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Vegetable fats and oils are lipid materials derived from plants. Physically, oils are liquid at room temperature, and fats are solid. Chemically, both fats and oils are composed of triglycerides, as contrasted with waxes which lack glycerin in their structure. Although many plant parts may yield oil, in commercial practice, oil is extracted primarily from seeds.
The melting temperature distinction between oils and fats is imprecise, since definitions of room temperature vary, and typically natural oils have a melting range instead of a single melting point since natural oils are not chemically homogeneous. Although thought of as esters of glycerin and a varying blend of fatty acids, fats and oils also typically contain free fatty acids, monoglycerides and diglycerides, and unsaponifiable lipids.
Vegetable fats and oils may or may not be edible. Examples of inedible vegetable fats and oils include processed linseed oil, tung oil, and castor oil used in lubricants, paints, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and other industrial purposes.
Oils extracted from plants have been used since ancient times and in many cultures. As an example, in a 4,000-year-old "kitchen" unearthed in Indiana's Charlestown State Park, archaeologist Bob McCullough of IPFW found evidence that natives used large slabs of rock to crush hickory nuts, then boiled them in water to extract the oil.
Unsaturated vegetable fats and oils can be transformed through partial or complete hydrogenation into fats and oils of higher melting point. The hydrogenation process involves "sparging" the oil at high temperature and pressure with hydrogen in the presence of a catalyst, typically a powdered nickel compound. As each carbon-carbon double-bond is chemically reduced to a single bond, two hydrogen atoms each form single bonds with the two carbon atoms. The elimination of double bonds by adding hydrogen atoms is called saturation; as the degree of saturation increases, the oil progresses toward being fully hydrogenated. An oil may be hydrogenated to increase resistance to rancidity (oxidation) or to change its physical characteristics. As the degree of saturation increases, the oil's viscosity and melting point increase.
The use of hydrogenated oils in foods has never been completely satisfactory. Because the center arm of the triglyceride is shielded somewhat by the end fatty acids, most of the hydrogenation occurs on the end fatty acids, thus making the resulting fat more brittle. A margarine made from naturally more saturated oils will be more plastic (more "spreadable") than a margarine made from hydrogenated soy oil. While full hydrogenation produces largely saturated fatty acids, partial hydrogenation results in the transformation of unsaturated cis fatty acids to trans fatty acids in the oil mixture due to the heat used in hydrogenation. Since the 1970s, partially hydrogenated oils and their trans fats have increasingly been viewed as unhealthy. This is largely due to trans lipids being the regular substrate.
In the U.S., the Standard of Identity for a product labeled as "vegetable oil margarine" specifies only canola, safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean, or peanut oil may be used. Products not labeled "vegetable oil margarine" do not have that restriction.
Vegetable oils are used as an ingredient or component in many manufactured products.
Many vegetable oils are used to make soaps, skin products, candles, perfumes and other personal care and cosmetic products. Some oils are particularly suitable as drying oils, and are used in making paints and other wood treatment products. Dammar oil (a mixture of linseed oil and dammar resin), for example, is used almost exclusively in treating the hulls of wooden boats. Vegetable oils are increasingly being used in the electrical industry as insulators as vegetable oils are not toxic to the environment, biodegradable if spilled and have high flash and fire points. However, vegetable oils are less stable chemically, so they are generally used in systems where they are not exposed to oxygen, and they are more expensive than crude oil distillate. Two examples are FR3 by Cooper Power and BIOTEMP by ABB. Midel 7131 by M & I materials is a synthetic tetraester, like a vegetable oil but with four fatty acid chains compared to the normal three found in a natural ester, and is manufactured by Fischer esterification. Tetraesters generally have high stability to oxidation and have found use as engine lubricants. Vegetable oil is being used to produce biodegradable hydraulic fluid and lubricant.
One limiting factor in industrial uses of vegetable oils is that all such oils eventually chemically decompose, turning rancid. Oils that are more stable, such as ben oil or mineral oil, are preferred for some industrial uses.
Vegetable-based oils, like castor oil, have been used as medicine and as lubricants for a long time. Castor oil has numerous industrial uses, primarily due to the presence of hydroxyl groups on the fatty acid chains. Castor oil, and other vegetable oils which have been chemically modified to contain hydroxyl groups, are becoming increasingly important in the production of polyurethane plastic for many applications. These modified vegetable oils are known as natural oil polyols.
Pet food additive
Vegetable oil is used in production of some pet foods. AAFCO defines vegetable oil, in this context, as the product of vegetable origin obtained by extracting the oil from seeds or fruits which are processed for edible purposes. In some poorer grade pet foods, the oil is listed only as "vegetable oil", without specifying the particular oil.
Vegetable oils are also used to make biodiesel, which can be used like conventional diesel. Some vegetable oil blends are used in unmodified vehicles but straight vegetable oil, also known as pure plant oil, needs specially prepared vehicles which have a method of heating the oil to reduce its viscosity. The vegetable oil economy is growing and the availability of biodiesel around the world is increasing.
The NNFCC estimate that the total net greenhouse gas savings when using vegetable oils in place of fossil fuel-based alternatives for fuel production, range from 18 to 100%.
The "modern" way of processing vegetable oil is by chemical extraction, using solvent extracts, which produces higher yields and is quicker and less expensive. The most common solvent is petroleum-derived hexane. This technique is used for most of the "newer" industrial oils such as soybean and corn oils.
Another way is physical extraction, called "crushing", which does not use solvent extracts. It is made the "traditional" way using several different types of mechanical extraction. This method is typically used to produce the more traditional oils (e.g., olive, coconut etc.), and it is preferred by most "health-food" customers in the USA and in Europe. Expeller-pressed extraction is one type, and there are two other types that are both oil presses: the screw press and the ram press. Oil seed presses are commonly used in developing countries, among people for whom other extraction methods would be prohibitively expensive. The amount of oil extracted using these methods varies widely, as shown in the following table for extracting mowrah butter in India:
Supercritical carbon dioxide can also be used for the extraction purpose and is nontoxic.
Crude oil, straight from the crushing operation, is not considered edible in the case of most oilseeds. The same is true for the remaining meal. For instance, animals fed raw soy meal will waste away, even though soy meal is high in protein. Researchers at Central Soya discovered that a trypsin inhibitor in soybeans could be deactivated by toasting the meal, and both licensed their invention, and sold soy meal augmented with vitamins and minerals as MasterMix, a product for farmers to mix with their own grain to produce a high quality feed.
The processing of soy oil is typical of that used with most vegetable oils. Crude soy oil is first mixed with caustic soda. Saponification turns triglycerides into soap. The soap is removed with a centrifuge. Neutralized dry soap stock (NDSS) is typically used in animal feed, more to get rid of it than because it is particularly nourishing. The remaining oil is deodorized by heating under a near-perfect vacuum and sparged with water. The condensate is further processed to become vitamin E food supplement, while the oil can be sold to manufacturers and consumers at this point.
Some of the oil is further processed. By carefully filtering the oil at near-freezing temperatures, "winter oil" is produced. This oil is sold to manufacturers of salad dressings, so that the dressings do not turn cloudy when refrigerated.
The oil may be partially hydrogenated to produce various ingredient oils. Lightly hydrogenated oils have very similar physical characteristics to regular soy oil, but are more resistant to becoming rancid.
Margarine oils need to be mostly solid at 32 C (90 F) so that the margarine does not melt in warm rooms, yet it needs to be completely liquid at 37 C (98 F), so that it doesn't leave a "lardy" taste in the mouth.
Another major use of soy oil is for fry oils. These oils require substantial hydrogenation to keep the polyunsaturates of soy oil from becoming rancid.
Hardening vegetable oil is done by raising a blend of vegetable oil and a catalyst in near-vacuum to very high temperatures, and introducing hydrogen. This causes the carbon atoms of the oil to break double-bonds with other carbons, each carbon forming a new single-bond with a hydrogen atom. Adding these hydrogen atoms to the oil makes it more solid, raises the smoke point, and makes the oil more stable.
Hydrogenated vegetable oils differ in two major ways from other oils which are equally saturated. During hydrogenation, it is easier for hydrogen to come into contact with the fatty acids on the end of the triglyceride, and less easy for them to come into contact with the center fatty acid. This makes the resulting fat more brittle than a tropical oil; soy margarines are less "spreadable". The other difference is that trans fatty acids (often called trans fat) are formed in the hydrogenation reactor, and may amount to as much as 40 percent by weight of a partially hydrogenated oil. Trans acids are increasingly thought to be unhealthy.
In the processing of edible oils, the oil is heated under vacuum to near the smoke point, and water is introduced at the bottom of the oil. The water immediately is converted to steam, which bubbles through the oil, carrying with it any chemicals which are water-soluble. The steam sparging removes impurities that can impart unwanted flavors and odors to the oil.
History in North America
While olive oil and other pressed oils have been around for millennia, Procter & Gamble researchers were innovators when they started selling cottonseed oil as a creamed shortening, in 1911. Ginning mills were happy to have someone haul away the cotton seeds. Procter & Gamble researchers learned how to extract the oil, refine it, partially hydrogenate it (causing it to be solid at room temperature and thus mimic natural lard), and can it under nitrogen gas. Compared to the rendered lard Procter & Gamble was already selling to consumers, Crisco was cheaper, easier to stir into a recipe, and could be stored at room temperature for two years without turning rancid. (Procter & Gamble sold their fats and oils brands - Jif and Crisco - to The J.M. Smucker Co. in 2002.)
Soybeans were an exciting new crop from China in the 1930s. Soy was protein-rich, and the light, tasteless oil was extremely high in polyunsaturates. Henry Ford established a soybean research laboratory, developed soybean plastics and a soy-based synthetic wool, and built a car "almost entirely" out of soybeans. Roger Drackett had a successful new product with Windex, but he invested heavily in soybean research, seeing it as a smart investment. By the 1950s and 1960s, soybean oil had become the most popular vegetable oil in the US.
In the mid-1970s, Canadian researchers developed a low-erucic-acid rapeseed cultivar. Because the word "rape" was not considered optimal for marketing, they coined the name "canola" (from "Canada Oil"). The FDA approved use of the canola name in January 1985, and U.S. farmers started planting large areas that spring. Canola oil is lower in saturated fats, and higher in monounsaturates and is a better source of omega-3 fats than other popular oils. Canola is very thin (unlike corn oil) and flavorless (unlike olive oil), so it largely succeeds by displacing soy oil, just as soy oil largely succeeded by displacing cottonseed oil.
A large quantity of waste vegetable oil is produced, mainly from industrial deep fryers in potato processing plants, snack food factories and fast food restaurants.
Currently, the largest uses of waste vegetable oil in the U.S. are for animal feed, pet food, and cosmetics. Since 2002, an increasing number of European Union countries have prohibited the inclusion of waste vegetable oil from catering in animal feed. Waste cooking oils from food manufacturing, however, as well as fresh or unused cooking oil, continues to be used in animal feed.
More recently, waste oil has become known for its ability to be refined into biodiesel fuel.
Negative health effects
A high consumption of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which are found in most types of vegetable oil (e.g. soybean oil, corn oil - the most consumed in USA, sunflower oil, etc.), may increase the likelihood that postmenopausal women will develop breast cancer. A similar effect was observed on prostate cancer in mice. Plant based oils high in monounsaturated fatty acids, such Olive oil, peanut oil, and canola oil are relatively low in omega-6 PUFAs and can be used in place of high-polyunsaturated oils. However, palm oil and coconut oil, even as unhydrogenated "natural" oils, are high in saturated fatty acids.
There is increasing concern that the product labeling that includes "vegetable fat" or "vegetable oil" in its list of ingredients masks the identity of the fats or oils present. This has been made more pressing as concerns have been raised over the environmental impact of palm oil in particular, especially given the predominance of palm oil.
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