Over the years, I have been served restaurant food so loaded with fat that it was shiny, when I was assured by the waiter/chef that “the food has no oil”. Also had the unpleasant experience of finding my lips feeling oily after a chef/waiter assured/confirmed absolutely no oil was used.
On another occasion, a baker making plant-based croissants (which require a ton of fat to make) was also once bragging to me that she knows how to make oil-free croissants without anyone noticing the difference. I hate to say something is impossible, but decent croissants that look and taste like croissants, without a ton of fat, is about as impossible as a baking challenge can get.
So…why were so many of these food makers so convinced they didn’t use oil when there clearly was oil in the food? This puzzled me for a while.
But the more I requested for oil-free food at restaurants (and I do that an awful lot) the more that became evident.
Sometimes, it’s just miscommunication on our end.
Oil, the product, is a liquid named “oil”. Other pure fats come in pastes, hard solid, or emulsified. For us nutritionally, it’s a pure extracted fat that becomes oily when heated, so it’s oil! For restaurants and cafés, that’s not oil but something else with a specific name. That should explain at least some of your “oil-free” mishaps.
So here are a few (non-exhaustive) lists of the most common oil-like products so you can avoid them more easily. This article focuses only pure fats or near-pure fats. There are other refined high-fat products of concern such as coconut cream/milk etc, that I won’t cover here.
HIDDEN OIL ON FOOD LABELS
- ghee (animal-derived)
- mono and di-glycerides
- fatty acids
- short-chain fatty acids
- lecithin (can be animal-derived if not specified)
- shortening (can be animal-derived if not specified)
- margarine, also known as “vegan butter”, common brand in New Zealand: Olivani but there are many.
- cocoa butter <anything> butter should alert you when it comes to fats, obviously)
This list (above) is relevant to ingredients on packaged food labels. As a nutritionist I have to read food labels very often and these are the most common ones I find, from the top of my head. If I forgot any, please comment below so everyone can benefit.
HIDDEN OIL IN SUPPLEMENTS AND MEDICATIONS
FOR INFORMATION ONLY: In supplements and medication, some of the most common forms of hidden fats are:
- Stearic acid
- Magnesium stearate
Unless specifically mentioned, the stearic acid used in both above ingredients can be either plant-based or animal-derived. Unfortunately, medications and supplements are not required by law to display nutrition facts like we find on packaged foods (with caloric content and macronutrient breakdown). If that was the case, more people would be aware of the fat content of these pills, drops, sprays, powders and capsules.
Disclaimer: I certainly am NOT suggesting that people stop medication because of this. This applies to ethical vegans as well. This is for information only.
HIDDEN OIL AT CAFÉ/RESTAURANTS
When asking at restaurants/cafés, I currently ask for “oil-free and without any added fat”. This phrasing may improve with time, it’s serving me well for now as it covers other things than what’s called “oil” without sounding like too much of a mouthful. In restaurants, the most common “hidden oil”, if you’re ordering vegan or 100% plant-based food would likely be “vegan butter” also known as margarine. It might (maybe more rarely) also be “shortening“.
And of course, if you don’t have access to the ingredients of something, or if the person selling the food doesn’t know, or is “pretty sure” there “should be no oil”, you can bet there is, and that there is a relevant amount. Wishful thinking is a healthy eater’s top mistake.
Basically, oil or oil-like products are unfortunately virtually everywhere by default. “No oil” is the exception more than the rule.
HIDDEN OIL AT HOME
Finally, I am seeing a growing trend of people using blended nuts/avos as a whole-food substitute to oil. I’ve seen it in recipes, in “oil-free” crackers, crusts and pastries, etc. that claim to be “whole foods” and “oil-free”.
Does it work as an oil replacement? Yes.
Is it a wonderful “oil-free” hack? I’m not so sure about that…Let’s not fool ourselves.
Pulverising high-fat whole foods (i.e. blended cashew or nut butters) makes the oils highly bioavailable during digestion, compared to what regular chewing achieves. Heating aggravates that issue by further extracting the oils from the high-fat paste. This is why it is sensible to treat pulverized/blended high-fat whole foods (nuts, avos, olives, coconut milks/creams/yogurts, etc) as a product that contains a relevant amount of refined oil. Because it simply does. The reason why it works so well as on oil substitute is because it’s literally extracted oil, so of course it behaves like oil.
I hope this article will allow you to spot the unwanted oils beyond just scanning for the word “oil”. I hope this will help you in your low-fat Whole Food Plant-Based (WFPB) journey.
Wishing you the best of health,