Canola is a relatively new oil which was developed in the 1970s at the University of Manitoba in Canada, and this is also where its name comes from.
It is a type of edible oil produced from the seeds of different varieties of rapeseed plants, which is often used for cooking purposes (although it also works as a biodiesel fuel). The Rapeseed Association of Canada chose the word canola to refer to Canadian oil. Other sources such as the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language claim that it is represents the initials of Can(ada) o(il) l(ow) a(cid).
How Canola Oil is Made
Even though canola oil is derived from rapeseed, it still has to undergo several processes in order to eliminate unwanted components of the rapeseed such as erucic acid. The seeds are heated and then crushed. Several chemicals can then be used in order to refine the oil, although hexane is by far the most common.
Once the crude oil is obtained, it is refined further using organic acid and water precipitation. It is then deodorized through a process known as steam distillation. Around 40% of the rapeseed can be converted into canola oil; the rest can also be used in feed for animals.
Since it was developed, canola oil has found many uses including for products such as candles, biofuels, lipsticks, inks for newspaper and lubricants. Even though it was developed in the 1970s, it was not until 1985 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared it safe for human consumption.
Despite the fact that canola oil is derived from the rapeseed plant, it needs to be distinguished from rapeseed oil.
While the same basic ingredients are used for both, they undergo different processes.(1) Most importantly, rapeseed oil does not go through the process which eliminates the erucic acid—a known toxin that is harmful to people when consumed in large quantities.
Canola Oil and Cooking
It is often claimed to be very versatile and healthy compared to a lot of other types of oils due to its high content of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (which it contains in a ratio of 1:2). Compared to other common oils such as soybean or olive oil, canola oil has around half the saturated fat content. Due to its ability to lower cholesterol levels, canola oil has also received a qualified health claim from the US FDA.(2) Others simply prefer it for the fact that it has a very high heat tolerance, which means that it can be used for a variety of different cooking methods such as grilling and deep frying.
After it had been in use for cooking for over a decade, a new genetically-modified strain of rapeseed was introduced in 1995.
The goal of this new rapeseed was to be more resistant to herbicide.
Eventually, most of the rapeseed plants used for canola oil production were derived from this genetically modified strain. By 2009, 90% of the rapeseed crops grown in the US and Canada were resistant to herbicides. One study conducted in 2010 in North Dakota (3), the state which is responsible for 90% of American canola oil production, showed that the herbicide-resistant rapeseed was now significantly present in the wild population of rape plants, accounting for approximately 80%.
This brought on concerns whether or not this would make it noticeably harder to contain the growth of wild rapeseed using the herbicides that has been used in the past. However, a more pressing concern was whether or not the use of the genetically engineered rapeseed caused the canola oil to not only lose some of its health benefits, but to actually become harmful for human consumption.
At the moment, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that canola oil might be unhealthy due to the fact that it is a genetically modified oil. However, there have been studies and reports on the efficacy of GMO foods, in general, and some of them did present troubling evidence that GMOs might be harmful.
One general review published in Environmental Sciences Europe looked at 19 different studies focused on the effects of GMO on mammals, and they indicated that GMO foods can lead to kidney and liver problems.
High in Trans Fats
Another issue with canola oil is the fact that certain research would suggest that the trans fat content is not as low as was thought previously.
While canola oil is advertised as having a minimal 0.2% trans fat content, one study performed at the University of Florida at Gainesville showed that the canola oil which is available commercially for cooking has trans content as high as 4.6%.
Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, founders of the Weston A. Price foundation, warn people that public opinion is still high regarding canola oil because the content of trans fatty acids is not listed on the label and because companies are not obligated by law to mention whether their products contain GMO ingredients or not:
“Like all modern vegetable oils, canola oil goes through the process of refining, bleaching and degumming – all of which involve high temperatures or chemicals of questionable safety. And because canola oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which easily become rancid and foul-smelling when subjected to oxygen and high temperatures, it must be deodorized. The standard deodorization process removes a large portion of the omega-3 fatty acids by turning them into trans fatty acids. The consumer has no clue about the presence of trans fatty acids in canola oil because they are not listed on the label.”
Given the worrying studies on GMO foods and the high trans fat content in canola oil, it’s probably safest to stay away from it for now. In the meantime, try an oil like coconut oil which has a high smoke point, can lower cholesterol and boost immune systems.(4) Other alternatives which are recommended include red palm oil and traditional olive oil.
(1) Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “All about Oil”.
(3) Nature magazine, “GM crop escapes into the American wild”.
(4) The Candida Diet, “The Health Benefits Of Coconut Oil”.
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Editorial Assistant: Alicia Wozniak/Editor: Bryonie Wise