Among the vegetable oils of greatest commercial importance are cottonseed, linseed, olive, palm, corn, peanut, soybean, and castor oils. The method of obtaining the oils is similar for all: the fruits or seeds after being cleaned are crushed and pressed cold to obtain the highest grade of oil and then pressed warm, yielding a grade suitable for industrial use. Sometimes solvents are used to remove the remaining oil from the crushed mass. Edible oils are those used in foods, and for these the highest grade is utilized; these must be pale in color, free from disagreeable odor and taste, and wholesome. The lower grades are suitable for making soap and for other industrial purposes. The chemical property that makes fats solid and oils liquid is the amount of saturation in the ester (see saturated fats). Animal fats are esters of saturated fatty acids; vegetable oils are esters of unsaturated fatty acids.
Conversion of liquid vegetable oils into solid fats is an important chemical industry. This process, sometimes called hardening, involves hydrogenation of the unsaturated fatty-acid portion of the oil molecule by heating the oil with hydrogen in the presence of a metal catalyst; by controlling the extent of hydrogenation, various products can be obtained. For example, controlled hydrogenation of cottonseed oil produces a solid vegetable cooking fat. Most fats become rancid upon standing; since a major factor leading to rancidity is air oxidation of double bonds (to form foul-smelling aldehydes), saturated fats are much more resistant to rancidity than unsaturated fats.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.