Canola oil remains one the most popular fats today both at the healthfood store and the supermarket. It is also hands down the preferred cooking oil in the restaurant industry. It has maintained this popularity for nearly two decades.
High in beneficial omega-3 and “Mediterranean” monounsaturated fats, it appeals to those who have superficial knowledge of the importance of healthy fats in the diet. Low in saturated fats, canola oil also appeals to consumers (still?) following the fatally flawed Food Pyramid which inexplicably continues to recommend vegetable oils as heart healthy.
On top of the wide range of consumers who believe canola oil to be healthy, it is ultra cheap to produce, ship and store. Not surprisingly, this is a home run with food manufacturers. Finally, the mild taste of canola oil makes it a perfect choice to blend with more expensive olive oil. This characteristic is why most restaurants use cheap canola oil/olive oil blends instead of 100% olive oil. Cooking oil in professional kitchens is usually a mix of 25% olive oil to 75% canola oil (1). Interestingly, if you ask what cooking oil is used in the kitchen, the answer is usually “olive oil” even when this is not completely true.
The result of canola’s appeal to a large segment of consumers and industry is that many processed foods at both the supermarket and healthfood store contain canola. Prepared foods. Baked goods. Crackers and chips. Cereals and cookies. Even Whole Foods defends its use of canola oil in its stores and brands (1).
Healthy for your heart.
Good for your waistline.
Green for the planet.
Are these claims about canola oil really true when examined closely?
Canola Oil Con
The canola plant is a hybridized version of the rapeseed.
Rapeseed oil first appeared during the Industrial Revolution, where it served as a lubricant in ships, steam engines, and other machinery. Note that rapeseed oil is not to be confused with grapeseed oil.
While popular for industrial use, rapeseed as food was severely limited by certain potent anti-nutrients it contained, such as erucic acid. Two-thirds of the omega-9 (monounsaturated) fats in rapeseed oil is erucic acid. Studies of this fat in the diet indicate problems. One study of Chinese children consuming rapeseed oil indicated an association with Keshan’s disease, which causes fibrotic lesions on the heart (2). Other studies of animals indicated the cardiotoxicity, renal toxicity or hematological toxicity of erucic acid as well (3, 4).
Rapeseed Oil Transforms to Canola Oil
Transforming dangerous rapeseed oil into a fat that could be safely consumed by both humans and livestock proved no easy task. Plant breeders in Canada finally hit upon the right formula in the late 1970’s using seed splitting.
This technique of genetic manipulation produced a variety of rapeseed that is low in erucic acid. Even better, the hybrid is high in oleic acid, the beneficial monounsaturated fat in olive oil.
The initial name for this hybridized oil was LEAR (Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed) oil. But, this acronym didn’t prove catchy enough. Eventually, this new rapeseed hybrid was renamed CANOLA by combining the words CANADA and OIL. This acronym proved much more marketable.
Then, in 1985, the Canadian government obtained GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status for canola after spending 50 million dollars. With GRAS came the blessing of recipes using canola oil in popular healthbooks by Andrew Weil and Barry Seals (5). If health gurus promote it in bestselling books, canola must be healthy, right?
The CON-OLA industry was born!
Canola One of the First Crops to Undergo Genetic Modification
In addition to the seed splitting, the canola plant was one of the first to go through and get acceptance for genetic modification in 1995. GMO crops are Roundup ready, which means they can be liberally sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate without wilting and dying.
With the backing of Monsanto, the FDA, the Canadian government, and health gurus alike, this truly problematic crop was crowned King of Edible Oils by the processed food system.
The question is … have you been conned too? If you are still not sure about canola, here are six BIG reasons to avoid it in your diet.
6 Reasons to Avoid Canola Oil
Almost all canola on the market is genetically modified. This means that it is grown using obscene amounts of Roundup and other toxic Big Ag chemicals usually made by Monsanto. Even if the heavy processing claims to remove all of the Roundup residue, it ends up in our air, water, and soil, and eventually, us (6).
Canola oil is heavily processed to produce the final so called edible oil product.
What is this processing like? If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the video below on how canola oil is made hopefully makes it abundantly clear that this supposedly healthy fat is anything but.
A 70 minute wash with a “solvent”? Seriously?
Did you see the “vegetable shortening” wax pressed out of the massive machine? Ugh! Yuck! It seems car tires are less processed than this stuff!
Here’s canola oil processing in a nutshell:
- Pressed again.
- BLEACHED (to lighten the color)
Please explain how butter made from real cream or tallow and lard from pastured animals is unhealthy compared with highly refined butter spreads like
stupid Smart Balance containing canola oil? How is using all these pesticides, chemicals, and carcinogenic solvents good for our planet or our bodies? Clearly, the only way canola can be considered healthy is by duping the consumers using millions spent on slick marketing full of half truths and the (bought) stamp of approval from government agencies.
Canola in Animal Feed-ickiness
Besides an eye-opening walkthrough of canola oil processing nastiness, the video above reminds us why meat from conventional animals is not a good idea either for ourselves or the planet. These poor, abused animals are being fed primarily GMO feed containing canola, soy, and corn. If you enjoyed a steady diet of industrial byproducts, how healthy do you think you would be? You are what you eat, and your meat is what it eats! Best to source these foods from humane, sustainable grassfed farms.
University at Berkeley notes that canola may contain hexane residues. Hexane is some really bad stuff; it is a byproduct of gasoline refining. While manufacturers claim that the hexane is removed, hexane has been found in processed soy foods, which undergo similar industrial processes to canola. Unfortunately, the FDA seems out to lunch (probably on canola laced foods no less) on this issue. So, there is conveniently little research on just how problematic hexane and other manufacturing residues and byproducts are in foods like canola (7, 8).
These unknowns just serve as another reason to stay away from canola even if organic!
Partially Hydrogenated Canola
Thanks to the underhanded work of industry front groups like the Center for Science in the “Public Interest”, in the 1980s Americans had partially hydrogenated oils foisted on them as health foods. Decades of ill health and chronic disease have been driven by the low profit potential and nonpatentability of animal fats and other natural traditional oils.
Even though transfats now must be labeled, it is still hidden in most cases unbeknownst to the consumer. According to the Weston Price Foundation:
Like all modern vegetable oils, canola oil goes through the process of refining, bleaching and degumming — all of which involve high temperatures or chemicals of questionable safety. And because canola oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which easily become rancid and foul-smelling when subjected to oxygen and high temperatures, it must be deodorized. The standard deodorization process removes a large portion of the omega-3 fatty acids by turning them into trans fatty acids. Although the Canadian government lists the trans content of canola at a minimal 0.2 percent, research at the University of Florida at Gainesville, found trans levels as high as 4.6 percent in commercial liquid oil.
But wait, there’s more. How much hydrogenated canola oil is actually in those processed foods ?
The trans contents were between 0.56% and 4.2% of the total fatty acids. Consumers will obtain isomerized essential fatty acids from vegetable oils currently marketed in the U. S… A large portion of canola oil used in processed food has been hardened through the hydrogenation process, which introduces levels of trans fatty acids into the final product as high as 40 percent (9).
As these two sources discuss, transfats are a health disaster, occur in far greater amounts than most people realize in processed foods, and are often hidden on labeling!
Fatty Acid Profile Inappropriate for Cooking
Don’t be fooled by claims that canola is good for you because it is low in saturated fat! Here is the fatty acid profile of canola oil (not to be confused with saffola oil):
- Saturated: 7%
- Monounsaturated: 63%
- Polyunsaturated (PUFA): 28% (Omega-6 and Omega-3 around a 2:1 ratio)
While canola oil could certainly have a worse fatty acid profile, the PUFAs it contains are prone to rancidity even if organic. This is due to the heavy processing required to process the canola plant into canola oil. One of the few things it has going for it is a not too terrible omega 3:6 ratio.
You certainly should never cook let alone fry with canola oil! It is completely inappropriate for this purpose creating free radicals from the 30% or so PUFA content (similar to peanut oil). Compare this with the 3-15% PUFA content of olive oil, 4% for grassfed beef tallow, 10% for pastured lard, and 12% for avocado oil. These fats are far healthier choices for cooking where omega-9 fatty acids are primary.
Canola: Hiding in Plain Sight
One of the biggest problems with canola oil is that it is in everything from Walmart to Whole Foods! Note that organic canola oil isn’t much different or better than conventional either.
Organic canola oil is still heavily processed with a not so great fatty acid profile. In short, most of the known health risks associated with regular canola oil are present with organic canola oil. Kind of like organic cheerios vs regular cheerios, a grade of D- or a grade of F. Is that much of an improvement?
So, while Whole Foods is right to defend its canola oil from claims of hexane and other forms of contamination, it is still, at the end of the day, canola oil!
It is just canola oil with a few less issues than its even more icky GMO canola cousin. And note, just because Whole Foods or you use a non-gmo canola, non-gmo isn’t organic. It is still almost certainly sprayed with Roundup and grown with other industrial ag chemicals. It will also most likely have a fair bit of genetic contamination from being grown in the same regions as GM canola.
In the final analysis, there is really little to no redeeming value in consuming canola oil in the diet. Anyone who is remotely researched about the benefits of healthy fats quickly realizes this. It’s not really even a decent oil to consider for personal care uses like oil pulling either.
Even the Wall Street Journal once reported on the connection between cooking with canola oil and lung cancer! (WSJ, June 7, 1995, p. B6). You have to wonder how that piece slipped past the industry-friendly eyes of the editors! Whoops!
Another very telling piece of scientific research made national headlines in 2017. Temple University Health System researchers found that canola oil consumption triggered worsened memory and learning ability in mice with Alzheimer’s disease. It is the first study to find that con-ola is bad for the brain. (10)
While it is shocking that most healthfood stores including Whole Foods continue to stock this oil in the “healthy oils” section and use it generously in popular “hot bar” foods, a slow erosion of support is underway. Chefs in the know are abandoning olive oil “blends” that are mostly canola oil and returning to butter and 100% extra virgin olive oil. Some locally owned healthfoods stores are refusing to stock it.
However, there is a long way to go to get this industrialized fat out of our food supply. The problem is many people are getting far more canola than they realize, since it is in so many foods, and still used so extensively in prepared foods and restaurants.
For your health and the health of your family, don’t get conned by canola oil!
John Moody is an author, speaker, farmer, homesteader, and Real Food activist. Most importantly, he is husband to an amazing wife and five awesome kids. John speaks nationally at a wide range of events, along with writing for numerous publications and consulting for farmers, homesteaders, and food businesses.
He recently published his first book, The Frugal Homesteader: Living the Good Life on Less.