In the beginning there was cotton, and then there was cottonseed oil. That was turned into Crisco, which gave way to widespread demand for vegetable oil, and then canola, corn, and safflower. Decades later, industrially-produced seed oils are in everything we eat and are quietly driving America’s obesity crisis.
At least, that’s the lore that’s become popular among online Bitcoin influencers—a vocal number of whom have made a new, somewhat unlikely foe out of this faction of the food pyramid. Federal health authorities have long told us that they contain “healthy” fats, an assertion that this cohort is calling into question.
“Seed oils” is a catchall term that refers to any oil extract from seeds—canola, from rapeseeds, soybean oil, from soybeans, sesame oil, from sesame seeds, and so on—and they’re the latest infatuation of an online group who are seemingly getting their information from alternative diet influencers. For those who buy in, seed oils must be avoided at all costs, or else risk developing a raft of concerning-sounding medical conditions.
To an outsider, the lifestyle choice is out-there enough to seem completely made up—specific to the point of absurdity, so much so that it could never garner a mainstream following. That may still be the case, but it has found a home among Bitcoin fanatics, many of whom have previously subscribed to alternative diets that shun supposedly inferior modern food trends, such as carnivory.
“In addition to being a contrarian on monetary and financial matters, you probably are also in terms of advice you get from the government”
So far, the majority of conversation around the science of seed oils is buried within deep layers of irony and memes.
“Is fleeting smugness really worth developing metabolic syndrome?” Nic Carter, a Bitcoin pundit and co-founder of blockchain data aggregator Coinmetrics, wrote in a February Tweet about seed oil content in non-dairy milks. “All the seed oil guzzlers seething in my mentions rn. Stay mad, metabolically impaired, and torpid”
In another tweet, from December 2021, Carter told another user that they are “better off drinking west Texas crude” than oat milk because of the seed oils contained in commercial versions. “Seed oils? No thank you!” reads the caption to an image of a hand holding a gun to a bottle of vegetable oil from an account called @Tree_Respecter_ in February. “Defeat the Seed with Vitamin E: the original Seed Oil Disrespecter,” another thread, published Feb. 1 by @reallytanman begins, before going on to recommend upping one’s intake of vitamin E, an antioxidant, to fight off any supposed harmful effects left behind by seed oils. It might be a good idea to “just take vitamin E if you eat seed oils, e.g. at a restaurant or friend’s house,” the thread claims.
Though the ideology behind this diet-fad-slash-meme has been popular within niche diet communities for years, its more recent popularity among crypto enthusiasts is mostly based in the same ethos that drives them toward the blockchain in the first place: a skepticism of major modern institutions, financial and otherwise, matched by an eagerness to skirt norms.
Central bank money is to finance what seed oils are to popular dietary guidance—if a major ingredient in most processed and fast foods has been slowly poisoning us for decades and regulators have only encouraged it, it’s Bitcoiners who will be the first to go out of their way to forge a new path.
“I'm no stranger to crackpot ideas,” Carter told Motherboard over the phone from Miami, where he resides. “I think that's like part of our sort of cultural identity as Bitcoiners, you know?”
“Weird contrary viewpoints appeal to us,” he added. “If you're a Bitcoiner, you have this epistemic attitude where you are, you know, naturally contrarian. So, in addition to being a contrarian on monetary and financial matters, you probably are also in terms of advice you get from the government.”
It’s a similar attitude to the one that’s led fragments of this community to adopt carnivore diets in service of rejecting staples of modern life, or “fiat” money. Bitcoin, as a kind of digital gold standard in the eyes of diehards, exists in parallel to eating the way hunter-gatherers once did. That may mean avoiding anything that’s not meat for some; it may mean avoiding federal dietary guidelines or processed foods. For some, this means avoiding seed oils.
So, what is the supposed problem with seed oils? To start with the basics, there are a few different types of fat in foods: Saturated fats, trans fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats, or PUFAs. Each type of fat has different chemical structures, notably around the presence of a bond between neighboring carbon atoms. The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, which together set federal dietary guidelines every five years, have long discouraged consuming saturated fats and trans fats, which are tied to heart disease and cancers.
Mono- and poly-unsaturated fats are conversely considered “healthy” fats, and health authorities encourage their consumption as a replacement to trans and saturated fats. There are a few different types of polyunsaturated fats: two of the most highly-contested ones are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (these names refer to the location of a carbon bond in the fat). The former is more often found in fish and shellfish; the latter, in seed oils. The federal food guide explicitly deems these fatty acids “essential”—the body does not produce them on its own—noting that they’re needed for infant brain development. However, some studies have separately tied omega-6 fatty acids to inflammation (others have contradicted this claim). This is where much of the debate around seed oils stems.
People who denounce seed oils try to correlate its consumption to inflammation, and inflammation to larger trends in public health. A fraction of literature has connected the intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to higher rates of chronic disease; specifically, they’re rich in an acid called linoleic acid, which has been tied to inflammation, and which one commonly-cited study from 1985 tied to increased cancer risk in rats.
Humans aren’t rats, though, and the science on this is split. For every study chastising linoleic or omega-6 fatty acids, there’s at least one other singing their praise. A study that came a little over a decade after the 1985 report conversely found it “unlikely that a high intake of linoleic acid substantially raises the risks of breast, colorectal, or prostate cancer in humans.”
The same is true for almost every nutritional aspect of seed oil consumption. A meta-analysis from 2019 tied linoleic acid consumption to reduced risk of heart disease; a different study that came three years before it called the correlation “overstated.” A 2002 study ties PUFA intake to inflammation. Another report from 2017 debunked this claim.
Parsing through the science of seed oils gets complicated quickly, even for nutritionists like Abby Langer, who told Motherboard that she believes a lot of the seed oil movement veers toward conspiracy. But it’s important to understand that much of the criticism around seed oils relies on a series of controversial claims for which scientifically rigorous findings contradict one another, and most fly in the face of federal dietary guidance.
“The reason there’s conflicting information is because there are conflicted, so-called scientists producing propaganda for seed oil”
Dr. Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, is among a few key figureheads in the anti-seed oil movement who believe health authorities have long been misleading Americans about the health risks of saturated fats. She cites the American Heart Association as evidence of this: In 2009, the non-profit, which lobbies the U.S. government on health policy and has long recommended limiting saturated fat intake, issued a guidance that came down firmly on the side of omega-6s.
“The AHA supports an omega-6 PUFA intake of at least 5% to 10% of energy in the context of other AHA lifestyle and dietary recommendations. To reduce omega-6 PUFA intakes from their current levels would be more likely to increase than to decrease risk for (coronary heart disease) CHD,” the report reads.
Shanahan admits that the recommendation that 5 to 10 percent of one’s calories come from omega-6 fatty acids is likely correct, but notes that the average western diet contains far more than that—somewhere to the tune of 30 percent. (Motherboard could not verify this precise number, but at least one study has documented a growth in the average intake of omega-6 fatty acids over the 20th century).
The culprit, she says, is the American Heart Association (AHA)—an organization that’s no stranger to corporate influence. Famously, in 1948, the organization accepted $1.7 million from Procter & Gamble, the makers of Crisco, at a critical moment in the organization’s rise to prominence. They’ve been quietly swaying federal guidance ever since, encouraging Americans to up their consumption of unsaturated fats while reducing their intake of saturated fats, all to make a buck, or so the thinking goes.
“The reason there’s conflicting information is because there are conflicted, so-called scientists producing propaganda for seed oil,” Shanahan said.
Carter admits that a lot of the online discourse around seed oils may seem like an elaborate joke to those unfamiliar with it: After all, having a strong opinion on omega-6 versus omega-3 fatty acids is niche enough to be amusing, but enticing enough to feel like “secret knowledge.” But that’s what’s made the idea salient, he says. It’s made it easy to make memes out of the concept.
Accounts with names like “Seed Oil Disrespecter” and “SolBrah” cultivated followings in the thousands in large part for memes that contain admittedly vague but notably confident messages about acids and fats.
“I think you have to deliver it in the payload of a joke right to be compelling to people,” Carter told Motherboard. “You can’t just start lecturing people on seed oils. It has to be delivered through a memified format. It's just more effective.”
Though he says he wasn’t consuming much canola oil before discovering the anti-seed oil movement, Carter has cut this and other seed oils out of his diet mostly for good—the occasional meal out being the rare exception—and says he’s seen his energy levels multiply as a result. He said he’s also managed to avoid getting sunburned despite avoiding sunscreen in his day-to-day routine, a consequence of eliminating inflammatory seed oils from his diet, he claims. Being anti-sunscreen, by the way, is yet another facet of this cultural nexus.
“I think that might be like 100 percent completely made up,” he admits of the theory that seed oils increase one’s susceptibility to sunburn. “But anecdotally, I literally never wear sunscreen. I will spend like six hours in the sun here in South Florida and not burn, so, maybe there is some truth to it.”
“The whole joke is that people ask me for scientific references,” he added. “It's more like feelings rather than facts. It's more about intuition.”
“I think that the Venn diagram is forming around seed oils and the different circles are ancestral health, keto, carnivore, paleo, Bitcoin”
Dr. K, the pseudonymous blogger behind the Seed Oil Disrespecter account and seedoilrebellion.com—who says he is in medical school, a claim Motherboard could not verify without his real name, which he would not provide—is similarly compelled by an anecdotal correlation between seed oil and sunburn. He also says he lost 15 pounds by eliminating foods that contain seed oils from his diet—crucially, he eliminated fast food, like french fries and Domino’s pizza, which contain oils like canola but are also primarily known to be high in saturated fats, sugar and sodium.
Dr. K told Motherboard he doesn’t own any crypto, so it was a pleasant surprise to see the content he creates gain a following among Bitcoiners in a very short amount of time, he said.
“I had people messaging me saying like, ‘Hey, me and my Discord group of 150 people talk about seed oils all the time and like, ‘oh, have you heard about XYZ?’ They’re Bitcoin people,” Dr K. told Motherboard over the phone. “I think that the Venn diagram is forming around seed oils and the different circles are ancestral health, keto, carnivore, paleo, Bitcoin.”
Several nutritionists that Motherboard spoke with for this story were certain that most of the popular science quoted by the anti-seed oil movement is iffy at best—and the body of knowledge laying out the benefits of consuming vegetable oils versus other sources of fat trumps it by a longshot.
“I’m perplexed,” said Alice Lichtenstein, senior scientist and professor of nutrition science at Tufts University. “People that have diets that are higher in plant oils and lower in fats from animal origin have better health outcomes, and I’m not aware of adverse health outcomes.”
But nutrition science is notoriously difficult to decipher, and is riddled with contradictions. That creates room for uncertainty, and within that uncertainty, for individuals to propagate misinformation. In the seed oil sphere, a small but vocal number of personalities are behind this.
Though most anti-seed oilers interviewed for this story attributed their introduction to the movement to different people, a few names were cited often. Take Dr. Paul Saladino, the doctor behind the Carnivore Diet, which recommends replacing plant foods with meat, for example—he spent three hours on the Joe Rogan Experience in 2020 describing the harms of seed oils, among other fringe views, including that doing cold plunges has the same health benefits as consuming a plate of vegetables. His name is often mentioned on this section of the internet, (one redditor attributed the proliferation of anti-seed oil sentiment entirely to his appearance on the podcast). Other names include Nina Teicholz, investigative journalist and author of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, and Dr. Shanahan.
Some of these personalities’ advice just so happens to align, somewhat ironically, with the interests of the modern meat industry. Saladino has, in the past, shared research funded by the beef industry to support his views. Teicholz has attended conferences by meat industry organizations as a speaker—at one, hosted by American National CattleWomen Inc. in 2015, she told an audience that “bacon is better for your hips than pasta.” Though the home page of her website boasts that she “does not accept funds from industry or any vested interest for her work,” Teicholz has been criticized for taking speaking fees and being paid in her capacity as executive director of the Nutrition Coalition, a group that lobbies the U.S. government on nutrition policy. The group has accepted funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a philanthropic organization run by a former energy executive that’s also poured millions into alternative obesity research via the now-defunct Nutrition Science Initiative.
As for Shanahan, her work is often referenced in wellness, paleo and anti-seed oil spaces, with mixed reviews. While a number of wellness bloggers seem to credit her book with shaping their understanding of vegetable oils, critics say her work is at best contradictory and confusing, and at worst, harmful in its promotion of eurocentric beauty standards by tying food consumption to adherence to certain facial structures. The book compares images of face shapes—including white and Black people—in a way that some readers note feels eerily similar to phrenology, a pseudoscience that involved measuring skull shapes that was used to justify slavery and has been compared to eugenics.
Shanahan told Motherboard she is aware of the allegations and believes they are unfounded, and a misinterpretation of her message. “What we're actually saying is that all living creatures, when they're properly nourished, they grow according to a geometry that is most functional,” she said.
”I guess it's like, if you're white, you can't say anything about Black people,” she added.
“It's like one of the worst books I've ever read,” said Kevin Bass, the MD/PhD student behind Public Health Initiative for Health Misinformation, a Twitter account devoted to debunking health myths. Bass has been outspoken about what he believes is a misinformation campaign underlying the movement against seed oils. “It really is terrible. It's very pseudosciencey.”
Bass said he worries that healthy skepticism of flawed systems—a society dominated by corporate interests, for example—can snowball into conspiracy.
“It gives people practice in misrepresenting and misunderstanding what the literature says,” Bass said of nutritional pseudoscience, which he believes can easily turn into skepticism of other health measures, like vaccines.
“That's essentially the problem of misinformation,” he added. “It's grounded in reality. There's truths there. And we need to bring those truths out. In some ways, misinformation is not bad because it attacks the system. Misinformation is bad because it poisons the possibility of actually effectively critiquing the system.”
Misinformation is a two-edged sword in the seed oil debate, however. Figureheads like Shanahan, after all, believe that most mainstream dietary guidance around fat consumption is built on lies, the kind that have quietly fueled America’s major health epidemics for decades. Like Bitcoin itself, the anti-seed oil stance reflects a skepticism of authority, one that is often not unfounded in the least but which can quickly snowball, echoed and amplified online. And if there’s one cohort ready to embrace that sort of skepticism and roll that ball themselves, it’s the crypto community.