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Food for Thought: Canola Oil, a Unique Omega-3…Thumbs up or Thumbs Down???

canola oil

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.
Fat Full Fall

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 EVOO (use the code STEWARDSHIP for 10% off at that site!).

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 (use the code STEWARDSHIP to get 10% off) , 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.

  1. Try to use more tried-and-true fats whenever possible
  2. DON’T use canola as your main source of fat
  3. 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!).

Enjoy!

Love to be confused? Have all the points of view? Want to know more about what you eat?

Read all the Fat Full Fall posts at the beginning.

This post is part of Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop and Real Life Sarah’s Your Life, Your Blog (link no longer available).

Sources:

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

About The Author

35 thoughts on “Food for Thought: Canola Oil, a Unique Omega-3…Thumbs up or Thumbs Down???”

  1. I only use coconut oil. sunflower oil, butter and flax seed oil. I press my own flax and sunflower oil as I need it. I love coconut oil because it is pure and very shelf stable.

  2. I came here looking for info on sunflower oil which you tossed in with Canola oil. I grow sunflowers and press my own oil. I use butter, olive oil, coconut oil and sunflower oil that I press myself. If there is something I ought to know I sure wish you’d tell me! GMO crap about killed me so now I am fighting for my very life. I can’t even walk into a restaurant or go to church when they serve sacrament. (the gluten stuff they use totally closes my throat even though I don’t take it myself. Please let me know if there is anything wrong with my sunflower oil!

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Cherlynn,
      I think sunflower oil is kind of high in omega 6s, but if you’re using it in moderation with other oils, that should be fine!

      Pressed it yourself! That is AWEsome…

      🙂 Katie

      1. I just picked up a bottle of sunflower oil at the store the other day b/c I was looking for a tasteless cooking oil, and wanted one that would avoid polyunsaturated fats. My bottle read 14g fat, 1g sat, 1g poly, 12g mono. An even better ratio than olive oil. So I came here looking for info about why you have never recommended it. Since what you said contradicted my bottle I dug around a bit more. Turns out there are different varieties of sunflower oil. The regular is high in omega-6/poly, but there is also a variety that is high in omega-3s called high oleic sunflower oil. That’s what mine is: Wegmans Organic High Oleic Sunflower Oil, Expeller Pressed. Hope that clarifies sunflower oil a bit!

        1. Clearly I’m still confused. 🙂 It’s not high in omega-3 but 9 since omega-3 is polyunsaturated and there isn’t much of that. Ha! Someday I’ll get it all straight.

  3. This was very interesting. I haven’t read your post about coconut oil, and perhaps the answer would be there, but if you dont use canola for baking something like muffins, what would you use? Do you substitute for butter in equal quantities?

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Laura,
      I usually use melted coconut oil, but melted butter will do, too. 🙂 Katie

  4. What is the best oil to use when you want something tasteless? I use butter in baked goods, and EVOO for most everything else, but I have a bottle of canola on hand for making slaw dressing, which I don’t want to taste like olive oil. I can’t think of anything else, but I’m sure I make other things that I don’t want to be strongly flavored by the oil.

    1. Victoria,
      I think I’d take “virgin olive oil” from a good source – which has almost no flavor – over canola. For many applications, melted refined coconut oil from a decent source works really well, too, although probably not in a dressing since it solidifies below 76 degrees! I buy both from here: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2009/08/13/a-good-deal-on-top-fats/

      (And so sorry I took so long to reply; my comments got out of hand as I finished up the second edition of my snacks book!)
      🙂 Katie

      1. I have discovered “extra light tasting” olive oil, and it is tasteless. But I don’t know if it is processed in some way. Do you know if some olive oils are processed in ways that would not be healthful?

        1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

          Victoria – Yes! “Extra light” is possibly not even 100% olive oil. See here for more:
          http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2009/06/03/olive-oil-primer-how-to-buy-use-and-store-and-some-precautions/

          🙂 Katie

  5. Very interesting food for thought.

    I tend to use mostly butter, goose fat, duck fat and the fat inherent in any meat or fish I’m cooking. If I make a stew with lamb or beef I’ll often skim off the fat that rises, allow it to separate and then use this for cooking – tastes great too!

    I use a little cold pressed olive oil on salads and some cold pressed organic rapeseed oil, walnut oil and hazelnut oil too. I’m interested to know the difference between canola and rapeseed in the UK – are we eating cultured rapeseed, ie low erucic acid?

    I tend to use my oil within the month and it always tastes delicious! Bright gold colour, nutty and not rancid in any way. I never have baked goods around long enough for them to go mouldy – I wonder if they would go off quicker with rapeseed oil? Hmm…

    I also use avocado flesh in baked recipes to replace oil – completely unprocessed right? I also use ground nuts mostly and they have unprocessed oils in them that lessen the need for added oils.

    I like the argument that the fats we’ve been eating for thousands of years should be the first choice. I also think we need to be conscious of not adding extra fat to things, but trying to eat foods that are naturally fatty ie, whole milk, meat skin/bones and fat, oily fish, nuts etc etc.

    Must follow up all these references as fat is such a confusing and important issue. thanks!

    x x x

    1. Naomi,
      Great questions! As far as rapeseed oil in the UK, I have to admit I’m clueless. I’ve never tried avocado in baked goods, but that totally sounds intriguing – avocado is a great fat to use, clearly natural and high in healthy monounsaturates.

      🙂 Katie

  6. Hi Katie,
    I am a little bit confused by part of this article. I thought that canola oil had a high omega 6 content not omega 3–with a ratio of 2:1 from what I have read. In a couple of places in the article you talk about the high omega 3 content of canola oil being a problem especially in relation to the level of saturated fat. Can you clarify this? Thanks so much for your help!

    1. Heather,
      Canola is a 2:1 ratio of 6s to 3s; however, most vegetable oils have MUCH more omega 6s than that. In comparison, Canola is touted as a good source of omega 3s. Remember that the reason we need more omega 3s in America is because our ratio is off on account of overconsumption of omega 6 heavy oils. It’s all about the ratio, and Canola oil has a good ratio. Saturated fat is good for you, which is an important key when you’re talking about an oil that has low saturated fat. The omega-3 content of Canola oil becomes a problem when it goes rancid, which happens pretty easily with this supposedly shelf-stable oil. Does that answer your question? It’s definitely an oil that makes me nervous, and I don’t really bother with it anymore!
      🙂 Katie

  7. Katie, I don’t know if you’ll read this since it’s an old post, but here goes anyways: I hate homemade mayo made with all EVOO or 1/2 EVOO and 1/2 coconut oil. I love mayo with all canola oil and I like mayo with 1/2 canola and 1/2 EVOO. So I’ve been compromising and using 1/2 canola from TJ’s (the label assures me it’s “Expeller Pressed- No Solvents Used”) and 1/2 EVOO. But after reading Kelly’s post on canola, I’m thinking of switching to 1/2 olive oil and 1/2 EVOO. But my olive oil label doesn’t have those “Expeller Pressed- No Solvents Used” assurances. What way would you go? This is the last thing I use canola for, but we sure do use a lot of homemade ranch dressing around here (and it’s probiotic, so why not?), so I’d like it to be as healthy as possible while still enjoying my food 😉

    1. Hmmmm…I do always see comments, even on old posts, so don’t worry about that one. I guess the real issue with Canola is the GMO thing, so you have to decide how worried you are about that. Can you find another refined oil that gives you the same flavor as canola, which is hardly any flavor at all, right? I do use half regular olive oil, but I hear your point about making sure there’s no junk in it.

      Me? I’d probably use up both the canola I have and the olive oil, all the while searching the shelves for whatever the next best option will be.

      Don’t stress about it!
      🙂 Katie

  8. Pingback: Must have ingredients « Whimsical Cook

  9. Musings of a Housewife

    Followed a string of your posts and ended up here, lol. I don’t have any liquid-at-room-temp oils in my house anymore. But sometimes it sure would be nice to have. I may do as you say and buy a small bottle to have on hand just in case. I’m inherently skeptical of anything new, and I think time will tell that Canola isn’t that good for us, but we can’t avoid EVERYTHING bad. (And I’m so glad you told the browned butter story b/c that happens to me a lot, and I always think I’m probably killing my family but I’m too lazy/cheap to start over.)
    .-= Musings of a Housewife´s last blog ..Heads Up =-.

  10. Jami @An Oregon Cottage

    This was very informative from a health standpoint, as I’ve been trying to avoid bringing the big GMO crops into my house for awhile (corn, soy, cottonseed, canola, safflower) but from an organic gardening perspective. I’m disturbed about the prevelance of GMO crops and that by buying them we are part of the promotion of these crops, which most certainly threaten the food system as a whole, and the ability of organic methods being used more widely. I guess I’ve been trying to “vote” with my purchases, and now will keep it up for health reasons as well (there are some interesting Euopean studies on effects of GMO crops on health and children -ADD, etc….). Thanks!
    (PS, love your blog-I’ve gotten three recipes off that I will try just after finding it today!)

    1. Jami,
      Welcome! I hadn’t thought of (or had forgotten) the issue with GMO crops interfering with the natural ecosystem. Thank you for your excellent perspective! Hope you like the recipes —
      🙂 Katie

  11. Omega 3 Fatty Acids

    Thanks for sharing your information and focusing on canola oil. Canola oil is not harmful as I have been using canola oil for two years and am quite healthy.

  12. I’m not an expert on this by any means, but a good slightly less expensive option for Canola Oil is the Spectrum brand. Even the non-organic version is certified GMO-free and is expeller pressed rather than extracted with chemicals.

  13. I keep reading about your canola oil going rancid and I wonder what’s terribly wrong with MY canola oil because never in my life has my canola oil gone rancid, never. And I don’t use a lot! We usually cook with EVOO and use butter a lot… So I wonder if there’s a big difference between canola oil in the US and Canada or if my canola oil is even more full of chemicals!
    .-= kanmuri´s last blog ..Hybrid Wedding =-.

  14. Cascia @ Healthy Moms

    If you are looking for a more healthy alternative try cooking with extra virgin olive oil or grape seed oil. Great information, though. I love your blog.
    .-= Cascia @ Healthy Moms´s last blog ..Tips on How to Control Your Sugar Intake [Digg] =-.

    1. Cascia,
      Welcome! Thank you for the thoughts…I do cook with EVOO often, but you have to be careful of high heat: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2009/08/11/olive-oil-update-can-you-saute-with-evoo/
      You just can’t use EVOO in baking though (believe me, I know – my husband put it in a cake once. It’s very weird…)

      I’ve not personally looked into grapeseed oil, but I think I read at Kelly the Kitchen Kop that it’s high in omega-6s, which we need to try to avoid. ??

      Confusing stuff!
      🙂 Katie

  15. thatbobbiegirl

    Excellent, panic free discussion on canola – I’ve bookmarked this at delicious.com
    .-= thatbobbiegirl´s last blog ..Dyslexic much? Very yes. =-.

  16. Hi Katie. This a great, informative post. Thanks for all the research!

    Have you seen the video “Hidden Dangers in Kids Meals”? It’s available online, just google it. When I saw this video, I became scared of GMOs. Now I avoid them like the plague… especially for my son.

    We’re not perfect; we eat at restaurants occasionally, and at family and friend’s houses. However, I try never to bring GMO food into my house.

    If you google “effects of GMOs on children”, you will find a lot more information on the subject. Like you need more to research, right? 🙂

    1. Jen,

      I’m putting this on my “ideas” list though. Important stuff! I am taking a hiatus from research posts after this Fat Full Fall thing, though. 🙂 Thank you for giving me fodder for February!
      Katie

  17. Greta @ Mom Living Healthy

    Great research! I learned quite a bit about canola just from this post 🙂 I do use canola oil at times, but I will look at other options more often now.
    .-= Greta @ Mom Living Healthy´s last blog ..Workout Wednesday: No Gym, No Problem! =-.

  18. Really good info here! I use canola in my cooking… along with butter and EVOO. I never think of it as “healthy”, but I’m also comfortable with it. In this season of my life, that’s good enough for me. Who knows where I’ll stand in a couple years?
    .-= JessieLeigh´s last blog ..Bottled Water? =-.

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