Grape seed oil makes frequent appearances in many of the recently printed cookbooks on my shelf as the oil of choice, mostly because it is a neutral oil that lends little if any additional flavor to a recipe, particularly when used in baking.
I’ve always personally avoided it due to a combination of factors: my family never used it in cooking when I was growing up, it’s often more expensive than other oils, and grape seeds and skins give me this weird allergic reaction that makes my tongue feel all cottony.
Reading about it again and again, and the pang of guilt that I felt when the healthy food experts told me over and over that the grape seed oil benefits were vast and that it was what I should be using in my cooking, led me to dig deeper.
The nutritional and culinary rundown
Grape seed oil has a pretty high smoke point (around 425°F), which leads many people to choose it for frying and other types of cooking. It’s also valued for its light, slightly nutty flavor. Unfortunately, it also lacks omega-3s, those healthy fatty acids that most of us need more of in our diets.
It does contain plenty of omega-6s, but most of us are already getting too much of those, and your omega-3 and omega-6 intake need to be in balance for optimal health. There are about 3.9 milligrams of vitamin E per your standard tablespoon of grape seed oil, but this amount can vary, and it by no means counts as a sufficient source of this vitamin, as is the case for so many other foods like nuts, seeds, and leafy greens.
Grape seed oil is great for use in salad dressings because it emulsifies well, and it will make those fat-soluble vitamins in the veggies that you’re about to eat more bioavailable. But that’s true of any fat. And keep an eye on what you’re buying—you may think you found an amazing bargain on grape seed oil online, but that oil needs to be labeled “food grade” if you’re planning to eat it.
Cosmetic-grade grape seed oil is also available, and it often contains chemical stabilizers that aren’t safe for human consumption.
Already bought the wrong kind of grape seed oil, meaning one that isn’t food safe? Just rub it into your skin instead. Grape seed oil makes a fantastic moisturizer that just might help to take away the pain associated with all that money you lost on a 5-gallon jug of the non-edible stuff. You have a dry, itchy scalp or brittle hair? It helps with those, too.
The opposite of good nutrition
Most surprisingly, some of what you’ll find in grape seed oil may actually be dangerous. Studies have shown this type of oil to contain harmful levels of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, or PAHs, a known carcinogen.
A study published in the Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society in 2000 sheds some light on this, hypothesizing that the presence of dangerous levels of PAHs in grape seed oil are a result of the drying process, which involves direct contact with combustion gases.
As if that doesn’t sound bad enough, the scientists who conducted the study actually found that this high level of contamination was “probably due to the practice of compacting pomace (the pulp that remains after crushing fruit to extract its juice) with bulldozers to reduce its volume before storage.” To me, that just doesn’t sound food safe.
And that high smoke point that we were talking about before? It’s mostly irrelevant, due to the fact that polyunsaturated fats like those found in grape seed oil react with oxygen when they’re heated, sometimes forming harmful compounds and free radicals that cause inflammation in the body.
What’s really going on here? History may tell us!
According to a report written by Frank Rabak of the Bureau of Plant Industry for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and published in The Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry in October, 1921, approximately 1100 tons of grape seeds were produced annually at that point in time as a byproduct of juice making.
Rabak said, “These seeds are at the present time entirely wasted, probably because of lack of knowledge regarding the proper methods of converting them into products of value.” This was, in fact, the major driving force behind the production and sale of grape seed oil as we know it today.
No wine here
Rabak noted, “The utilization of these seeds, largely for the oil they contain, has long been under consideration in foreign countries where the seeds result as by-products of the wine industry.” Rabak was able to locate reports stating grape seed oil had been successfully extracted from California grapes in 1913, suggesting that this industry existed for over a century in the most notable wine-producing region in the United States.
However, he goes on to expound the many virtues of the Concord grape, grown widely at the time and still today in America for processing into juice.
Winemaking was mostly done at home for private use among immigrant families back in the early 1900s, and there was basically no US wine industry to speak of, at least not according to modern parameters concerning the definition of an “industry.” The period of prohibition that was to follow in the years after Rabak penned his piece didn’t help any, banning the production and consumption of alcohol across the land.
Invention: the product of necessity
Grape seed oil production was also noted by Rabak in the early 1900s throughout Europe and South America. In fact, Germany was referenced as a special case. Rabak stated, “Uflerbaumer also mentioned grape seeds as a valuable source for oil to alleviate war conditions in Germany, Austria and Hungary…”
This, of course, refers to the difficult years of World War I, when so many foods and other home goods were in short supply, and being carefully rationed. The creation of grape seed oil as we know it today was both driven by capitalism and produced out of necessity. Apparently, no one at the time was paying particular attention to the supposed health benefits of this particular variety of oil, either.
Rabak explains that the first mention that he could locate regarding the potential for a grape seed oil industry was printed in 1780, when “… M. Claude Lorrain called attention to the erection at Albi of a factory for the exclusive extraction of the oil.” Considering the great history of winemaking in France, it is not surprising that clever French winemakers and others would be eager to find a way to utilize (and make a profit from) this wasted resource.
Rabak made the claim that in the 1910s in France, grape seed oil “was said to compare favorably with second-class olive oil for food purposes.” At least to me, this suggests that grape seed oil may have been used for other non-culinary purposes initially, and that consumers needed to be convinced of its merits if they were going to buy and eat it.
A little crudely produced oil massaged into the scalp or rubbed on the skin is one thing, and grape seed oil is still often used for these purposes today, but choosing to consume the oil and putting it into heavy rotation in one’s kitchen is an entirely different animal. The French report makes it pretty clear that this wasn’t the best stuff, but that it would do.
How much oil’s in a grape, anyway?
A newspaper article printed in Spain in 1913, also cited by Rabak, claimed 2.2 pounds of oil could be obtained alongside the production of every 26.42 gallons of wine. Just do the math. This sounds incredibly promising and potentially profitable, especially for something that most juice and wine producers had been throwing away, perhaps for all of time.
Through the lens of modern healthism
This brings us to today, a time when “grape seed oil” has become a buzzword among many, thought to belong alongside various items considered “super foods” and touted for its many health benefits. Though articles describing the myriad uses for and healthy aspects of grape seed oil abound, there’s little to back them up.
Published studies documenting the effects of grape seed oil on human health are impossible to find. Though many nutritionists and others promote the health benefits of grape seed oil based on its vitamin E content or the presence of other nutrients and “healthy” fats, as I said before, others claim the numbers just don’t add up.
Getting the oil out of the grape
Much of today’s success in terms of grape seed oil sales is due to overinflated marketing, but it is also related to the processes by which grape seed oil is actually created.
Rabak, the author of that article written way back in 1921, devoted many precious words to describing the abundance of grape seed oil that could be created, based on the availability of waste from juice and winemaking, while being careful to describe the teeny tiny bit of oil that could potentially be extracted from each grape seed.
He also briefly mentions the possibility of extraction using hot or cold pressure, as well as solvent extraction. So, what are those, you might ask?
Anyone familiar with cold-pressed olive oil may know what this means, but the average consumer probably does not. Basically, hot pressing and chemical extraction using harsh solvents do exactly what you might expect—though the oil is separated out successfully from the rest of the grape seed, chemicals and heat are not known for playing nice with plant-derived nutrients. Rather, they destroy them.
Cold pressing is what it sounds like, for the most part. Pressure creates heat, but in order for any type of oil to be labeled “cold pressed” it must never exceed 120°F. So, it’s more of a tolerable temperature than anything we would normally consider cold.
To accomplish the most efficient oil extraction, the husk of the grape seeds must first be removed (or “decorticated,” as Rabak liked to say). Rabak actually believed pressure extraction was the better method, since the remaining “pressed cake” or byproduct of the oil extraction process could be used for feeding livestock, whereas the byproduct of chemically extracted grape seed oil cannot.
Chemically removing the hulls and extracting the oil is easier and cheaper to achieve though. It’s also less healthy, and destroys most if not all of the potential nutritional benefits of the grape seed oil.
Like liquid gold
Even after utilizing pressure extraction, the less-harsh option, grape seed oil still needs to be further refined. Though the chemicals used may have changed over the years, consumer demand and the marketing forces that drive it uphold the same ideals. Why would anyone want darkly pigmented, cloudy oil with an odor when they can have golden, odor-free oil that’s clear and seemingly pure instead?
After extraction, Rabak said the grape seed oil would be “treated with about 8 per cent of fuller’s earth (a type of clay used for decolorizing oil), filtered, and subjected to steam distillation for several hours. The resulting bleached and deodorized oil… possessed a pale straw color and a bland, sweetish, nutlike taste, and was practically odorless.” Nothing better than a plain, inoffensive product to please the eager masses, right?
Anything good, i.e. nutritionally beneficial, that was once part of that grape seed, (like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants) is more than likely destroyed in processing. For cold-pressed oils this is less likely to be the case, but some experts argue that so little vitamin E and other healthy elements are left even in cold-pressed grape seed oil that it basically can’t be considered a “good source” of anything.
Add to this the fact that we have finally come to realize, based on knowledge passed down from nutritional researchers and others, that many of the “bad fats” like butter, coconut oil and lard that were once blamed for obesity and the onset of heart disease may actually be good for us after all.
Is a tiny bit of added vitamin E in your salad dressing or embedded in the crispy surface of your French fries really going to dictate your cooking oil purchasing decisions? You might want to think about that one.
Following the trends
In the wide world of popular food and nutrition, things come and go. These are often called fads, but sometimes referred to as selling points. What we were told yesterday to avoid is popping up on a news feed near you and touted as “healthy” today.
Whether it’s a particular food or dish, a style of cooking, a diet plan, or a vitamin regimen, it really seems as if most of us are just filtering through the same information year after year, brightly repackaged in a slightly new way every time.
This resurgence of the same old (often inaccurate) information sometimes happens over a period of decades, as nutritional trends occasionally bob to the surface before succumbing once more to the undertow. Because of these constant fluctuations in our interests, interests that are more often than not dictated to us by expert marketers and the mainstream media, information may get lost.
When we find ourselves swimming in a vast sea of recycled information, history is often forgotten as well. It’s hard to know which health tips or diet plans to grab on to, amidst so much flotsam and jetsam. But, we’re fighting for our lives in the middle of the ocean, here! Can’t somebody please throw out a useful life raft, one that we can hold on to with certainty? A life preserver that will assuredly get us back to the warm, sun-dappled shores known as a healthy lifestyle?
Well, grape seed oil certainly ain’t gonna cut it, but the thirst for knowledge might. Don’t start drinking seawater, though. This is just a metaphor.
Knowledge is power
In the quest for a healthy lifestyle led by a well-informed consumer, there are a few things that you can do. Knowing your sources is certainly a start, and aiming to be a well-informed, active reader couldn’t hurt either.
So many of the little tidbits of nutritional information that we tend to rely on (and remember) as everyday consumers are gleaned from snippets of an overheard talk show, or a brief glimpse at a popular magazine in the grocery checkout line. I’m here to tell you that that’s just not going to cut it.
Knowing your sources means thinking about where a given piece of information came from. Just as you may not be inclined to consume that grape seed oil that was contaminated by a bulldozer, you don’t want to fill your brain up with contaminated knowledge either. Keep an eye on whether sources are cited, whether scientific studies have been conducted, and whether the information seems solid.
This can be tricky, because misinformation is being recirculated with abandon around the internet these days. Being well-informed means gaining information from a variety of sources, some of them scholarly. Being an active reader means thinking about what you’re reading, and asking lots of questions.
My nutrition professor in grad school was great at drilling these concepts into students’ brains. I’m here to say it worked, and I’m happy to pass this information along to you. When a certain study promotes a particular type of food, ask yourself who funded that study. When you see a doctor promoting a certain weight loss tool on TV, ask yourself who might be paying for that.
And remember what your mom always told you—just because something’s published doesn’t mean it’s the truth, and don’t believe everything you see on TV. Cultivating a critical mind leads to wisdom, and can even save lives. (So can going to the doctor once in a while. Do that, too.)
History tells us…
Being a well-informed, well-rounded reader and consumer of media of all types often means remembering to look to the past as well. Though nutritional science is constantly growing and changing, a firm foundation was laid down by the forefathers of this field of research and study. Though they sometimes got it wrong, they documented their work.
Rather than relying on your favorite blogger for dining advice as you tend to do, (ahem, well-informed and research-driven though they may be…) broaden your horizons a little bit, and maybe even attempt to do that dreaded thing that your ninth grade English teacher was always bugging you about—dig deeper.
I’m going to make this really easy for you, and lead by example. The research is already done, people, and this one is a doozy. Grape seed oil, despite all the articles, doesn't really seem to be all that good for us. And the historic record suggests that all the hype is based on the drive to sell, sell, sell.
Grape seed oil is a product made from garbage, but don’t be alarmed—that’s really nothing new. Any good capitalist worth his salt, whether car salesman, real estate agent, restaurateur, or anything in between, will tell you all about his favorite example of turning lemons into lemonade. What’s one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, am I right?
To these guys, and maybe even to you at times, there’s nothing more beautiful than taking somebody’s unwanted scrap or hand-me-downs and turning it into pure, hard cash. This is the story of grape seed oil.
In closing, I’m glad I dove headfirst into the historic and scientific literature dealing with the production of grape seed oil. Are you? Tell me all about your adventures in grape seed oil cooking, your attempts at being a well-informed media enthusiast, and your views on the supposed health benefits of grape seed oil in the comments. And don’t forget to like and share!