Canola is one of the most controversial oils out there, with a reputation that ranges from poison to health panacea. There’s a lot of information out there regarding canola oil, much of it misleading. Let’s try to set the record straight.
What is canola oil?
The oil comes from a specially bred variety of rapeseed, a yellow-flowering plant in the Brassicaceae (cabbage) family, developed by Canadian scientists in the 1970s. Its name is a contraction of either Canadian and ola (meaning oil) or “Canadian Oil, Low Acid.” The special hybrid rapeseed developed in Canada has low levels of eruic acid—2 percent is what’s legally allowed in canola oil—which can be toxic in the higher amounts (20-50 percent) found in typical rapeseed oils.
Is it used as industrial oil?
Canola oil can be used, as an industrial lubricant and biofuel—but that’s true of any vegetable oil. It’s also used to make soaps (same for many vegetable oils too) as well as plastics, cosmetics and printing inks.
Is it toxic?
Besides concerns over the trace levels of eruic acid, canola oil is also criticized for its extraction process. It’s the same process used in top four vegetable oils consumed in the U.S.: soybean, canola, palm and corn oil. According to an article published by the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, “These [oils] are referred to as refined, bleached, deodorized oils – or RBD for short – because this describes the process by which they are manufactured.
RBD oils are produced by crushing the plant material, usually seeds, to express the oil, followed by extraction of the crushed material with a low-boiling solvent, most commonly hexane, to obtain the remainder of the oil.” Manufacturers claim the trace levels of hexane left in the oil are no cause for concern—but the research is still unclear.
Does canola contain trans fats?
Canola has come under fire for containing trans-fats, which have been linked with significant health problems. Canola oil does contain very low levels of trans-fat, but so do all oils that have been deodorized. As the Harvard article notes: “Deodorization is the final step in refining ALL vegetable oils. This process produces the bland taste that consumers want.”
Is it a healthy fat?
Just by crunching the numbers, canola oil fares impressively, with 7% saturated fat compared to 14% in olive oil or 51% in butter. It’s also high in the polyunsaturated fats, containing a balanced ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Finally, canola oil is also high in monounsaturated fats, which are healthy.
Is it gentically modified?
Approximately 90% of the canola in the United States and Canada is genetically modified—the jury is still out on whether GMO foods cause negative side effects. Many people prefer to use non-GMO foods as a precaution. Organic canola oil, by definition, is a safe bet because organic and GMO are mutually exclusive terms. Interestingly, in Europe canola oil produced from genetically modified plants has been banned since 1991.
Bottom line: Is canola oil healthy?
It depends on the quality. Canola oil is higher in healthy omega-3s than most vegetable oils, which may help support heart health and other areas of health. Like olive oil, canola oil is packed with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. In the kitchen, canola is popular because of its mild flavor and relatively high smoke point, making it a versatile cooking oil and safe at high heats.
If you’re concerned about hexane processing or want a more environmentally friendly canola oil option, look for cold- and expeller-pressed oil. If you are hesitant regarding genetic modification, buy organic or European-produced oils. In general, variety is a good foundation in nutrition—so mix up your oils as much as you can. Virgin olive oil (for low temperature cooking) and unrefined coconut oil (for high temperature cooking) offer great low risk alternatives. (Note that regular olive oil is processed like other RBD oils, so to avoid hexane processing and the resulting trans-fats, opt for virgin and extra virgin grades of olive oil.)