Vegetable oil is a very common ingredient in food products. While most people know that the word “vegetable” implies the food product derives from plants, folks also want to know whether animals are involved in any way in its production. And rightly so. After all, not all plant-based products are free of animal exploitation.
Is it vegan? Yes, vegetable oil is considered vegan. While in the US, “vegetable oil” is synonymous with soybean oil, it’s actually a term for any oil derived from plants which are, of course, vegan. Thus, vegetable oil from any source (soybean or olive, etc.) is vegan.
Palm oil may be one exception, but it’s only one type of vegetable oil and not all vegans restrict its intake.
Vegetable oils are defined as fats extracted from seeds, or other parts of fruits. Like animal fats, they contain a mixture of triglycerides.1
In everyday usage, the term usually refers to vegetable fats that remain liquid at room temperature.2,3
Vegetable oils serve a number of functions in food including:
- Flavoring—a lot of oils are neutral (e.g. canola oil), but some like olive provide a lot of flavor.
- Texture—like all fats, oils improve mouthfeel and provide a nice smooth texture to food by preventing ingredients from sticking together.
- Flavor base—not only do some oils provide flavor directly, but oils, in general, are known to “carry” the flavors of other ingredients, specifically those that are fat soluble.
- Shortening—oils are used in baking to give pastry a crumbly texture.
- Cooking—a lot of oils (those with a high flash point) are used for cooking foods at high temperatures.
Does the Production of Vegetable Oil Involve Animals?
No, oils are extracted straight from the plant source. There are numerous types of mechanical extraction and most involve crushing and pressing of fruits and seeds to squeeze out the oils.4
The mechanical method of extraction is generally used to produce the more traditional oils you probably have in your pantry (e.g., coconut, olive, etc.), and is the preferred method of extraction by most health-conscious customers in the US and Europe.
Expeller-pressing is a very popular extraction technique, but other methods are also used.
The amount of oil that can be extracted using these methods varies quite a bit.5
What we’ll do here is cover the most common types of vegetable oils, their uses and which aspects of their production may pose problems for some vegans.
Different Vegetable Oils and Their Vegan Status
Is Soybean Oil Vegan?
Yes, soybean oil is vegan. Soybean oil is a type of vegetable oil that’s extracted from soybean seeds. It’s one of the most commonly consumed cooking oils and is used in food products due to its emulsification properties (it contains lecithin which helps improve the stabilization of ingredients).
In its production, the soybeans are cracked and heated to between 140 and 190 °F. It’s then rolled into flakes, at which point it’s chemically extracted and refined.
The soybean oil is then packaged and sold as “vegetable oil,” or used as a food additive. In fact, it’s the oil that’s most commonly marketed/labeled as vegetable oil.
No problems for vegans here.
Is Canola Oil Vegan?
Yes, canola oil is considered vegan. Canola oil is an oil extracted from a bright-yellow flowering member of the cabbage and mustard family, cultivated for its oil-rich seed. So, it’ s plant-derived and thus vegan.
It’s a very common oil, that’s now cultivated to contain much less erucic acid—a compound known to be destructive to the cardiac muscle of animals.6
Specifically, it used to contain upwards of 54% erucic acid.7
Food-grade canola oil now has low erucic acid content and is generally recognized as safe by the United States FDA.8
In the US, federal regulations ensure that canola oil contains no more than 2% erucic acid by weight in the.8 Limits are set to 5% by the EU.9
It’s a great oil to work with because it doesn’t impart any unique flavors so it can be used to get all of the properties of fat without making your food taste like olives or coconut, etc.
Luckily, it’s not known to be problematic in terms of its environmental impact. Thus, it’s 100% vegan-friendly.
Is Olive Oil Vegan?
Yes, olive oil is vegan. Olive oil is produced by pressing whole olives. The olives are first ground or smashed, at which point the oil is extracted mechanically or chemically. So, it’s 100% plant-derived.
It is commonly used for cooking but tends not to be used at really high temperatures.
Olive oil is generally considered vegan, though some vegans have voiced concerns regarding the environmental impact of its cultivation.10
The idea is that, over time, there’s been an increasing number of really large plantations that use modern techniques that may not be good for the environment. While the production of olives isn’t thought to pose any issues, the production of olive oil results in around 30 million m3 of olive mill wastewater annually in the Mediterranean area alone.11
This is because it takes 5 kilo of olives to produce just one 1 kilo of oil due to the poor conversion of olives into olive by the current extraction methods.
The wastewater can’t be sent to normal wastewater treatment systems, making safe disposal of the waste an environmental concern for some.
Some environmentalists also stress that the waste produced in the production of olive oil tends not to be as easily biodegradable as the waste produced in the manufacturing of other food products. Specifically, olive oil waste needs to be detoxified prior to being used for other industrial and agricultural applications.
So, depending on the type of vegan you identify as (health, ecological, animal ethics, etc.) this may or may not be an issue.
Make no mistake, the vegan community, by and large, considers olive oil to be vegan. Also, note that it meets labeling criteria for the vegan icon.12
Is Palm Oil Vegan?
Yes, generally. But, there is relatively less concensus on this one. Palm oil is a very controversial topic in the vegan community. It’s long been an issue for both eco vegans and vegans primarily concerned with animal welfare.
For example, palm oil production is increasingly criticized for its environmental impacts.13.14
Specific environmental concerns include:
- Deforestation and loss of habitat, which poses a threat to critically endangered species like the orangutan and Sumatran tiger.15-18
- Greenhouse gas emissions.14,19-21 Palm oil production requits the clearing of large swaths of land. This has been said to contribute directly to rising greenhouse-gas emissions.19,23 Additionally, palm oil plantations often tend to be built on existing peat bogs (a wetland that accumulates peat).19-23
So, that’s it. Overall, vegetable oil is considered vegan. Use your own judgment in determining which type of vegetable oil is right for you. You will not be considered non-vegan if you choose to consume palm oil. It’s strictly a personal decision.
- Alfred Thomas (2002). “Fats and Fatty Oils”. Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry. Weinheim: Wiley-VCH.
- Parwez Saroj. The Pearson Guide to the B.Sc. (Nursing) Entrance Examination. Pearson Education India. p. 109. ISBN 81-317-1338-5.
- Robin Dand (1999). The International Cocoa Trade. Woodhead Publishing. p. 169. ISBN 1-85573-434-6.
- Hossain, Amjad (2012). “Kalu”. In Islam, Sirajul; Jamal, Ahmed A. (eds.). Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh (Second ed.). Asiatic Society of Bangladesh.
- B.L. Axtell from research by R.M. Fairman (1992) http://www.fao.org/es/faodef/fdef14e.htm
- O’Brien, R (2008). Fats and Oils Formulating and Processing for Applications, Third Edition: Formulating and Processing for Applications. CRC Press. pp. 37–40. ISBN 978-1-4200-6166-6.
- Sahasrabudhe, M. R. (1977). “Crismer values and erucic acid contents of rapeseed oils”. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society. 54 (8): 323–324.
- “CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21”. Food and Drug Administration. 2010-04-01.
- The Commission of the European Communities (1980). EurLex Official Journal. 254. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:31980L0891:EN:HTML
- Why Olive Oil Is Bad For the Environment https://thegreenvegans.com/why-olive-oil-is-bad-for-the-environment/
- Environmental Impact Of Olive Oil Processing Wastes https://www.ecomena.org/olive-oil-wastes/
- Certification https://vegan.org/certification/
- Clay, Jason (2004). World Agriculture and the Environment. p. 219. ISBN 978-1-55963-370-3.
- “Palm oil: Cooking the Climate”. Greenpeace. 8 November 2007. Archived from the original on 10 April 2010.
- “The bird communities of oil palm and rubber plantations in Thailand” (PDF). The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Archived (PDF) from the original on 6 October 2016.
- “Palm oil threatening endangered species” (PDF). Center for Science in the Public Interest. May 2005.
- Shears, Richard (30 March 2012). “Hundreds of orangutans killed in north Indonesian forest fires deliberately started by palm oil firms”. Daily Mail. London. Archived from the original on 20 April 2013.
- “Camera catches bulldozer destroying Sumatra tiger forest”. World Wildlife Fund. 12 October 2010.
- Foster, Joanna M. (1 May 2012). “A Grim Portrait of Palm Oil Emissions”. The New York Times.
- Yui, Sahoko; Yeh, Sonia (1 December 2013). Environmental Research Letters. 8 (4): 044031. ISSN 1748-9326.
- “Researchers warn against high emissions from oil palm expansion in Brazil”. phys.org. 13 November 2013.
- Yui, Sahoko; Yeh, Sonia (1 December 2013). “Land use change emissions from oil palm expansion in Pará, Brazil depend on proper policy enforcement on deforested lands”. Environmental Research Letters. 8 (4): 044031. ISSN 1748-9326.
- Rosenthal, Elisabeth (31 January 2007). “Once a Dream Fuel, Palm Oil May Be an Eco-Nightmare”. The New York Times.