Why does every fitness influencer suddenly hate seed oils?

Holding up the remains of a bullet-riddled plastic bottle of LouAna peanut oil, the shirtless, jacked influencer Brian “Liver King” Johnson makes a declaration. “We just saved lives,” he says. Moments before, he emptied two machine guns into various cooking oils: corn, peanut, canola, and more, which are all “dangerous” and “destructive” for human health, he claims. It’s a perfect distillation of the latest diet trend: avoiding seed oils.

“Seed oils” refers to a variety of popular cooking oils, including canola, soybean, sunflower, and corn oils. The public decrying of seed oils began as a fringe fitness forum quibble, dating to the paleo diet craze of the early 2000s. But it’s slowly leaked into mainstream conversations on TikTok and even Joe Rogan’s podcast, where the host recently called cooking with grapeseed oil a “crime against nature.” The common kitchen ingredient is now vilified as “industrial,” and its detractors have linked it to everything from inflammation to sunburns and Alzheimer’s disease, to the frustration of some health and nutrition experts.

Some experts believe the anti-seed oil trend is sticking because it often feeds into larger conspiracy theories, in which powerful corporate interests have pushed a poison that is contributing to a host of physical ailments. Most medical organizations actually recommend replacing foods with high saturated contents, like butter and ghee, with polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), which include seed oils. But for the conspiratorially minded, skeptical of any large institution, medical consensus can also be proof that seed oils should be avoided at all costs. Or maybe even shot with a gun. (Liver King isn’t alone in this endeavor: Tucker Carlson’s The End of Men documentary also features a shirtless man firing rounds into a lineup of canola oil.)

That’s how “you get these very strange bedfellows,” Tim Caulfield, health law professor at the University of Alberta, said. Contrarians of various stripes, from anti-vaxxers to bitcoin enthusiasts, share a suspicion of industrial seed oils, as they are often referred to, with a derogatory emphasis on industrial. And an industry is growing to meet the rising demand for seed-oil-free products: Businesses are capitalizing on this new trend, addressing a market that contains both off-the-grid influencers and HODLers who yearn for a lifestyle untouched by corporate interests. It’s a trend that’s been bubbling in the background for decades, and seed oils are just the latest enemy.

The origin of the disdain for seed oil (also known under the broad moniker of “vegetable oil”) dates to the paleo diet of the early 2000s. The lifestyle was pioneered by athlete and best-selling author, Mark Sisson. In his 2009 book The Primal Blueprint, Sisson championed a “back to the beginning” approach to eating, focused on foods that would’ve been available to cavemen from the Stone Age, aka the Paleolithic “paleo” diet. A component of this “primal” way of living, according to Sisson, is to “avoid poisonous things,” including vegetable or seed oils. The most insidious part of the standard American diet, he said, is “industrial seed oils.” Sission’s diet advice became wildly popular in the early 2010s, when it seemed like every fitness-minded celeb jumped aboard the paleo train, including Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, actor and podcaster Matthew McConaughey, and (perhaps less obviously) former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

In 2015, Sisson co-founded Primal Nutrition, a paleo-friendly food company that offered seed-oil-free products, including mayonnaise, buffalo sauce, and ranch dressing all made with avocado oil. Just a few years later, Kraft Heinz bought the company for $200 million dollars. Sission planted the seed (sorry) for a changing food market, one that catered to niche diets, where fresh food rules and processed foods—including seed oils—were deemed unhealthy.

The market for a primal lifestyle is growing and easy to identify: Just look for names that conjure up prehistoric visions. Amy Moring is the co-founder of Hunter & Gather, a UK-based wellness company that she started with her partner, Jeff Webster. The company’s most popular product is an avocado oil-based mayonnaise, which they launched in 2017. They’ve since expanded their offerings to over 30 different products—without seed or vegetable oils, refined sugar, or grains—and they sell their product on Amazon both in the UK and abroad.

Like many who reject seed oils and other processed foods, both Moring and Webster claim that eliminating seed oils, along with grains and processed foods, have eased health problems. It’s a common refrain among those who have eliminated seed oils from their diet, including the colorful Liver King. The global market for paleo foods is expected to exceed $12 billion in five years.

On this side of the pond, there’s Ancient Crunch, the company started by entrepreneur and health influencer Steven Arena. The glamorous Instagram feed for MASA, a brand under Ancient Crunch, looks more like a spread of vintage Vogue covers than advertisements for the product: tortilla chips fried in rendered beef fat.

Arena’s startup story sounds a lot like Moring and Webster’s. He launched his company after he stopped eating tortilla chips because of the “cheap processed oils,” which he said always made him sick. He wanted an option that used beef tallow as the fat to fry the chips (tallow has become an increasingly popular alternative to seed oil, with some companies offering tallow-based sunscreens and lip balms), with nixtamalized corn—a generations-old process used to make corn digestible—and his friends asked why he just didn’t make it himself. Thus, MASA was born, Arena said.

Arena’s customers are an amalgamation of several different groups, he said. There are macro-counting CrossFitters, moms looking for snack options for kids, and biohackers who use devices like Oura rings, Fitbits, and Whoop bands to keep constant tabs on their health. These customers tend to be people “who make decisions for health over enjoyment,” he said. Many of the ancestral-style diets are inconvenient, Arena noted, as they omit ubiquitous ingredients, such as seed oils, or in the case of keto, most carbohydrates. But his product is meant for people who want to make convenient but healthy choices.

“It’s gonna be harder for you to accept that a problem exists if there’s no easy solution to that problem,” Arena said. For those who’ve sworn off both seed oils and fiat currency, MASA also accepts bitcoin.

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As recently as three years ago, Arena said he couldn’t remember hearing the term “seed oils.” Now, a “whole host of influencers,” including Arena, focus on them almost exclusively. Their efforts seem to be working, with “seed oil” making its way to headlines in publications ranging from The American Conservative to Goop to VICE.

Nutrition experts understand why the anti-seed oil movement has taken off, even if they don’t necessarily agree with it. A shiny TikTok-friendly anecdote, complete with before and after photos, is much sexier than evidence-based medicine.

“Anecdotes are personalized and trigger emotional reaction,” Dr. Danielle Belardo, preventative cardiologist and host of Wellness: Fact vs. Fictionsaid.

As a millennial in the healthcare space, Belardo is trying her hardest to make rigorous scientific evidence cool, she told Morning Brew. But it’s not easy, especially in a social media landscape where contrarian claims about diets and their effectiveness are easy to access and engineered to spread. It’s much harder to make evidence-based medicine go viral.

The claims made by anti-seed oil advocates, Belardo said, which often include links to inflammation, are “just not based on any scientific evidence whatsoever.” In fact, she said, the recommendation to replace seed oils with high-saturated fat products like butter and ghee is the exact opposite of what organizations like the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology recommend.

“If someone’s making recommendations that go against expert scientific consensus, there’s usually an ulterior motivation there,” Belardo said.

Seed oils are a charged topic, and not just for normies on Fitness TikTok, but for academics, too. Kevin Klatt, a registered dietician and researcher at UC Berkeley, takes the side that seed oils are “probably not a problem,” and “might even have health benefits.” But he also offered a caveat: “But you have to give a little bit of credit to the residual doubt and reason that some people have different opinions to not burn bridges in the field.”

Though Klatt does not seem particularly worried about seed oils, he stresses that some of the claims made by anti-seed oil warriors go all the way back to academic concerns from the 1970s. But the “scam of it all,” Klatt said, is that “nobody fucking eats seed oil” by the spoonful. Instead, when people cut out seed oils, they’re often cutting out fried foods and commercially baked goods, which have their own impacts on health.

Klatt noted that the rejection of seed oils cuts across demographics, including gender. Nutrition trends are typically very gendered, he said, but seed oil discourse is “crosscutting,” because it’s been attached to issues ranging from “obesity to autoimmune diseases to neurodegenerative diseases,” and has found proponents in both strictly carnivorous and plant-based communities .

Like a lot of popular diets, the rejection of seed oils is built on a kernel of truth. Take, for example, “gut health,” a phrase that only recently entered the lexicon. While there is critical work occurring in this field, from the “brain–gut connection” to infections cured with fecal transplants, the media coverage isn’t exactly an accurate representation of the microbiome.

“Almost everything you see in popular culture about the microbiome is hype,” Caulfield said. He coauthored an analysis in the medical journal BMJ Open saying as much. He sees a similar “science-ploitation” at play in the seed oil world.

That’s not particularly unusual in the diet industry, which values ​​extremes. Science is often invoked in an attempt to explain otherwise unexplainable phenomena, even if the link is tenuous.

Seed-oil-free may become the new “gluten-free,” Caulfield said, where it’s taken as a known fact that it’s bad for you, even if that is not the case. He draws a parallel to the GMO-free trend, which was adopted by brands like Triscuit to meet the demand for such products. Regardless of the science, the GMO-free or gluten-free labels are perceived as healthier by consumers, Caulfield explained.

“The problem is when that happens, the market follows,” he said.

The ketogenic diet has also benefited from a similar “health halo,” as Caulfield calls it. Originating from doctors who used the low-carb, high-fat diet to treat epilepsy, keto has expanded beyond a last-ditch medical intervention to a category of foods now available at Costco.

Overall, Caulfield sees the vilification of one ingredient as misguided. “I do find it funny when you hear about people talking about seed oil, and the vast majority of Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables,” he said.

Diet trends, Klatt said, are often treated as “true until proven false,” which enables them to spread. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to get answers to the questions around various cooking oils, Klatt said, though he’s not sure that people want the answers.

“If you took 2% of the money spent on diet products and put it towards nutrition research, we might be able to actually get an answer to some of this stuff,” he said. “But people actually don’t want to know the answer to it. I’m very convinced of that. Studying it might actually make it not profitable. And so your entire brand could come crumbling down around you.”

For those overwhelmed while standing in the oil aisle, Caulfield has simple advice. “There’s never any magical way towards a healthy lifestyle. Think big picture. And so whenever you see a headline that promises some magical benefit, be skeptical.”

While doctors and scientists peruse PubMed for evidence, lay people resort to places like TikTok, where the war against seed oils rages on. Videos tagged with #seedoils have been viewed over 31 million times on the platform. Liver King is n’t citing any peer-reviewed evidence, but he is lighting up seed oils with a machine gun while showing off his shredded abs. His spectacle is more entertaining, and more appealing, than a doctor’s orders. After all, Klatt said, someone will never have a “sexed-up Instagram…if what they’re saying is dietary guidelines.”