Canola oil is a common vegetable based oil generally used today as a cooking oil. It is derived from rapeseed crops. Canola was developed in Canada in the 1970s as a hybrid rapeseed by reducing the erucic acid content in common rapeseed. The name Canola was applied to the modified seed to avoid negative connotations associated with the term rape. The term canola was derived from CANadian Oil Low Acid.
Cultivation and Processing
Canola is predominantly grown in North America where approximately 10 million tonnes is produced annually. Production is split roughly evenly between Canada and the United States. Canola oil ranks as the third highest in terms of global vegetable oil consumption.
Processing of rapeseed into oil involves heating and crushing the seeds to extract the oil. The oil is further refined to achieve a golden color and relatively odorless final product. The by-product of canola oil is a meal that is used as livestock feed. Approximately 45% of the seed is oil.
Historically, rapeseed oil was used as a fuel in lamps. Due to its high erucic acid content it was not considered valuable as a food grade oil (erucic acid is a toxin). Before breeding programs were introduced to reduce the erucic acid levels, rapeseed oil saw limited use as a lubricant in steam engines, particularly during World War II.
Canola Oil Food Properties
Canola oil is generally viewed by nutritional scientists and dieticians as a good alternative fat for cooking. Canola oil is comprised mainly of mono- and poly-unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats are considered “good” fats for their ability to lower HDL (bad) cholesterol and raise LDL (good) cholesterol levels.
Canola oil has the lowest average levels of saturated fat of any other vegetable oil. This, and a smoke point of approximately 400°F, makes it a sensible choice for frying foods.
Compared to olive oil and other vegetable oils, canola oil is virtually flavorless, and lends itself to many cooking applications where there is no desire for flavor to be transferred to the food being cooked.
Health Benefits and Safety
Aside from the benefits associated with unsaturated fat as a replacement for saturated fat, canola oil claims other benefits with varying degrees of confirmation. It has been suggested that canola oil works as an anti-inflammatory, helping to reduce symptoms of arthritis and heart disease.
There is a significant amount of misinformation, especially on the internet, regarding the safety of canola oil for human ingestion. Many canola oil detractors claim that because canola oil is genetically modified it is unnatural and unhealthy.
While it is true that some canola oil is produced from genetically modified seeds, canola itself was first developed using natural plant hybridization methods that have been in use for centuries. Referring to all canola as genetically modified is akin to referring to all dog breeds as genetically modified. Organic canola oil is available for consumers who prefer to steer clear of genetically modified organisms.
There have also been safety concerns regarding the content of erucic acid in canola oil. At less than two percent erucic acid, canola oil has been determined safe by the FDA. Furthermore, there are no confirmed reports of ill effects from canola oil consumption in its 40 years of use.
As always, it is best to go to the experts when determining if a product is safe and healthy. That is, avoid any information provided by groups who have a vested interest. This includes canola farmers and producers as well as groups offering the “safer” alternative. Nutritional science, government agencies and a history of use point to canola oil’s reputation as a safe and healthy choice when compared to products containing saturated and trans fats.