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.
History of Canola Canola oil is made from something called rapeseed. The word Canola was coined in 1978 to describe a new type of oil that was developed from a genetic manipulation of rapeseed. This new oil was first developed in Canada and the name Canola actually comes from the term, Can adian o il, l ow a cid. In nature, there is no such thing as a “Canola plant” that produces “Canola oil.” Most Canola oil today is an artificially created, genetically modified food whose seed is so far deviated from natural rapeseed that it can be patented.
The more interesting part of the history of Canola oil is why such an oil was developed in the first place. By the late 1970s, the oil industry in North America realized it had a problem. In collusion with the American Heart Association, numerous government agencies and departments of nutrition at major universities, the industry had been promoting polyunsaturated oils as a heart-healthy alternative to “artery-clogging” saturated fats. Unfortunately, it had become increasingly clear that polyunsaturated oils, particularly corn oil and soybean oil, cause numerous health problems, including and especially cancer.
The industry was in a bind. It could not continue using large amounts of liquid polyunsaturated oils and make health claims about them in the face of mounting evidence of their dangers. Nor could manufacturers return to using traditional healthy saturates—butter, lard, tallow, palm oil and coconut oil—without causing an uproar. Besides, these fats cost too much for the cut-throat 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 diet-heart idea 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.
Traditional rapeseed oil was a monounsaturated oil that had been used extensively in many parts of the world, notably in China, Japan and India. It 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, characterized by fibrotic lesions of the heart.
In the late 1970s, using a technique of plant breeding called seed splitting, Canadian plant breeders came up with a variety of rapeseed that produced a monounsaturated oil low in 22-carbon erucic acid and high in 18-carbon oleic acid, like olive oil. It was originally called LEAR, which stands for Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed. However, neither the name Rape (which came from the Latin word, Rapum, meaning “turnip”) nor LEAR were suitable for marketing. From a marketing standpoint, the new name, Canola, was great!
In the 1980s, Canola oil began to be marketed in the United States. For that to happen, it had to be granted GRAS (generally regarded as safe) status by the US 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 was a new product without any track record. And it was developed from a 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.
While the original Canola was created through laboratory seed splitting techniques, a major modification in 1995 introduced Canola that was genetically-engineered with foreign bacteria DNA to be resistant to the toxic herbicide, Roundup. Today, about 82 percent of the world’s Canola crop is genetically engineered to resist Roundup. The Roundup Ready Canola seed is patented by Monsanto, and farmers can be sued for saving the seed or for having “unauthorized” Canola plants on their fields. Since pollen drift is impossible to stop, it is very, very difficult for organic Canola farmers to keep these patented contaminants out of their crops.
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 virgin olive oil or from unprocessed nuts or seeds), the fact is that Canola oil has more detriments than it does benefits.
One of the biggest problems with highly processed and refined vegetable oils such as corn oil, soybean oil and Canola oil 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, weight gain, and other degenerative diseases. (See The Skinny on Fat, Part 1 for more information on processed oils and disease.)
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. Most Canola oil undergoes a process of caustic refining, degumming, bleaching, and deodorization, all using high heat and questionable chemicals.
Even worse, all of this 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.” And this is the crap that they are marketing to you as a “heart-healthy” oil!
Possibly the greatest danger of Canola oil is that even though Canola oil now has Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status, no long-term studies on humans have 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 diet-heart 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.
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 now has been shown to be a very heavy abuser of Vitamin E, with the potential for rapidly depleting the body of this important vitamin.
The bottom line is that Canola is an inflammatory oil in your body and should be avoided. Healthier, traditional alternatives include:
Extra virgin olive oil – for low temperature cooking or as a healthy salad dressing oil
Virgin 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.
Organic grass-fed butter - 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.
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.