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What are my options for environmentally friendly and ethical types of vegetable oil?

We've been expecting someone to ask us about "ethical oil," but what's greasing our frying pan wasn't quite what we had in mind.

There are a lot of choices for cooking oils: canola, olive, and sunflower, to name a few. Cooking oil is one of those invisible ingredients in your kitchen that gets taken for granted, and prior to this question we didn't know much about it.

Many oils are okay, ethically and environmentally, but we learned about some issues that show how even our smallest everyday choices connect us to the world, and give us an opportunity to make easy changes with a real impact.

When making our morning omelette, we certainly don't want to help push orangutans into extinction.

To produce palm oil, millions of acres of rain forest in Borneo and Sumatra are cut down every year to make room for more palm plantations, destroying vital habitat for orangutans and other species. Indigenous peoples are losing their villages and livelihoods to the severe deforestation.

In 2004, environmental groups and corporations formed the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The RSPO introduced a logo in 2011 with the words "Certified Sustainable Palm Oil," which appears on the labels of approved products. Avoid palm oil products unless they bear that label.

Environmental groups warn that large-scale olive oil plantations in Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal are using so much water they're turning regions into deserts. There are some organic fair-trade olive oils available in Canada at Ten Thousand Villages stores, and some select stores in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.

Many Canadians are concerned about genetically modified foods. According to Lucy Sharratt of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, all non-organic canola, soy, corn or cottonseed oils in Canada almost certainly contain GM ingredients. If you want these kinds of oil, but want to avoid GM foods, go for certified organic brands.

You want your cooking oil to be good for the world and good for you, so we asked Karina Wickland, a registered dietitian and naturopathic doctor in Vancouver, B.C., which cooking oils are the healthiest. She tells us that if you are cooking at high heat, use coconut oil because it will not break down. Even though coconut oil contains saturated fats, Ms. Wickland says they are "medium chain" fats that present little cardiovascular risk. For low-heat cooking, olive oil is great and for cold recipes like salad dressings, Ms. Wickland recommends walnut or flax oil which contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

We suspect it's possible to write an entire cookbook just on cooking oil. But for the ethics, it only requires taking a few seconds to check the labels. With a slight change in purchases, you can enjoy your home fries and the only guilt will come from the bathroom scale.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to