When it comes to choosing a cooking oil, there’s a plethora of considerations – raw ingredients, smoke point, if or how the oil was refined, etc. – but we often overlook wider environmental considerations for something we use pretty much daily. For a longer discussion of how to choose the healthiest cooking oils, check out my earlier post. This time around, I offer an overview of a couple more important considerations and a round-up of the best brands for eco-friendly cooking oils.
First, a quick overview of how your choice of cooking oil can have an environmental impact.
The environmental impact of vegetable and olive oil production
You may have heard that it doesn’t matter much to the make-up of olive oil or vegetable oils to choose an organic product, and to some extent that’s true, for now. However, this is a shortsighted view, given the environmental impact of the dramatic expansion in oil production worldwide.
In Mediterranean countries, for instance, reports suggest that non-organic olive oil production has led to large-scale soil erosion and is threatening local ecology in Italy, Spain, and other countries in the region.
According to one report, “Andalusia is the main olive production area worldwide with a total land of 1.5 million of hectares (30% of the agricultural land of Andalusia, 59% of the total olive grove land in Spain, 30% of the total olive grove land in the EU and 19% worldwide).” Traditionally, olive oil production in these areas encouraged high biodiversity because this was low intensity olive farming using few, if any, agrochemicals, and olive groves comprised old olive trees surrounded by herbaceous plants located in areas with a variety of other land-uses.
This ‘ecological richness’ has been lost in recent years, due to modern, intensive, olive farming practices. Most olive oil now comes from farms that are larger, single-crop, and reliant on machinery and pesticides with uncovered soil. The result is massive soil erosion and, with it, a loss of nutrients, biodiversity, and sustainability.
The same thing is true with other monocultures, such as oilseed rape or canola oil grown in Canada, the UK, and the U.S. Huge expanses of fields with a single crop take a significant toll on biodiversity, with bird and insect populations declining and damage to the wider eco-system. Mono-cropping also tends to require larger inputs of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to overcome issues that simply don’t arise on permaculture farms. What’s more, the majority of canola oil grown in the U.S. and Canada is genetically modified, which itself has a negative effect on biodiversity in addition to taking power away from smaller farmers and putting it in the hands of corporate giants like Monsanto. Not to mention the negative health effects of canola oil and other vegetable oils.
Thankfully, choosing organic olive oil and other organic cooking oils largely helps prevent such problems by helping farmers invest in sustainable practices. And, because the oil is produced in a more sustainable system, it is typically better quality as nutrients stay in the soil and the oil is not contaminated with pesticides.
Major manufacturers of olive oil, such as Unilever and Mitsubishi, have demonstrated little inclination to protect the environment, putting short-term profits over long-term health and sustainability. These companies also have terrible records on animal welfare, Unilever are notorious for complaints regarding workers’ rights, and, in the case of Mitsubishi, appear to be involved in nuclear and armament activities. As such, many of the bottles of olive oil and other cooking oils on supermarket shelves, including Flora and Olivia, cannot be considered eco-friendly as they are owned by these companies.
Eco-friendly, healthy cooking oil packaging
Packaging is another key consideration when buying healthy eco-friendly cooking oil. Higher price oils tend to come in glass bottles and tin containers. While tin and glass seem to be the best ways to store olive oil, glass bottles are arguably more environmentally friendly as the bottles are easy to recycle. Smaller, and darker glass bottles are best as these minimize damage to the oil from light, heat, and exposure to air once opened. They also avoid the potential for chemicals in plastic to leach into the oil.
Tin containers of olive oil are also a good option in some cases, such as if you use a lot of oil regularly. The reality for most of us, though, is that this large tin of oil will sit around for many months and at least some of the oil will end up going rancid before we use it up. Also, buying a tin and decanting the oil into a clear or non-airtight olive oil dispenser that sits on your kitchen counter simply exposes the oil to light, heat, and air in the same way as a clear glass bottle from the store. Tin is better than plastic, however, and is a great option for folks who make olive oil soap or other body care products.
Plastic food packaging can be recycled in many places, but the majority of plastic cooking oil bottles simply end up in landfill. Most community recycling programs enable you to recycle plastic cooking oil bottles and other containers made with PET (#1), but some cooking oil bottles are made with PVC (#3) and are less simple to recycle. These plastics are single-use only; Don’t refill #1 or #3 bottles or reuse other plastic containers.
Why are these plastic bottles single-use only? Well, because PET and PVC bottles degrade faster than some other types of plastic, especially when exposed to light and heat. This is doubly bad for cooking oil, given that plastics leach more into fatty foods. All in all, it’s a terrible idea to store plastic bottles of cooking oil above or to the side of your stovetop which, let’s be honest, is where you’ll find cooking oil in most households.
The types of things that might leach into cooking oil from plastic bottles include bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates, which can disrupt hormones and are associated with higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, liver toxicity, early onset puberty, reproductive disorders, breast cancer, and mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, and hyperactivity.
So, two main rules of thumb when buying cooking oil:
- Go organic wherever possible
- Buy oil in dark glass bottles (or in tins).
There are plenty of other considerations, of course, and you can read more about those here.
For now, though, let’s get to our round-up, where we will look at the best brands for eco-friendly olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil, which are the only oils I feel good about recommending.
Best brands for eco-friendly cooking oils
As mentioned, Unilever and Mitsubishi own most of the olive oil brands you’ll find on supermarket shelves (check the label info for these parent brands). This can make it hard to find good alternatives, but it is possible if you know where to look.
The Good Shopping Guide has ranked certain brands of cooking oil based on a variety of ethical considerations including:
- Whether the company produces an environmental report
- The presence of genetically modified ingredients
- If the product is organic
- Whether the product is made using nuclear power
- Animal welfare and whether the product is vegetarian
- The company’s political donations
- Whether the company has ties to funding armaments
- If the product is Fair Trade certified
- Whether there have been or are boycotts of the company by consumers and advocacy groups
- Public record criticisms of the company
- Ethical accreditations the company possesses.
Based on these considerations, only Suma Wholefoods and their cooking oil achieve an excellent score (92/100) from the Good Shopping Guide. The closest runner-up is Meridian cooking oil from the Greencore Group with a score of 76, followed by Filippo Berio cooking oil with a score of 72. After that, scores plummet to just 44 for Flora and Olivio cooking oils from Unilever.
Sadly, Suma, Zaytoun and Equal Exchange products are only widely available in the UK, although Equal Exchange are available through some online stores that may delivery internationally. Suma is the UK’s leading wholesale provider of organic, ethically sourced products, however, and if you live in the U.S. or Canada, you could form a buying club and stock up on all your favorite eco-friendly products in one fell swoop!
Suma really is the bee’s knees, with commitments to sustainable sourcing of ingredients, environmental stewardship, and scrupulous attention to things so many other companies simply ignore, such as the gender pay gap and the widespread involvement of slavery in food production. Suma Wholefoods offer only 100% GM-free vegetarian products without harmful food additives, cruelty-free products, and all while encouraging suppliers to be organic, fair trade, eco-friendly and co-operatively produced.
All of these brands’ olive oils are highly rated by Ethical Consumer magazine and are worth checking out. You’re unlikely to find them in a regular grocery store, however, so if you don’t have Amazon Prime and need olive oil stat, Filippo Berio may be your best option (although the company appears to have switched to plastic bottles across their product range).
What about other types of cooking oil?
For coconut oil, I like Nutiva Organic Virgin Coconut Oil in a glass jar. This company is committed to sourcing ingredients sustainably and ethically to support local economies and the environment. Their products are non-GMO, use certified organic ingredients wherever possible, and are involved in a variety of planet-friendly and people-friendly initiatives.
For example, in 2015, Nutiva sponsored the planting of 100,000 coconut seedlings for small organic farmers in the Philippines. By 2020, these seedlings will have grown into coconut trees that bear fruit and can provide farmers with additional income.
As the world’s leading organic brand of hemp, coconut, chia, and red palm superfoods, Nutiva take their social impact seriously. They publish environmental and social reports and are transparent about their processes. They even have a zero-waste program at their headquarters and warehouse, with 95% of waste materials diverted from landfill in 2015 and either reused (33%) or recycled (62%). Nutiva have also been offsetting some of their carbon emissions since 2015, including offsetting 2015 emissions from chia farming and production (473 MT CO2e). The company also donates 1% of sales revenue to regenerative agriculture programs and has done so since the company was formed in 1999.
Nutiva Organic Virgin Coconut Oil is Fair Trade certified and made from fresh, USDA certified organic coconuts. The oil is cold-pressed and never refined deodorized or bleached. Coconut oil has a naturally high smoke point of around 350°F (177°C), and you can use this oil for cooking and for body and hair care.
As a runner-up, I like Spectrum Organics Virgin Coconut Oil in a glass jar. Spectrum Organics was founded in 1986 and was acquired in 2005 by Hain Celestial (who also own Avalon Organics, Celestial Tea, and many similar brands). Hain Celestial have a generally good reputation for ethics and Spectrum Organics themselves are committed to using organic, non-GMO ingredients and chemical-free extraction methods for their oils.
In fact, Spectrum Organics have helped push the culinary oil industry as a whole to adopt better extraction processes and organic certification, as well as third-party testing and verification of the absence of GM organisms. The company now offers more than thirty varieties of culinary oils, many of which are organic. This includes organic coconut oil, olive oil, and canola oil, as well as avocado, sesame, grapeseed, and walnut oils (although many of these are not organic, so check before buying).
Avocado oil has a naturally high smoke point and is packed full of antioxidants and other beneficial polyphenols. This makes it a great cooking oil, but only if the brand you choose uses hexane-free extraction and organic avocados. Ideally, the oil is also unrefined and unbleached, so as to minimize the risk of chemical contaminants while maximizing the goodness of the natural oil.
My top pick for cold-pressed, certified organic avocado oil is:
- Naissance Certified Organic Virgin Avocado Oil – certified organic by the UK Soil Association (who arguably have higher standards than the USDA Organic program), this cold-pressed, unrefined oil is available in a 250 mL/8 oz bottle. It is hexane-free, non-GMO, and certified Vegan and cruelty-free. The company also has a pretty robust ethical sourcing policy, which is a bonus in the wild west of culinary oils.
The runners up are:
- Bella Vado Premium Avocado Oil from California – This organic, cold-pressed, non-GMO avocado oil is derived from California avocados grown on the Bella Vado family farm, a 40-acre, chemical-free grove and processing facility. The oil was a finalist in the Good Food Awards of 2014, jostling for position among the olive oil manufacturers. Bella Vado’s Organic Avocado Oil has a bright emerald green color, offering reassurance that it is, as claimed, unrefined, unbleached, and unfiltered. Each glass bottle is 8.5 oz and everyone seems to love this stuff!
- US Organic Avocado Oil – USDA Certified Organic, cold pressed, and unrefined, this avocado oil has a strong taste and smell and a dark green color, in contrast to pale yellow refined avocado oil. Available in a 4 oz and 2 oz glass bottle with dropper. US Organic make all their products using organic ingredients at their USDA-certified manufacturing facility using Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP-certified). They are also members of the Cruelty-Free Leaping Bunny Program and never test their products on animals or use animal-derived ingredients.
Pacifica Culinaria is another good option for certified organic avocado oil. I spoke with a company representative (April, 2019) who told me that their organic certification is through Organic Certifiers for both the oil itself and for their processing facility. This isn’t made especially clear on their packaging or their website, but the site is in the process of being updated, hopefully to make things a bit clearer.
As with other cooking oils, it’s best to purchase avocado oil in dark glass bottles and in small quantities that you can reasonably use before the oil goes rancid. Most of the options above are sold in glass bottles, but there are many other organic avocado oils out there in plastic bottles and this may be the way to go if you’re buying in bulk and buying fresh.
Organic Infusions is a good option if you’re looking to buy a lot of organic avocado oil. They offer the oil a la carte in sizes from 4 oz up to 5 gallons and if you want even more, you can always contact them for wholesale pricing.
My recommendation is to have a bottle or jar of these three types of oil in your kitchen cupboard or refrigerator. Use olive oil for low-heat cooking and salad dressings and drizzles. Use coconut oil when you’re cooking at a slightly higher heat (but not too hot!), especially if you’re making something where coconut would be a good complementary flavor (such as a Thai green curry or dhal). And, use organic avocado oil for higher heat cooking and for salad dressings and drizzles where the avocado flavor will work well with your dish overall.