Do your cooking oils contain indications of PFAS “forever chemicals?” That’s the question we’ve attempted to answer in our latest consumer study. Mamavation sent 67 cooking oils comprising olive oil, canola oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, vegetable oil, & ghee products off to an EPA-certified lab and is now unveiling those laboratory results.
You’ve trusted Mamavation to bring you topics like best green beauty makeup sans PFAS , best cookware sans PFAS & nanoparticles , and best tomato & pasta sauces sans PFAS, now join us for our consumer study on indications of PFAS inside everyday cooking oils. Scroll down to the bottom if you just want to see the results of each brand we tested.
Disclosure: This consumer study is released in partnership with Environmental Health News . Scientific reviews were performed by (1) Terrence Collins, Teresa Heinz Professor of Green Chemistry & Director of Institute for Green Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, (2) Linda Birnbaum, Scientist Emeritus and Former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, (3) Pete Myers, Chief Scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, and Co-Author of Our Stolen Future, & (4) Scott Belcher, Associate Professor with the Center for Environmental & Health Effects of PFAS at North Carolina State University. This post was medically reviewed by Sondra Strand, RN, BSN, PHN. Donations were provided by Environmental Resource Center, Environmental Health News, and Mamavation community members. If you would like to support Mamavation’s testing, you can donate here to some of our upcoming projects. This post contains affiliate links.
Table of Contents
Other Mamavation PFAS Testing Projects
Main Findings From Consumer Study on PFAS in Cooking Oils
PFAS “forever chemicals” are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances with over 12,000 different chemicals in their chemical class. PFAS chemicals are considered ubiquitous, persistent, and toxic which is why they were dubbed “forever chemicals.” You’ll likely find them anywhere something needs water-resistant, oil-resistant, or stain-resistant qualities. When they show up in food products, they are not added on purpose but are likely present due to manufacturing or packaging contamination of some kind in the supply chain.
To answer the question are indications of PFAS found in cooking oil, Mamavation started by testing canola oils in an EPA-certified lab looking for an indication of PFAS. When we found indications of PFAS in canola oil, we took it a step further and tested other cooking oils. We ended up testing lots of additional cooking oils with different flavor profiles marketed as “healthy” such as olive oil, avocado oil, ghee, vegetable oil & coconut oil. Overall, Mamavation sent 67 cooking oils off to the lab to determine if organic fluorine, a marker of PFAS, was present at 10 parts per million (ppm) or above.
Organic fluorine is a marker for PFAS because all PFAS chemicals are carbon-based compounds that contain fluorine. The specific lab method used by Mamavation tested for total fluorine by using the Determination of Total Fluorine by Oxygen Flask Combustion and Ion-Selective Electrode. If detectable total fluorine was observed at a detection level of 10ppm, the lab did the Determination of free Fluoride Ion in the oil by Ion-Selective Electrode and then subtracted that from the Total Fluorine to determine the amount of organic fluorine. The method measures just the amount of fluorine after the PFAS compounds have been decomposed. The mass of the PFAS compounds that liberated their fluorine atoms in the method is greater. So 10 ppm of detected organic fluorine means more than 10 ppm, potentially considerable more, of what might be toxic forever PFAS compounds were present in the oil. We then retested the same oils that had a detection many months later to see if they were still present.
Note, that there is currently no consensus on how to spot-check food and cosmetics for PFAS. All methods at this point are non-validated. They nonetheless can still be used in revealing the presence of organic fluorine. Other chemicals present may be fluorinated pharmaceuticals or fluorinated pesticides, both of which are also troubling. Here are the main findings according to our laboratory reports:
7% of cooking oils tested had indications of PFAS “forever chemicals.” We tested a total of 67 cooking oil products in 2021 & 2022 and got detections in 5 different products.
Canola oils were the only oils that had any indications of PFAS above 10 ppm, our minimum detection level.
Lab reported ranges of organic fluorine between 10 to 25 parts per million (ppm). The levels we found were significantly higher than what is allowable in water.
29% of canola oils tested had detections of organic fluorine according to the laboratory. That’s 5 out of 17 canola oil products tested.
Only one organic canola oil brand was reported to contain any detections of PFAS. The other 4 were very popular conventional brands of canola oil.
Repeat testing of the 5 canola oil products that showed indications of PFAS in 2021 the following year in 2022 revealed no detections in any product above 10 parts per million (ppm), our minimum detection level. That means if PFAS compounds are present, the quantities are too low for our laboratory to detect.
PFAS “Forever Chemicals” Are Linked to Problematic Health Effects
PFAS “forever chemicals” are problematic to human health and the environment. They are considered persistent, ubiquitous, and very toxic. Because they do not naturally exit the body for many months or many years and are not known to degrade in the environment, they are considered “forever chemicals.” Therefore, it’s imperative to reduce the amount of PFAS you are exposed to by food and water.
Here’s a list of health effects PFAS chemicals are linked to presently:
Disrupts normal thyroid function
If you feel like you’ve been exposed to PFAS, especially during pregnancy, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of Community Health Investigations has created this health advisory fact sheet to use when talking to your doctor. While regulating authorities struggle to catch up, it would be wise to limit your daily exposure to PFAS markers within food like pasta sauce or ketchup . You don’t want indications of PFAS in your cooking oil either.
How is PFAS Getting Into Canola Oil?
We were surprised to report that our laboratory found detections of PFAS “forever chemicals” only inside canola oil. This is good for all the other cooking oils out there like olive oil and avocado oil, but not good for people who are consuming canola oil. In fact, our laboratory found indications of PFAS in 29% of the canola oil products tested.
So how is this happening to canola oil? No one can be certain and none of these brands could be reached for comments. However, we may have some possible answers. Mamavation has been very busy in the last couple of years testing over 300 consumer products such as:
In that time, we’ve been privy to a lot of the details behind brands shifting and reformulating. With that knowledge, and knowledge from our advisors, we have crafted some possibilities as to why we are seeing indications of PFAS inside canola oil.
Canola Oil is Already Highly Processed & Uses Toxic Chemicals like Hexane
Since Mamavation only found detections of PFAS “forever chemicals” in canola oil, we thought we would go through the processing of canola oil first. This is to say that with all the extra steps needed to produce canola oil, it may be more likely exposed to PFAS contaminants in particular steps.
Canola oil has a reputation for being one of the “dirtiest” cooking oils based on how it’s processed and its origins. Problematic chemicals, like hexane, are legally used as indirect food additives approved by the FDA for the extraction of canola oil. Canola also typically starts off as a genetically modified crop (GMO) that was engineered to withstand the herbicide glyphosate and thus may contain trace amounts of glyphosate, a probable human carcinogen according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Cooking oils like canola, soybean, corn, vegetable, and palm oil are known as “RBD” oils because of their processing where they are “refined, bleached, and deodorized.” This process starts by crushing plant material to express oil, then extracting crushed material with a low-boiling solvent, commonly hexane, and other additional processes to remove cloudiness & make it clear and tasteless.
It’s unclear how much hexane is left behind, but refined vegetable oils extracted with hexane contain approximately 0.8 milligrams of residual hexane per kilogram of oil (0.8 ppm). Are you getting most of your hexane exposure from food? Not likely. You’re likely getting your lion’s share from smelling gasoline.
Fluorinated Lubricants Should Not Be Allowed in Food & Cosmetic Production
Last fall, we released our green beauty makeup consumer study testing 83 different products from 49 brands and found 65% of green beauty products contained indications of PFAS. Since then, we have been privy to green beauty brands reformulating their products to get their makeup to non-detect levels. There are several problems we’ve been privy to, but one of them has been the presence of fluorinated lubricants used on machinery.
Because Mamavation found indications of PFAS in a product sourcing material from a factory we confirmed used fluorinated lubricants, it seems possible it could also be happening in food production. And if that’s the case, could the timing of the application of lubrication make any difference? We’re not sure, but we did some digging into the fluorinated lubrication industry to discover some interesting facts:
There’s a recognition by the FDA that trace amounts of these indirect food additives can get into our food .
These low-volatility oils can seep out of bearings and get into canola oil through interaction with machinery and food contact surfaces.
Our advisor Terrence Collins, Director of the Institute for Green Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, has a lot to say about fluorinated lubricants in the food industry.
“Fluorinated lubricants are widely used in food processing machinery because of their remarkably high technical performances in such applications. They are often mixed with more traditional non-fluorinated lubricants giving a wide array of products. Fluorinated lubricants are forever PFAS chemicals that are menacing toxicants. Because of their persistence in the body, one can assume they will have most if not all of the entire remaining lifetime of a person after exposure to hack and disrupt delicate hormonal signaling processes to potentially ruin an otherwise healthy life. We have examples of PFAS compounds doing this in other contexts as you can see in one case by watching Mark Ruffalo’s movie Dark Waters.
Canola seeds are crushed by a large screw press to release the oil. Because lubrication of machinery is often a repetitive & non-continious process, sporadic bursts of contamination by the fluorinated lubricants is a contingency. Fluorinated lubricants should have no place in the processing of food for humans or animals.”
In other words, the timing of lubrication may be significant. But this isn’t slowing down their industry. Producers of fluorinated lubricants from American Premium Petroleum say that fluorinated lubricants are “the perfect lubricant in the food and pharmaceutical industries.” However, allowing food manufacturers to use fluorinated lubricants is a bad idea just as Terrence Collins says. Meanwhile, air emissions of PFAS from industrial sources are now recognized by the EPA as a major source of contamination to our air and water. Translation: Some industries are poisoning the very air we breathe with PFAS.
The FDA Has Already Found Legacy PFAS in Food
In 2019, it was reported by Associated Press that the Food & Drug Administration had detected PFAS in several types of food, mostly meats, seafood, and grocery store chocolate cake. This sent shockwaves through the food industry and later the FDA recanted and never published those findings. However, the internet is forever, and you can still find the visual aids on a poster board that was used by the FDA during the conference where they communicated this problem to other Europeans. Luckily, scientists from the Environmental Defense Fund were present and were able to capture that picture.
As you can see, the FDA found detections in different types of meat, seafood, chocolate cake, sweet potatoes, & pineapples. However, the odd part is these amounts were measured in the parts per trillion (ppt), which are a million times lower than the parts per million (ppm) where we are testing. In other words, we have found indications of PFAS in far greater amounts than what the FDA reported at a conference in 2019.
Pete Myers, Chief Scientist of Environmental Health Sciences and Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University had some additional thoughts to include to help you understand concentration levels:
Toxicologists usually focus on concentrations that are in the parts per million. What does that mean? At one part per million (ppm), a toxicant would, percentage-wise, 0.0001% of the material or solution. At one part per billion (ppb), the numbers would be 0.0000001%. These seem infinitesimally small.
But think about this another way. Imagine you have a drop of water in which bisphenol A (BPA) is present at a concentration of one part per billion (ppb). How many molecules of BPA would be in that single drop? There would be approximately 2.65 trillion molecules of BPA in that single drop. Of course, there would be a billion times more water molecules. But when you are dealing with biological systems, small numbers of molecules can be surprisingly impactful. This is especially true for the endocrine system because key parts of the endocrine system amplify a single molecule’s signaling impact by a factor of 100,000-fold or more. This can lead to adverse health effects like infertility, miswired brains, or cancer.
And if instead of looking at one drop, imagine how many molecules of BPA would be in your body’s serum if it were contaminated at the level of one part per billion. The total number would be over one quadrillion.”
It’s important to also note that the FDA only tested for 16 PFAS compounds, whereas, our organic fluorine testing actually looks for the presence of all 12,000+ PFAS chemicals by looking for a chemical marker instead. To ensure we are only getting what is most likely to be man-made PFAS (aka organic fluorine), and not fluorine from water treatment, the lab does further tests. Thus we are looking for over 12,000 PFAS compounds while the FDA is only looking for 16. The FDA cannot find what they are NOT looking for.
FDA Has Approved Several PFAS Chemicals as an Indirect Additive in Manufacturing
The FDA authorized several classes of PFAS for use as food contact indirect additives in the 1960s. Today there are over 3,000 indirect additive chemicals approved in food manufacturing . The FDA recognizes all these applications of PFAS have the ability to migrate into your food in trace amounts. The debate is over how much is dangerous and how to identify them. Frustratingly, most of the polymerized PFAS chemicals used in food manufacturing do not have methods developed that can isolate and identify them.
Scott Belcher, Ph.D. & Associate Professor with the Center for Environmental & Health Effects of PFAS at North Carolina State University says “fluoropolymers, such as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) or Teflon®, are extremely common forms of PFAS that could be contributing to the organic fluorine found in food products. Methods used for detecting individual PFAS, such as PFOA or GenX, cannot directly identify PTFE. However, the analysis of total organic fluorine does account for all PFAS contaminants in food, including PTFE.”
Therefore, this can get very tricky for consumers and brands to navigate. This is why Mamavation operates marker testing of organic fluorine instead. Take a look below at all the applications for PFAS as an indirect additive according to the FDA. Clearly, there are lots of polymers happening that are impossible to isolate and identify.
Non-stick Cookware: PFAS is approved for use in making cookware & bakeware , small kitchen appliances , and things like air fryers . PFAS is polymerized here so there are very few ways to directly test and identify them.
Gaskets, O-Rings, and other parts used in food processing equipment: PFAS molecules are polymerized and a resin is created in forming certain parts used in food processing equipment. Typically, this equipment requires chemical and physical durability, however, it’s assumed it can get into your food in trace amounts. Because these chemicals are polymerized, there is no direct testing to identify most of them.
Processing Aids: PFAS may be used as processing aids for manufacturing other food contact polymers to reduce build-up on manufacturing equipment, like fluorinated lubrication. These processing aids can get into your food in trace amounts, however, the molecules may or may not be polymerized. It’s unknown how many chemicals are used as processing aids, however, if they are based on a polymer, there’s no way to directly identify most of them.
Paper/paperboard Food Packaging: PFAS may be used as grease-proofing agents in fast-food wrappers , microwave popcorn bags, take-out paperboard containers, pet food bags, & cake bottoms at the bakery , to prevent oil and grease from foods from leaking through the packaging. Some states like Washington, California & New York have banned PFAS in food packaging and laws will sunset soon.
Fluorination of Plastics: There’s confusion on whether the FDA approved the fluorination of food contact plastics like polyethylene in 1983. Regardless, the plastic industry has been selling fluorinated food contact plastics for decades. In 2021, the FDA sent letters to companies to remind them that fluorinating food contact plastics was not approved. It seems as if no further steps have been taken. But some plastic companies are still operating as usual. For example, Berlin Packaging states on their website, “If you are using a plastic container to hold a liquid substance, your product may benefit from fluorination. Fluorinated containers are used for a variety of applications from industrial and auto to pharmaceutical or food and beverage. Five levels of fluorination are available. The appropriate level depends on the type of plastic product being packaged.” Sadly, all fluorinated plastics are polymers and most cannot be directly identified through testing.
Transportation & Storage: Getting the ingredients of your food from one place to another is another way that PFAS can find its way into your food. From storage containers that could be made of fluorinated plastic to totes (which are big plastic vats) used to transport items, there is no way of knowing what those raw ingredients touched. For instance, If the containers of raw ingredients were heated in any way, maybe from being exposed to sunlight over a long sea voyage, it could make PFAS more likely to leach into ingredients. Because of the likelihood of fluorinated plastics being involved, it’s impossible to directly identify through testing.
Fluorinated Plastic & Storage Should Not Be Allowable in Food Manufacturing
Another unsuspecting way PFAS was finding its way into green beauty was fluorinated plastic & storage. Because these contaminants are approved as indirect additives by the FDA for food production as well, it’s reasonable to assume they could also be present in food.
Through interviews with brands, we discovered that not all fluorinated plastic was disclosed as fluorinated in the material datasheets. Therefore, brands would have no way of knowing they were purchasing and using fluorinated plastics. Some brands discovered this by testing the plastic independently and finding it had higher levels of fluorine. Later, when those plastic items were avoided, the products became non-detect.
It’s not just the cosmetic industry dealing with undisclosed fluorination of plastics, they’ve been also finding this in the pesticide industry. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found fluorinated plastics leaching PFAS from plastic HDPE pesticide containers. Since then, other industries using similar plastics have been warned.
Fluorination of plastics only happens to the “safer” plastics.
Polyethylene (#1, #2)
Supply Chain Disruption in 2020 and Beyond
Let’s be honest here. Things have been very disruptive lately. Do you remember the last week before most cities went under lockdown? Entire countries were locked down and so were their workers, manufacturing plants, transportation, etc. This later led to massive disruption in the global supply chain. Every brand I’ve interviewed for this investigation or for others has told me they had to change the sources of some of their ingredients in 2020 and 2021, and it was very stressful. This year, 2022, has been the first semblance of normalcy, but even now, things are not what they were in early 2020.
So to put that into perspective, in 2020 many food brands had to change some of their ingredient sourcing. So where were they getting everything in 2021 when we did our original sourcing? I’m not sure. We found detections in five canola oils at similar levels. It looks as if something was present in 2021 that simply isn’t there above our detection levels in 2022.
When we interviewed professionals about the supply chain, we were told that finding organic fluorine over 10ppm and then not finding it the following year wasn’t surprising at all. Most canola oil comes from Canada, but also India, China, Australia, Russia, and the European Union. Inside the supply chain are many middlemen and individuals who were adjusting their supply in real-time to take orders. New things were coming from all over the world to the United States. In other words, tracing the supply chain would be hard.
The squeeze was also felt in the transportation industry getting goods off ships and to factories and to the customer, whereas the ports were at a stand-still. Brands sourcing ingredients had to get creative at this time in order to not shut down the flow of goods. In the midst of this chaos, anything seems possible.
It’s Time to Break Up the FDA to Increase Food Safety
On April 21st of this year, our scientific advisor Linda Birnbaum, who served as Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program (NIEHS), wrote an op-ed about the FDA and how they have failed to protect consumers from chemical health risks, such as PFAS. She goes on to state how the FDA has refused to review additives and contaminants that are known to present long-term risks.
“Chemicals in food and cosmetics—whether present as additives or contaminants—usually do not cause immediate or obvious health effects, but they pose a significant longer-term risk to public health. Consumers want to know that their food and products they use every day are safe and that neither individual chemicals nor their cumulative impacts will harm their health. Congress directed the FDA to do this more than 60 years ago…FDA’s guidance and methods to evaluate chemicals’ toxicities [are] outdated.”
In other words, in terms of food, the FDA is not doing its job. In another op-ed that week in Politico by Michael Taylor , who served as FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine from 2010 to 2016, made a convincing argument that in order to be effective in protecting consumers, the FDA needs to be broken up into an agency that just focuses on food. Presently the running joke in Washington is the “F” is silent in “FDA” meaning they don’t really care much about food. They spend most of their time evaluating and regulating prescription drugs.
“The food side of FDA is approaching failure mode, however, not because of its people or just one unit — but because of the low priority of food within FDA, the agency’s fragmented organizational structure for food and the lack of sustained and empowered leadership from the top. Immediate action is needed to address these systemic problems, but I believe the long-term solution to fixing FDA is to break it up and create a separate agency dedicated solely to oversight of food.”
Is it time to break up the FDA to ensure it spends its time preventing toxic chemicals like PFAS from getting into our food? You decide. But If you would like to get more involved in demanding the FDA review and ban PFAS in food production, packaging, and manufacturing, check out our partners at the Food Chemical Alliance . It’s a group of numerous and recognizable organizations (ahem Mamavation included) lobbying the FDA. We could use your help!
Mamavation’s Investigation of Cooking Oil & Raw Data
Mamavation sent 67 different cooking oils off to an EPA-certified lab to test for organic fluorine, which is an indication of PFAS “forever chemicals.” The only products that had detections of PFAS were canola oil.
Many months later in 2022, we sent those same products (but newly purchased ones) back to the lab to see if they were still showing indications of PFAS and they were not. Finally, we sent those same products to another lab looking for 68 PFAS analytes specifically. All of those tests showed a non-detect at very low levels. What is noteworthy is in 2022, all the lab testing showed non-detect levels for all canola oil that had detections in 2021.
Not Our Favorite Cooking Oil — Indications of PFAS in Cooking Oil
These cooking oil products had detectable levels of organic fluorine above 10 parts per million (ppm), according to the lab. We do not recommend you purchase or cook with these brands. Notice all the oils we found detections of organic fluorine are all canola oil. We did not find indications of PFAS in any other type of cooking oil but canola oil.
Crisco Pure Canola Oil — 18 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine in 2021, non-detect in 2022.
Mazola Canola Oil — 25 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine, non-detect in 2022.
Spectrum Organic Canola Oil — 13 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine, non-detect in 2022.
Trader Joes Canola Oil — 10 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine, non-detect in 2022.
Wesson Canola Oil — 15 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine, non-detect in 2022.
Better Cooking Oil – No Indications of PFAS in Cooking Oil
These cooking oils did not have detectable levels of organic fluorine above 10 parts per million (ppm) according to our lab. However, they are not organic, so may have residues of pesticides we are unsure about.
Better Avocado Oil