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In this high school Chemistry quiz we look at some of the oils used in cooking - particularly the vegetable oils which are extracted from seeds, fruits and nuts.
Have you ever been on a car journey and looked out at field after field of bright yellow flowers? They are the very distinctive flowers of the rapeseed plant. As well as being very colorful and pretty, these plants are extremely useful. They produce very nutritious, oil-rich seeds and are the third largest source of vegetable oil in the world behind soyabean oil and palm oil.
Some fruits, seeds and nuts are rich in oils that can be extracted. To extract the oil, the plant material is first crushed. In some cases, for example the manufacture of olive oil or walnut oil, squeezing the fruits or nuts in a press is sufficient to obtain the oil. In other cases this does not work very well, so the oil needs to be dissolved in a solvent. The solvent can then be distilled off, leaving the vegetable oil behind. Plant extracts such as lavender, other oils used for making perfumes and sunflower oil are extracted in this way. Water and other impurities are removed leaving the oil pure and clear and ready for use.
The use of vegetable oils with which you will probably be most familiar is in cooking. Vegetable oils have higher boiling points than water which means that foods can be cooked at higher temperatures than by boiling in water. Cooking is simply a way of making chemical reactions happen in food in order to alter the flavors and to soften it. Chemical reactions happen faster at higher temperatures so cooking food in oil is faster than boiling in water. Fats and oils also add flavor to foods. The downside to this is that oils are rich in energy so there is a danger that you could become overweight if you eat too much food that is cooked in oil. There is so much energy in vegetable oils that even used cooking oil can be processed to provide a fuel that can be used in diesel engines!
You don't need to know the structure of vegetable oils for high school, but it helps you to understand the next point. A molecule of vegetable oil comprises two parts - a glycerol molecule attached to one or more long chain molecules called fatty acids. The fatty acids can be saturated or unsaturated. By now, you should understand these terms but just in case you need a reminder, saturated in chemistry means that a molecule contains only single bonds between the carbon atoms but unsaturated indicates there is at least one carbon-carbon double bond. Health-wise, eating unsaturated fatty acids appears to be better for your health than eating saturated fats. Unsaturated oils are normally liquids at room temperature but saturated fats have higher melting points and tend to be solids. Vegetable oils can be converted into solids by hydrogenation using a temperature of 60°C and a nickel catalyst - the product of this chemical reaction is a solid vegetable fat, margerine is an example. Two other words that you need to associate with vegetable oils are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. If you are not sure what these terms mean, think about the prefixes - mono and poly, what do they ususally mean?