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According to the mainstream media, Canola oil is “heart healthy” and a good source of monounsaturated fats similar to olive oil. Unfortunately, much of what you hear in the mainstream media has been influenced by the heavy-handed marketing tactics of big food companies.
Canola oil is cheap to produce, so they’ve spent a lot of money trying to convince you to think Canola is a “health oil” so that consumers, restaurants, institutions, etc. will buy it up as their main oil of choice.
Here is the inconvenient truth about Canola oil.
A Brief History of Canola
Canola oil is made from the seeds of a plant called rape, which is in the turnip family. Since the Industrial Revolution, rapeseed oil has been an important component of lubricants for ships and steam engines, because unlike most oils, it sticks to wet metal.
During World War II, the U.S. built a lot of ships, and so needed lots of rapeseed oil, but couldn’t get it from traditional suppliers in Europe and Asia. The Canadian rapeseed industry, which had been relatively small, exploded to fill the gap, and played an important role in the allied naval effort, becoming rich and powerful in the process.
But rapeseed oil demand plummeted when the war was over, and so began an intensive program to breed a rapeseed edible to humans. Traditional rapeseed oil contains almost 60 percent monounsaturated fatty acids (compared to about 70 percent in olive oil). Unfortunately, about two-thirds of the monounsaturated fatty acids in rapeseed oil are erucic acid, a 22-carbon monounsaturated fatty acid that had been associated with Keshan’s disease, which causes fibrotic lesions on the heart.
But, in 1978, the word “Canola” was invented to describe a new type of oilseed that was selectively bred from the original rapeseed to have significantly less erucic acid. This new oil was first developed in Canada, and the name Canola actually comes from the term, Canadian oil, low acid.
In nature, there is actually no such thing as a “Canola plant” that produces “Canola oil.” Canola oil is simply a trade name for low-erucic acid rapeseed oil.
How Canola Oil Became Mainstream
The more interesting part of the history of Canola oil is how such an industrial oil became the most popular cooking oil used today…
In collusion with the American Heart Association, numerous government agencies and departments of nutrition at major universities, the food oil industry had been promoting polyunsaturated oils as a heart-healthy alternative to “artery-clogging” saturated fats.
But by the late 1970s, the cooking oil industry in North America realized it had a problem: According to The Oiling of America, it had become increasingly clear that consumption of industrial, polyunsaturated oils—particularly corn oil and soybean oil—was strongly associated with numerous inflammatory health problems, including heart disease and cancer.
The industry was in a bind. It could not continue to make health claims about polyunsaturated oils and in the face of mounting evidence of their dangers. Nor could manufacturers return to using traditional saturated fats—butter, lard, tallow, palm oil and coconut oil—without causing an uproar. Besides, these fats cost far too much for the huge profit margins in the industry.
According to “The Great Con-ola,” the solution was to embrace the use of monounsaturated oils, such as olive oil. Studies had shown that olive oil has a “better” effect than polyunsaturated oils on cholesterol levels and other blood parameters.
Besides, Ancel Keys and other promoters of the now-debunked lipid hypothesis had popularized the notion that the Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil protected against heart disease and ensured a long and healthy life.
But, olives require special growing conditions that make it impossible for olive oil to be used widely, plus olive oil is costly, especially for commercial products like margarine, biscuits, salad dressings, etc.
In the 1980s, Canola oil came to market in the United States. For that to happen, it had to be granted GRAS (generally regarded as safe) status by the Food and Drug Administration. GRAS status is typically awarded to foods and herbal products that have been traditionally used, for hundreds or even thousands of years, without known adverse effects.
Canola oil, however, was a new product without any track record. And it was developed from a banned product known to have toxic effects. So how did it obtain GRAS status? No one knows for sure, but it has been rumored that the Canadian government spent US$50 million to get it approved.
Genetic Engineering and Canola
While the original Canola was created through basic laboratory breeding and selection techniques, a major modification in 1995 introduced Canola that was genetically engineered to contain bacteria DNA to make it resistant to the toxic herbicide, glyphosate (RoundUp). In fact, most Canola oil today comes from genetically engineered seed so far deviated from natural rapeseed that it can be patented.
Related: The Difference Between Open Pollinated Seeds, Hybrid and GMOs
Today, about 90 percent of the world’s Canola crop is genetically engineered to resist Roundup. The Roundup-Ready Canola seed is patented by Bayer-Monsanto, and farmers can be sued for saving the seed or for having “unauthorized” Canola plants on their fields.
Since canola is wind pollenated, and pollen drift is impossible to stop, it is almost impossible for organic Canola farmers to keep these patented contaminants out of their crops. It is also next to impossible for farmers (organic or otherwise) to combat the Superweeds that are evolving in response to constant, massive doses of Roundup.
There are numerous concerns about genetically engineered (GM) crops that should make anyone cautious (at best) about their consumption. But the simple fact that Roundup-Ready Canola is doused repeatedly throughout the season with a carcinogenic herbicide that is known to harm both people and planet, is reason enough to stay far away from it.
Bogus Health Claims for Canola
It is true that Canola oil is high in monounsaturates, but Canola oil is anything but “healthy.” Canola oil typically ranges between 55-65% monounsaturated fat and between 28-35% polyunsaturated fat, with just a small amount of saturated fat.
While we’ve been led to believe that high monounsaturated fat oils are good for us (which they are in the case of extra virgin olive oil or from unprocessed nuts or seeds), the fact is that Canola oil has more detriments than it does benefits.
Highly Refined and Processed
One of the biggest problems with highly processed, industrial oils like corn, soybean, sunflower, and Canola, is that the polyunsaturated component of the oil is highly unstable under heat, light, and pressure, which heavily oxidize the polyunsaturates, increasing free radicals in your body.
The end result of all of this refining and processing are oils that are highly inflammatory in your body when you ingest them, potentially contributing to heart disease, stroke, cancer, weight gain, and other degenerative diseases.
Related: The Skinny on Fat, Part 1: Dangers of Polyunsaturated Oils
The reason that extra virgin olive oil is good for you is that it is usually cold pressed without the use of heat and solvents to aid extraction. Canola oil, on the other hand, is typically extracted and refined using high heat, pressure, and toxic petroleum solvents such as hexane, which is known to cause nerve damage in humans. Though you can find cold-pressed, organic Canola oil at specialty stores, almost all Canola oil on the market undergoes a process of caustic refining, degumming, bleaching, and deodorization, all using high heat and questionable chemicals.
(If your food requires hexane, degumming solvents, bleaching and chemical deodorization, should you be eating it?)
Even worse, all of the high-heat, high-pressure processing with solvents actually forces some of the omega-3 content of Canola oil to be transformed into trans fats! According to Dr. Mary Enig, Nutritional Biochemist, “Although the Canadian government lists the trans fat content of Canola at a minimal 0.2 percent, research at the University of Florida at Gainesville, found trans fat levels as high as 4.6 percent in commercial liquid Canola oil.“
Depletes Vitamin E
Possibly the greatest danger of Canola oil is that even though it now has Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status, no long-term studies on humans have ever been done. Animal studies on Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed oil were performed when the oil was first developed and have continued to the present. The results challenge not only the health claims made for Canola oil, but also the theoretical underpinnings of the lipid hypothesis.
In 1996, Japanese scientists announced a study wherein a special Canola oil diet had actually killed laboratory animals. Reacting to this unpublished, but verified and startling information, a duplicate study was conducted by Canadian scientists, using piglets and a Canola oil-based milk-replacer diet. In this second study, published in Nutrition Research, 1997, the researchers verified that Canola oil somehow depleted the piglets of vitamin E to a dangerously low level. And another study confirmed this as well.
Any “food” substance that depletes vitamin E rapidly is extremely dangerous. Vitamin E is absolutely essential to human health. It is critically necessary in the body when processed fats are eaten because Vitamin E controls the lipid peroxidation that results in dangerous free-radical activity, which in turn causes lesions in your arteries and other problems.
Canola oil has been shown to be a heavy abuser of Vitamin E, with the potential for rapidly depleting the body of this important vitamin.
Research also shows that canola oil causes detrimental changes to blood platelets, and it shortens the life span in rats that are prone to stroke if it is the only oil in the diet.
Unhealthy Omega 3 to Omega 6 Ratio
Another downside of Canola oil is its high omega-6 fatty acid content.
Like the omega-3 fatty acids found in eggs, fish and seafood, omega-6 is essential for health. However, Western diets tend to be extremely high in omega-6 (which is found in many processed foods) and low in omega-3, causing an imbalance that leads to increased inflammation in your body.
While the most healthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fat intake is 1:1, the typical Western diet is estimated to be around 15:1. This imbalance in fatty acids, and the inflammation it causes, is linked with chronic conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, and heart disease.
The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of Canola oil is 2:1, which is not terribly disproportionate. Yet because Canola oil is used in so many processed and prepared foods, it’s considered to be a major dietary source of omega-6.
Reducing your consumption of processed and prepared foods, and replacing Canola oil and other vegetable oils with butter, coconut oil, olive oil or lard can help you keep a better balance of omega 3 to omega 6 in your diet.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that most Canola is an inflammatory oil in your body that contains foreign, genetically engineered DNA, trans fats, and toxic chemical residues, including glyphosate and hexane. Industrial Canola is also an environmental scourge and a threat to organic farming, and it should be avoided at all costs.
The dangers of Canola oil make its use unjustifiable. Healthier, traditional alternatives include:
- Extra virgin olive oil – for low temperature cooking or as a healthy salad dressing oil. Do not heat extra virgin olive oil! (My favorite olive oil.)
- Avocado oil – great for all everything from salads and mayonnaise to frying due to its high smoke point. Mellow, buttery flavor. Although somewhat better for the environment than Canola, avocado oil is high in omega-6 too, so use sparingly. (I use this brand avocado oil .)
- Coconut oil – great for all temperatures of cooking due to it’s high stability under heat. A great source of healthy saturated fats in the form of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), one of which is Lauric Acid, which helps support the immune system and is lacking in most western diets. Virgin coconut oil tastes like coconut, so it’s great for baking and dishes where the flavor of coconut will enhance the dish. Refined coconut oil does not taste like coconut, and is great for general purpose cooking. (My favorite coconut oil.)
- Organic grass-fed butter or ghee – a great source of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), which has even been shown in studies to help prevent cancer, and help muscle building and fat burning. Ghee is better at high temperatures than even coconut oil. (This ghee is made in the U.S.)
- Lard, tallow and other animal fats from grass-fed, pasture-raised animals – also a source of CLA, Vitamin D, and saturated fats that help with hormone balance, brain function and vitamin absorption.
Updated August 2021