can also risk contamination of animal genes, but the frequency of this occurrence is currently negligible.
If you still want to use corn oil for cooking, choose non-GMO and organic brands with a higher smoke point. And remember to only use as little as possible.
Do you use corn oil for cooking? What steps do you take to limit your consumption? Let me know on the comment section below. And don’t forget to share this article in your favorite social media platform.