Trivia 088: Do I put it in a fruit salad?

Today as I was snacking on some tortilla chips and guacamole, I noticed that the chip bag bragged that it only had four ingredients. Intrigued, I turned it over to see what those ingredients were. “Corn flour, vegetable oil, salt, and water.” Pretty simple. And it makes sense that those ingredients are all you would need for a tortilla chip. But next to the entry for “vegetable oil”, it had a small parenthetical – “cottonseed, corn, or sunflower”. And that got me thinking – what is vegetable oil, anyways?

I cook with vegetable oil all the time. If a recipe calls for “oil”, I’m probably adding vegetable oil. And if I’m cooking something in a pan and want something to help me evenly apply heat, you know I’m grabbing the vegetable oil. It’s cheap, simple, and doesn’t have a strong flavor, so it does not impart a taste to the food I am cooking. But despite using it all the time, I’ve never thought about where it comes from. It’s in the name after all – it must be made from vegetables. I mean, olive oil is made from olives, and peanut oil is made from peanuts. So is vegetable oil made from carrots, broccoli, and other vegetables?

Well, to put it simply, the answer is technically yes. In the United States, what is marketed as “Vegetable Oil” is usually soybean oil. In fact, examining my bottle of vegetable oil reveals that the ingredients list states so directly. However, by marketing it as “vegetable oil” rather than “soybean oil”, it allows manufacturers to blend other oils in, such as corn oil, and still market it under the same label. It also has the added benefit of sounding healthier – after all, it is made from “vegetables”.

But that raises another question – what even are “vegetables”? I think we’ve all heard the old question – is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? So we know there is some distinction there – or at least a specific definition for a “fruit” (the seed-bearing structure of a flowering plant after it has flowered). But have you ever looked up what a “vegetable” is? As it turns out, the answer is at once surprising and disappointing. A “vegetable” is defined simply as “any plant whose fruit, seeds, roots, tubers, bulbs, stems, leaves, or flower parts are used as food“. So in other words, any part of a plant that we eat. So tomatoes are fruits and vegetables after all.

Ultimately, this means that olive oil and peanut oil also count as vegetable oils, as do canola, palm, coconut, safflower, sunflower, rapeseed, corn, and any other oil made from plants. These are all plants whose seeds (or other parts) have high concentrations of oils. Given this, I wonder if anyone has ever tried making oil out of other vegetable seeds, like tomatoes or bell peppers. It would probably be more trouble than it is worth, but you can make your own oil at home, so if anyone wants to give it a try, let me know how it turns out!

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