As a student of economics, I love to study the price patterns of commodities and try to pick up reasons for the price movement. I recently studied the price of chicken and why it has stayed at the same level for almost a decade. I noticed a similar pattern in the price of oils which has remained at the same level and in fact has come down due to the growing popularity of sunflower oil. Let us discover why the prices of the oils have come down over the years. The first trigger is that in India we have moved to oils from cheaper seeds like sunflower, earlier most Indians (30-40 years) used groundnut oil or mustard oil (North India). But these have since been replaced by cheaper seeds like sunflower. But there is more to the reduction in prices of all oils and it is to do with the extraction process.
Sunflower Oil Extraction Process
To study how the oil is extracted I have considered the most popular oil in India a.k.a Sun Flower oil. The process is quite similar for all oils. The first process is to clean the seeds and crush to make a coarse mixture. This coarse mixture is then heated and then fed into a screw press which progressively increases pressure on the mixture to extract the oil. Now comes the interesting part, since the coarse mixture still retains oil after being fed into a high-pressure screw press this oil will be extracted by adding a chemical solvent like hexane which dissolves all the remaining oil. The solvent hexane is then distilled by heating the oil so that the hexane evaporates and can be collected separately after condensation and is later reused. The solvent is harmful to the human body so the oil is again passed through steam so that the remaining solvent evaporates away. As you can see the oil extraction process involves the use of chemicals, high pressure and heat. All these kill the essential nutrients of the oil. But the process does not stop here. The oil after extraction gives us crude oil which still will have odour, wax and some bitterness (due to natural ingredients). This oil is then refined to remove these by first heating the oil and then mixed with an alkaline substance like sodium carbonate or sodium hydroxide. The refining process ends by treating this mixture by heated water and then filtering the oil through active carbon. As you can see that every step of oil production involves usage of chemicals and processing which kill the natural ingredients of the oil as it gets heated and cooled many times. One of the main reasons for this elaborate process is that we need to maximize the extraction of oils from the seeds. This process has ensured that we get maximum yield of oils from the seeds used and also gives us a processed odourless oil which can be stored for long. To ensure the longevity of the oils the companies do add preservatives too. In addition, they do mix cheaper oils to increase the volume of oils. This happens for the more expensive variety e.g GroundNut oil may be mixed with cheaper oil.
During my research for looking at the process of oil extraction, I came across a new product launch campaign by Sunpure oil which is marketed as the first chemical-free and physically refined Sunflower oil in India. The new product launch shows the extent to which the problem of usage of harmful chemicals persists in the extraction of oil in the whole industry. Even in the case of Sunpure, they do use an organic medium for dissolving of oils and their only claim is that they don’t use chemicals in the last stage of removing and refining of oils. Basically we are getting processed oils which have been refined to remove odour and ensure a consistent product.This is not a natural oil which we were used to eating in the past. Remember as a kid we would use less fried items because oil was relatively expensive but now due to falling costs we are consuming more of these chemical laced oils!
Cold Pressed is the only alternative
Given all this, it means that we need to revert back to our age-old practice of using cold-pressed oils. The cold pressing means that we are extracting oils without heating the seeds and only using the crushing of seeds to extract oil. This was the process which was followed for 100s of years before the advent of chemical-based extraction. As the oils are not heated during the cold process and also they are not refined (they may be filtered) the oils retain their natural flavour and ingredients. This makes them a very healthy alternative to the chemical laced oils. As no preservatives are used they have a shorter shelf life. As the chemicals are not used in the dissolving of the oils from the crushed seeds we get less amount of oil for the same amount of seeds. This is the reason why cold pressed oils are expensive. As an example cold-pressed groundnut oil costs 300-380 Rs while a refined groundnut oil costs Ra 155. The extra cost is due to the amount of oil which can be extracted is lower and also because cold pressed is considered as premium. But if demand increases the cost should come down to much lower levels.
I have switched to cold pressed oils and you should too.