By: Dr. John Bagnulo, Director of Nutrition

In case you missed the past decade of increasingly damning evidence about the ill effects of highly polyunsaturated seed oils and their manufacturing processes to both our health and that of the planet’s, here is one more reason to consider choosing only organic, extra virgin, cold or mechanically pressed olive or coconut oils.

Hexane, a benzene-like petroleum distillate used in separating oils from the rest of the seed, is currently found in countless foods in the United States. While debate circles as to its ceiling of toxicity, what human biologic pathways are disrupted, and whether or not the FDA should classify it as a carcinogen, industry plows ahead with its use.

Even though its environmental damage and risks are well documented, sometimes that is not enough to change industry practices. The public health risk has to often be demonstrated in numerous vectors. Hexane is a prime example. We know it is bad for the air, a serious risk to manufacturing facility workers, but apparently there has to be more research about how ingested hexane makes us sick before the government makes a decision.

The "natural" food products that have flooded the market with consumer concerns around additives and chemicals are unfortunately one of the greatest sources of hexane as a segment of our US food supply. This is because so many soy-based and vegetable/seed oil ingredients constitute a major percentage of the calories in vegetarian, vegan, and plant-based foods. If only the plants were vegetables and not soy flour, soy protein, soybean and other seed oil products.

The Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit organization who has done amazing work around raising public awareness with respect to the impact that our food choices make, is and has been leading the hexane investigation. Without their work, we wouldn’t know how widespread the problem of hexane contamination is. In fact, a great industry-wide study by The Cornucopia Institue here shows what sources are most significant and what product brands should be avoided.

Yet, the EPA has not classified it as a carcinogen and little research has actually been done with respect to dietary exposure.

As author Brian Palmer of Slate describes: "In the absence of good data, the FDA uses "current good manufacturing practices" — the level producers should be able to stay beneath if they're making an effort—to establish maximum concentration of a food additive. That's where the hexane limits come from."

This is not exactly reassuring given the history of low-level vigilance by the US regulatory agency with respect to numerous toxins that were eventually proven to be carcinogenic or estrogenic.

So what can you do? Rather than wait for a wave of scientific reports to eventually crash down upon us, which could happen years after significant dietary exposure to hexane, it makes more sense to be aware of where hexane is showing up in consistently in your foods and to avoid products that contain these ingredients:

  • Soy: All soy-based ingredients must be suspected as a source of hexane unless certified organic.
  • Sunflower Oil
  • Safflower Oil
  • Canola Oil
  • Corn Oil
  • Vegetable Oil
  • Non-Organic Olive Oil: Extra virgin should be ok.
  • Non-Organic Coconut Oil
  • DHA Fortified Foods such as infant formula, yogurts, eggs, and energy bars.

If after reading this list you quickly realize the magnitude of hexane contamination, you’re not alone. After all, these ingredients contribute more than half of the calories found in natural, vegetarian-friendly, meat alternatives and even more of the calories in processed foods from chips and crackers to salad dressings.

The problem has created a supply problem for the organic food industry where demand for hexane-free ingredients has exceeded domestic supply. It is pretty scary to think that U.S. agriculture cannot produce enough organic and hexane-free ingredients to meet the demand of what is still a minority, albeit growing, market.

Yet, even though the sourcing of hexane-free ingredients can be a challenge, because of hexane’s damage to the environment and the serious risk hexane brings to human health, Functional Formularies is committed to not including hexane-containing ingredients. It’s just one more step we’re taking to bring you the highest quality formulas and foods!

Dr. John Bagnulo is the Director of Nutrition at Functional Formularies and leads nutrition research and development initiatives. Learn more about Dr. Bagnulo here.