“Before seed oils were invented, everybody was hot and healthy,” reads the first sentence of an Aug. 21 tweet by Carnivore Aurelius, a Twitter account with more than 300,000 followers. The tweet cites statistics claiming to link consumption of seed oils to an increase in obesity and cardiovascular disease rates, embedding a photo of a crowd of people at Atlantic City Beach in 1908 (who indeed do look hot, but more in the literal sense, considering most of them are wearing woolen bathing suits).
Carnivore Aurelius is an account devoted to “restoring our ancestral, meat-loving lifestyle“; its website also sells a branded bag of beef liver crisps for $89.99. Like other proponents of the carnivore diet like Jordan Peterson or Andrew Tate, Carnivore Aurelius frequently advocates for “traditional” family values, tweeting about how feminism is a “scam” or idyllic photos of young, beautiful blond moms with babies with the caption, “ladies, theres nothing wrong with you if you want this over becoming a partner at a law firm.” It has also devoted much space to pushing the evils of seed oils, a term used to encompass sunflower oil, canola oil, soybean oil, and so forth.
On Instagram, where Carnivore Aurelius has more than 700,000 followers, the majority of the most-engaged content about seed oils comes from their account, according to CrowdTangle data from the past 12 months. A February 2023 post, which claims that seed oils are “the most destructive force in the world today and cutting them out of your diet will radically change your health,” has gotten more than 63,000 likes and 1,700 comments. A tweet from Aug. 21, the same day as the one cited above, says, “canola oil is literally made from seeds of the rape plant… named after what it will do to your health.”
In truth, while Carnivore Aurelius’s posts are perhaps exemplary of slightly more intense anti-seed oil rhetoric, the vitriol is pretty much everywhere. All over Instagram and TikTok, wellness influencers are urging their audiences to avoid buying products with seed oils in them, to the degree that there are more than 126 million views under the #seedoils hashtag on the latter platform. It’s particularly common among right-wing or right-wing-adjacent circles, where the fear over seed oils has almost achieved meme status: “Left wing hypochondria is Covid. Right wing form is seed oils, touching a grocery store receipt, artificial sweeteners, and on and on,” right-wing influencer Mike Cernovich tweeted earlier this month.
The furor over seed oils has gotten so intense that on Aug. 15, Andrew Tate couldn’t help but mock people about it: “SEED OILS SEED OILS OMG SEED OILS OMG FUCKING OMG SEED OILS FUCK FUCK OMG FUCK,” he tweeted. “I can tell you losers have never had real enemies. You’re afraid of sunflowers. You legit won’t shut up about it.”
So is Andrew Tate (swallows hard) correct? Is there any reason to be concerned about seed oils posing a hazard to your health? And if not, why are wellness influencers, right-wing ideologues, and crypto bros all obsessing in equal measure over them?
What are seed oils?
Seed oils are oils that have been extracted from compressed seeds, such as canola oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, or soybean oil. Industrial seed oils are typically extracted using a petroleum-based chemical called hexane, which is used to dissolve the seed and extract the oil, explains Whitney Crouch, a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). “It’s more of a chemical process than if you’re getting it from a fruit like olives or avocados,” she says.
For years, seed oils have frequently been used in cooking and in processed foods because they’ve traditionally been thought of as a healthier alternative to butter, says Guy Crosby, adjunct associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Butter is very high in saturated fat and oils are much higher in unsaturated fat,” he explains. “So they tend to be more healthy in terms of [preventing] things like potential heart disease.”
Seed oils also tend to contain more omega-6 fatty acids, which are known as essential fatty acids because our bodies do not produce them naturally. Some have speculated that seed oils may be disadvantageous to our health because the body requires a proper ratio of omega-3s (which are found in sources like nuts and fish) to omega-6 fatty acids, and consuming too many foods containing omega-6s can disrupt that balance or contribute to inflammation. But while there is plenty of evidence that omega-3s are good for you and can help decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, there is limited evidence supporting the idea that omega-6s should be avoided entirely. Most nutritionists will recommend a healthy balance between both.
Are seed oils bad for you?
Seed oils, in themselves, are not bad for you, says Crosby. “People have a lot of misconceptions about the safety of canola oil and cooking oils in general. It always surprises me,” he says. “It has a lot of unsaturated fatty acids, which are better for your cardiovascular health than things like butter or palm oil, which are saturated fats.”
That’s not to say, however, that concerns about seed oils are totally devoid of merit — it’s just that people tend to be focusing on the wrong thing. Seed oils tend to be found in highly processed or fatty fried foods, which the standard American diet often features in large amounts. “If you consume too much fried food, it quite significantly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, which are severe chronic diseases,” Crosby says. “It’s the amount of food that people consume that is deep fat-fried that is the issue. Not the oil itself.”
Crouch says that oils that are made from fruits, such as avocado or olive oil, are preferable for use in cooking due to them not being processed and having polyphenols that help lower the risk of heart disease and inflammation. But she reiterates that seed oils themselves are less concerning than “the quality of whatever the type of food is, and where it’s coming from.”
Why has this become a talking point on the right?
Crosby tracks the misinformation about seed oils to about 2018, when he started noticing a rumor circulating online that the European Union banned canola oil due to it being carcinogenic. But there’s no evidence that that is the case. “People say it’s toxic, poisonous. You name it. Whatever rumors they’ve picked up or read or seen,” he says, adding that he has gotten “genuinely angry” emails from people expressing their outrage over his research on seed oils.
Derek Beres, the co-author of the book Conspirituality: How New Age Conspiracy Theories Became a Health Threat, says he first started noticing whispers about seed oils being hazardous to your health when he saw Paul Saladino, aka Carnivore MD, an influencer with more than two million Instagram followers who advocates for a primarily animal-based diet, speaking about it on Joe Rogan’s podcast. He says it didn’t take long to see the suspicions about seed oils spinning out into claims, primarily boosted by right-leaning wellness influencers, that they were singlehandedly responsible for promoting obesity in the United States.
“The right is really good at trying to identify one cause as the driver of a major problem,” says Beres. “If they can say industrial foods are really bad, and seed oils are in these industrial foods, it must be that that is driving obesity. [But] it’s a fallacy, because nutrition science is really very complex.”
Beres says he has seen since it filter into the crypto bro and biohacking spaces of the internet as well: “when you’re really into crypto on this level, you’re interested in future tech. So the advancement of nutraceuticals and supplements will appeal to you on an emotional level. You’re also anti-industry and anti government. So the idea that these mass-produced foods lead to bad outcomes, that’s an appealing mindset.”
Recently, the demonization of seed oils has spilled over into the anti-sunscreen movement, as sunscreen also often contains seed oils. And because eschewing sunscreen raises the risk of skin cancer, Beres says, the anti-seed oil movement has the potential to be far more dangerous than just a few influencers making wild claims about the extreme dangers of Wesson oil. “You start identifying foods as toxic so you have to remove more and more from your diet, which gives you limited choice, and diversity in diet is the best thing we can do [to be healthy],” he says.
Crouch is also concerned about the lack of nuance in the anti-seed oil messaging on social media, which she refers to as “fear-mongering.” “The bigger message is being lost in all of that chaos of how it’s being shared, without actionable steps for how you can avoid eating this way,” she says. The overall goal should be to aim for a balanced diet, use a mix of oils when cooking instead of just relying on one, avoid processed foods whenever possible and “be more informed about where their food is coming from,” not necessarily to demonize a specific type of food, she says.