I used to use Canola oil almost exclusively as my liquid fat for baking. The popular press said it was the healthy oil. I felt really good – you know that feeling? – when I used it in quick breads, etc. I would even brag about my “healthy food”. Hmph. Now there’s a whole bunch of controversy about its health benefits, and I’m not sure whether I should buy another bottle…or not.
What is Canola Oil?
Canola comes from the rapeseed plant in the mustard family. Although rapeseed is rather toxic, in the 70s in Canada a new breed of the plant was crossbred so that it has low enough erucic acid and is not toxic. This was not genetic modification, but old-fashioned cross-breeding (think Mendel’s punnet squares…high school biology, anyone?). Because of the negative association with the word “rape”, the new oil was named Canola, for “Canadian Oil, Low Acid.”
Canola Oil is Healthy for You (?)
Why some sources say it’s good for you:
- Low saturated fat (7%), high monounsaturated fat (61%), and an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of about 2:1 (nearly ideal). Remember that this is all hot air if you are convinced that saturated fat is good for you.
- Web MD says canola oil “may help protect the heart by its effect on blood pressure, cholesterol, and inflammation.”
- Mayo Clinic: “Healthy and safe choice.”
Canola Oil is Bad for You
Why some sources say it’s dangerous/toxic for you:
- All sorts of bunk: from mustard gas to mad cow disease, rumors and myths about canola abound. If I didn’t list it here, the claim has been debunked. Canola isn’t poison. But what is it?
- Genetic Modification: If you’re trying to avoid GM foods, the only way is to find organic canola, because 80% of canola plants are now genetically modified. Of course, most sources say that the genetically modified genes don’t even come into play with oils, because they’re in the protein and are processed out.
- It turns rancid quickly. It is well-known that omega-3 fats go rancid easily. That is one reason flax oil needs to be in dark bottles and refrigerated. It lasts only about 6 weeks before going rancid. Canola has 11% or so omega-3s, so it goes rancid too easily and must be deodorized to hide the rancid smell. This process creates a particularly dangerous form of trans fats. (Nourishing Traditions, p. 128)
I have had some canola oil start smelling awfully rank, even when it’s not all that old, so I tend to believe this one. The Canola Council disagrees and states that Canola oil lasts on the shelf about one year.
- Trans fats: Because of the way canola is processed, it may have up to 4% trans fatty acids. Even Wikipedia admits to this, although Mary Enig says the numbers may be even higher. This will not be listed on your nutrition facts. 🙁
- Other processing issues: High heat and pressure, chemical solvents, and deodorizing all leave their mark on canola oil. Problems include possible trans fats, traces of chemicals, and rancid oil covered up by deodorizing.
- Causes heart lesions? The old rapeseed oil killed rats with heart lesions. Not the case with the new canola, but some studies have shown that canola is a greater culprit in heart lesions than saturated fats like butter. However, it’s not because of the erucic acid (like in rapeseed oil). The high levels of omega-3s were to blame, therefore balance between saturated fats and omega-3s is critical. (source)
- Other health issues: “It also causes vitamin E deficiency, undesirable changes in the blood platelets and shortened life-span in stroke-prone rats when it was the only oil in the animals’ diet. Furthermore, it seems to retard growth, which is why the FDA does not allow the use of canola oil in infant formula.19 When saturated fats are added to the diet, the undesirable effects of canola oil are mitigated. Most interesting of all is the fact that many studies show that the problems with canola oil are not related to the content of erucic acid, but more with the high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and low levels of saturated fats.” (source)
My interpretation: Don’t eat canola oil exclusively. Every one of these “hazards” seems to be mitigated by saturated fats, so if you’re largely eating traditional fats like butter and coconut oil, a little canola shouldn’t cause all these problems.
- Baked goods made with canola oil develop mold very quickly. (Nourishing Traditions, p. 19) Have you experienced this? I have…
- It’s a new oil in the history of the world. This is Kelly the Kitchen Kop’s common sense bottom line when it comes to canola. The Weston A. Price Foundation states: “No long-term studies on humans have been done.”
- Why Bother? I was surprised upon perusal of Nina Planck’s Real Food that she doesn’t mention any hazards of canola oil, and places it under the “monounsaturated/acceptable for moderate heat” column. However, she has published elsewhere that there’s no reason to use Canola oil (quoted by Kelly the Kitchen Kop), since we can get all the omega-3s we need from other food sources. So she doesn’t.
Katie Breaks it Down, Siskel and Ebert Style
Thumbs up: I’m not too afraid of GM foods (yet). I’m sure someday soon someone will convince me to avoid them entirely, but for now, they’re just on the suspect list, not the X-list.
Thumbs down: The omega 3s won’t help me if they’re damaged. And I can get my monounsaturated fats from.
Thumbs down: The processing of this oil is frightening – all those hazards of high heat and pressure, chemical extraction, are real. To buy organic canola costs a ton, and it’s not worth it when the health benefits are questionable. Canola is only good as a cheap, liquid oil, not a health food.
Thumbs Twitching in Confusion and Defeat: As far as rancid oils go, as terrible as they are for my health, I am sure we all consume some damaged fats more often than we’d think. I just burned my butter tonight by throwing it in a too-hot cast iron pan for buttered carrots. Did I throw it out and start over because the fats were probably not healthy for my family? Nope – I threw in the carrots and got dinner a-going! Perhaps I should have started over, but I didn’t. I take risks sometimes, so maybe having a bottle of canola in my cupboard for emergencies isn’t such a bad idea. I’ll write down the date I buy it to make sure I don’t keep it too long and buy a small bottle. UPDATE: I’ve never actually done this. I have some refined olive oil (sold as “pure” or “light” oil) for sometimes use and use refined coconut oil , melted, otherwise.
I won’t think of canola as a “healthy” oil, but I don’t think I’ll treat it with as much horror as trans fats and shortening. If I’m avoiding my omega-6s in general in most foods, a little canola won’t throw off my ratio too terribly.
What’s an oil “emergency” you ask? Sometimes you just don’t want to take the extra step of melting butter or coconut oil for a quick bread (5 minutes can make or break a recipe when the 16-month-old may require your attention at any moment).
UPDATE: I was thinking about my “emergency (compromise) oil” that I think I’d like to have on hand. Why not corn or “vegetable” oil, since Canola isn’t the health wonder it’s been hyped as? I’m choosing the lesser (I think of two evils here if I go with Canola, because polyunsaturated oils are bad for you, too.
The Bottom Line
Canola is a new oil. It might hurt you. It might help you. The new-ness makes me nervous, but it doesn’t scare me to death.
- Try to use more tried-and-true fats whenever possible
- DON’T use canola as your main source of fat
- But when you need a liquid oil on hand…keep a (small) bottle around, just in case. (And of course, read my “I don’t know nuthin’!” disclaimer in the sidebar before you take any advice from me!)
A friend of mine has a goal to try one new recipe every week. I think that’s a noble endeavor, and if you’ve got the mental energy to try something new, choose the recipe (even if you don’t get to the actual trying until next week or later!).
Read all the Fat Full Fall posts at the beginning.