Oil’s Many Hiding Places: 8 Foods to Look Out For

By Henry Vander Hill

In my last post, I wrote about my case for cutting oil out of my diet. In short oil is a processed food, almost all fat, and virtually devoid of nutritional value. Unfortunately, added oil found all over the place in grocery stores, restaurants, and recipes. Food companies and restaurants, even those advertising the health benefits of their food, all have the goal of selling as much food as possible. Foods processed and prepared with added oil are far more likely to sell well.

Last summer, I wrote about 8 foods that were hiding high amounts of added sugar. Added oil is found in some surprising places too.

A quick note: I am not demonizing fat or claiming a low-fat diet is better. My dietary logic always comes down to eating whole foods, which oil is not. Fatty whole foods like avocados, nuts, and seeds have a place in a whole food-based diet.

bowl-delicious-diet-257816.jpg1. Salad dressing

Most salad dressings are essentially just flavored oil. Let’s take Newman’s organic balsamic vinaigrette as the example. First ingredient? Organic Vegetable Oil. One serving (just 2 tablespoons) contains 10 grams of fat (including 1.5 grams of saturated fat). Furthermore, 80% of the calories come fat.

Alternatives: Fat-free salad dressing (although, this often substitutes sugar in its place, as is the case with most foods advertising “low-fat”), or make your own! We shall be posting our own recipes soon enough.

bars.jpeg2. Bars

Granola bars, energy bars, and protein bars usually have a fair amount of added oil. Nature Valley Honey n’ Oats flavor contains 7 grams of fat, 37% of the calories come from fat, and the third ingredient is canola oil.

Alternatives: Larabars are pretty great. They are generally only a couple ingredients. The Cashew Cookie flavor, for example. is just cashews and dates. Even better would be to make your own at home!

gardeinchicken.png3. Vegan replacement foods

In our last podcast, Madi and I talked about how the Vegan label can be deceiving when it comes to the nutritional quality of food. With the popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets increasing, there are companies popping up such as Impossible Foods, Follow Your Heart, Hampton Creek, Daiya, and Gardein. All of these companies are making products that can stand in for animal-based versions, be it cheese, mayonaisse, chicken, beef, etc.

DISCLAIMER: I support the work these companies are doing! It’s incredibly important in reducing the consumption of animal products, lowering the carbon footprint of agriculture, and improving animal rights and welfare. Replacement products can also be helpful for people who wish to be vegetarian or vegan but struggle giving up certain foods. As a transitional tool, it can be helpful to replace a burger with something very close to a burger.

However, these foods are generally not healthy for the long-term. They are processed in order to replicate their animal-product counterparts, and the best way to replicate the fatty taste of animal products is often with oil.

Vegenaise, a popular brand of vegan mayonnaise, is over 90% fat. The first ingredient is canola oil. Gardein’s Meatless Chick’n Breast contains 6 grams of fat per serving and the fourth ingredient in canola oil. Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy ice cream contains 14 grams of fat per 1/2 cup. The third ingredient is coconut oil.

Vegan junk food is still junk food. I do think these products are better options than their animal-based counterparts, but they are not health foods.

Alternatives: Vegan replacements are great as transitional foods or for the occasional treat, but not as staples of a plant-based lifestyle.

cooked-delicious-dinner-14737.jpg4. Pasta sauce

Sauces and condiments are generally very sneaky when it comes to adding empty calories to a meal, and pasta sauce is a particularly common culprit.

A serving of Bertolli classic marinara contains 3 grams of fat and the third ingredient is olive oil.

Alternatives: Make your own at home! It’s pretty straightforward to boil down some tomatoes and add spices.

assortment-batch-colors-625422.jpg5. Trail mix

Most trail mixes and nut mixes contain added oil. this is kind of surprising to me, because it doesn’t make much sense to add oil to food that is already fatty and tastes pretty good on its own. Planter’s Mixed Nuts usually have added peanut oil or some other kind of oil to make them more fatty and flavorful.

Alternatives: Buy raw nuts or nuts that don’t have oil added to them and make your own trail mix or nut mix at home. It’s pretty easy to find packages or raw nuts that don’t have anything added to them.



6. Peanut butter

Peanut butter generally comes in two varieties. The real peanut butter only has 2 ingredients: peanuts and salt. Highly-processed peanut butters like JIF, Skippy, and even generic store brands have added hydrogenated vegetable oils. Even “Reduced Fat” Skippy, for example, has added hydrogenated vegetable oil, not to mention corn syrup and sugar. Additionally, the “natural” varieties of processed peanut butter can be deceptive. JIF Natural, which doesn’t contain hydrogenated oils, still contains added palm oil as well as sugar.

Alternatives: Read the ingredients and look for the jar that has just peanuts and salt.

beverages-brunch-cocktail-5317.jpg7. Restaurant food

Obviously McDonald’s french fries have a lot of added oil. However, even the food at “healthy” restaurants is generally pretty oily. With very few exceptions, restaurant food is loaded with oil (and salt, and sugar). Even vegetable dishes are grilled or sautéed in oil and salt. Salads are dressed with oily salad dressings. I used to work at Chipotle, and even the rice was doused in oil before it joined grilled chicken, steak, and fajitas.

Alternatives: With restaurant food, I’ve found it’s generally best to practice moderation. It’s really hard to avoid oil when eating out, but it’s possible to choose the salad over the french fries.

cook-cooking-dinner-89235.jpg8. Home cooking/baking

One of the best ways to improve one’s diet is to cook at home rather than eating prepared foods or out at restaurants. That way you generally know exactly what went into making the meal.

However, most recipes call for added oil or butter. It’s not as difficult as it seems to cook without it! There are numerous resources online with catalogs of oil-free recipes. Madison has a post coming up soon about oil alternatives for home cooking.

My experience

I’m not writing this with any implied should or shouldn’t, but rather to get past the flashy labels and down to the actual ingredients found in the food.

If cutting down on oil is a step you want to take, it can be difficult, but it is possible as well. The main thing to do is to always read the ingredients. At restaurants, assume that everything has added oil and moderate as much as possible. Cook without oil at home.

For me, taking small steps has gone a long way. Little things like buying good brands of peanut butter and opting for grain-and-bean dishes rather than processed meals has helped a lot. It’s really hard to avoid oil when eating out or in social settings. I’ve decided that for me that’s okay. I’m an athlete so I’m trying to gain weight and I exercise for several hours each week, so I have found that a little bit of oil is okay. It’s different for everyone.

Whatever your dietary choices, I hope you found this information helpful.

Eat good food with good people!


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