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Fried And Drizzled: Soaring Cooking Oil Prices Spark New Ethical Questions

The price of cooking oils and fats has gone up dramatically. Indonesia has even banned exports of palm oil. Suddenly, what type of oil and how we use it to fry foods, dress salads and process products has become an ever more important question.

Photo of a a person unloading packs of cooking oil, to be sold as as part of basic food packages at affordable prices in Indonesia

Emergency cooking oil packs in Kendari, Indonesia, on April 14

Cosima Lutz


BERLIN — In July 1940, 74 Swiss soldiers sat down to a meal of fried bread and cheese. Afterwards, they suffered severe – in some cases, irreversible – paralysis. The men, who became known as the “oil soldiers,” suffered from the after-effects their entire lives. They could not have known that the cooks had inadvertently added a poisonous machine gun coolant to the frying pans. The mineral oil mixed with tricresyl phosphate looked and tasted no different from standard cooking oil.

Humans and machines both need oil, but it’s not always clear from the look or taste which kind of oil should be used for which purpose. As long as there is enough cooking oil on supermarket shelves, discerning chefs make their choice based on taste, healthiness and environmental impact. Now, concerns around production, prices and health implications mean that, more than ever before, the choice of cooking oil is taking on a moral dimension.

Certain oils are praised one moment and demonized the next. Many people are losing track and are simply happy if they know which oil to use for frying and which to drizzle over a salad. Perhaps that is why recipes often have such vague instructions, telling readers to cook the fish or vegetables “in a little oil,” without specifying what kind of oil to use or how much. Could this lack of specificity be an attempt to stay ahead of the trends?

Fries at a premium price

In the 1980s, the greatest enemy – aside from radioactive caesium – was cholesterol. Butter was taboo, while vegetable fats and oils were in. But this sweeping generalization was misguided. Coconut oil contains high quantities of saturated fat, which is very bad for you.

Watching Werner Boote’s 2018 documentary The Green Lie is enough to turn many people off their favorite chocolate because palm oil is very, very bad. Far better alternatives would be organic grapeseed oil, native olive oil, thistle oil — which can be heated to high temperatures — sunflower oil or locally produced rapeseed oil.

Empty supermarket shelves raise the question of how people can cook and eat without oil.

But empty supermarket shelves raise the question of how people can cook and eat without oil. According to the German Federal Statistical Office, the price of cooking fats and oils has gone up by 27.3% since last year. There are many reasons for this: supply problems caused by the pandemic, bad harvests, and Russia’s war on Ukraine, which has affected shipping routes and stockpiling.

Supermarket shelves used to be packed with bottles of sunflower oil costing less than two euros per liter, but now, at 6 euros, it is a rare delicacy. Snack bar and kebab stall owners are already charging 50 cents more for a portion of fries. The Tagesspiegel is warning of a “French fry disaster,” while the Saarbrücker Zeitung is predicting an “oil crisis at the hot-dog stands.” As if that isn’t enough, Indonesia recently announced a ban on exporting palm oil. Bad news for Nutella lovers!

Nutella and French fries – the foods of childhood. Hearing that they might be in short supply prompts childish fears of going to bed hungry. No one wants that. So should we return to locally produced clarified butter and lard? To boiled potatoes in linseed oil? That would be a culture shock for many people.

Photo of empty shelves in Germany

Empty shelves pose big cooking questions

Frank Hoermann / Sven Simon/dpa/ZUMA

The problem with olive oil

The symbolic value of oil goes far beyond a simple culinary choice. Since ancient times, olive oil – one of the oldest vegetable oils known to man – has been a symbol of peace, life and innocence. In the Bible, the olive branch brought to Noah by the dove symbolized the end of God’s wrath. In the garden of Athena’s temple in Athens, only innocent children were allowed to pick olives from the holy trees, a far cry from the heavy machinery used in the harvest today, which slaughters songbirds as it shakes olives from the branches.

Olive oil is described as “extra virgin,” with all the connotations of innocence.

In ancient Near Eastern civilizations, secular and spiritual leaders were anointed with perfumed olive oil in consecration ceremonies. In Exodus, it says, “Whoever makes perfume like it and puts it on anyone other than a priest must be cut off from their people.” Olive oil is described as “extra virgin,” with all the connotations of innocence. You could say it is the culinary opposite of wine, which gets better with age.

But even using only the purest olive oil to cook dinner does not prevent you from unknowingly consuming something unhealthy, just like the oil soldiers: in a recent study, the magazine Öko-Test tested 19 olive oils and judged 16 of them – including organic options – as “unsatisfactory”. All but one contained traces of carcinogenic mineral oils from harvesting machines. One should not even have been allowed to be sold as a cooking oil.

Preparing for the worst

Fields of yellow rapeseed are everywhere on social media, but until the 1970s, only the poorest used this oil for cooking, due to its high erucic acid content. It was mainly used for lamps, as a lubricant, or in soap production. The plants blossoming in fields across Germany today will be harvested, their oil bottled and stacked on supermarket shelves by August.

Although it is unlikely that much will change for consumers in the long term, plenty of people are preparing for the worst. Recipes and lifestyle blogs are full of tips on how to produce your own oil at home (financially it’s not worth it, but you do learn a lot about oil!), how you can fry food in mineral water instead of oil, and how to dispose of your hoard of stockpiled sunflower oil if you don’t finish it by the use-by date.

New moral lines in the sand are being drawn, including the question of what we should be pumping into our cars’ tanks. A significant proportion of the harvest of plants such as rapeseed, soya, maize and wheat ends up as biodiesel. In the context of worsening food shortages, Germany’s Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development Svenja Schulze wants to put a stop to this.

Fuel for both killing and life

The German Sunday paper Bild am Sonntag appealed to drivers’ consciences: “No one filling up their car wants to be responsible for making world hunger worse. We must stop putting food into our petrol tanks.” E10 petrol was once considered to be eco-friendly, but now its green credentials have been called into question because of competition for land between food and energy crops.

Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.

Oil flows around these ambiguities, taking on surprising new shapes. Pop culture is full of images exploring the interaction between living beings and machines. In Julia Ducournau’s 2021 film Titane, which won the Palme d’Or, a woman becomes pregnant after having bondage-style sex with a car, and her breasts start leaking oil. At the more light-hearted end of the scale is the flood of stock photos showing bottles of vegetable oil being emptied into cars’ petrol tanks.

“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are,” Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in his 1826 book The Physiology of Taste: Or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. So what are we? Peace-loving sunflower children with a taste for cold-pressed oil or greedy, machine-driven bacon-guzzlers?

Has the German Green Party's symbolic sunflower become a symbol of war? Maybe we should be trying to turn down the heat on social media debates to become a little more fluid in our approach. Given all the challenges we are facing as a society, shouldn’t we stop being “sand… in the machinery of the world,” as the writer Günter Eich put it, and try to be oil instead?

Oil is fuel for both killing and life. It highlights our differences. It can be a poison or a godsend, and it strikes at the heart of what is most important to us. What nourishes us. One thing will not change because it is part of our evolutionary programming: humans love to eat fat because the body stores it for times when food is scarce.

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