Canola oil, a popular vegetable oil, is present in numerous dishes. Due to health and production concerns, many have decided to exclude it from their meals. But, you might still be pondering if using canola oil is a good idea.
In this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of canola oil.
What’s canola oil?
Originating in Canada, canola oil comes from the canola plant, a result of the crossbreeding of the rapeseed plant. The term “canola” blends “Canada” with “ola,” which signifies oil.
Since the canola plant’s inception, breeders have introduced many varieties that enhance seed quality, boosting canola oil production.
A significant portion of canola crops are genetically altered (GMO) to better the oil quality and the plant’s resistance to weed killers.
Actually, a 2011 study revealed that more than 90% of the canola plants cultivated in the US have been modified for herbicide resistance.
Apart from oil, canola crops produce canola meal, which is a frequent ingredient in animal food.
Additionally, canola oil is an alternative to diesel fuel and an ingredient in products containing plasticizers, like tires.
How is canola oil made?
Producing canola oil involves several stages.
As per the Canola Council of Canada, these steps include:
- Cleaning the seeds. Canola seeds undergo a cleaning process to eliminate unwanted elements like stalks and soil.
- Preparing and flaking the seeds. Seeds are gently warmed up and then processed by roller mills to break down the seed’s cell wall.
- Cooking the seeds. Steam-cooked seed flakes undergo heating for about 15–20 minutes.
- Oil extraction. These cooked flakes are then passed through a pressing process, which retrieves about half of the oil.
- Further extraction using solvents. The leftover flakes, which still contain some oil, are processed with a chemical named hexane to get the remaining oil.
- Removing the solvent. Any hexane in the canola meal is removed by reheating it.
- Refining the oil. Post extraction, the oil undergoes refinement processes including steam distillation and filtration.
Additionally, for products like margarine, canola oil is subjected to hydrogenation. This step transforms the oil’s structure by infusing hydrogen molecules, making it solid at room temperature. While this increases its shelf life, it also introduces trans fats. The primary source of trans fats in our diet is these partially hydrogenated oils, with a smaller portion coming from natural sources like dairy and meat.
However, these man-made trans fats are detrimental to our health and are closely associated with heart ailments. This has led nations, including the US in 2018, to prohibit their usage in food items.
It remains uncertain if trans fats from natural sources pose similar health risks.
Summary: Canola oil comes from the canola plant and its production process involves certain chemicals to help extract the oil efficiently.
Nutritional profile of canola oil
Canola offers a good dose of vitamins E and K. In a single tablespoon (15 ml) of canola oil, you get:
- Calories: 124
- Vitamin E: 16% of your daily intake
- Vitamin K: 8% of your daily intake
Besides these vitamins, canola oil doesn’t have other significant vitamins or minerals.
Fats in canola oil
Canola is often praised for its low saturated fat content.
Here’s the breakdown of fats in canola oil:
- Saturated fat: 7%
- Monounsaturated fat: 64%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 28%
Canola oil’s polyunsaturated fats consist of linoleic acid (or omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 sourced from plants.
In canola oil, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is about 2:1, which is believed to be beneficial for our health.
For those on plant-centric diets, ALA-rich sources are vital for obtaining omega-3 fats DHA and EPA, which are essential for heart and brain functions. However, the body’s conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA isn’t highly efficient.
Suggested read: The 4 healthiest cooking oils (and 4 to avoid)
Still, ALA offers health perks, potentially helping lower cholesterol, LDL, triglycerides, and blood pressure, which can help reduce cardiovascular disease risk.
One thing to consider: the processing of canola oil, especially high-temperature cooking methods, can reduce the benefits of polyunsaturated fats like ALA.
Summary: Canola oil is a source of vitamins E and K and has a favorable balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fats. Despite its high tolerance to heat, frying can diminish the benefits of its omega-3 content.
Potential risks and downsides of canola oil
Canada, as highlighted by the Canola Council of Canada, is a major exporter of canola oil, primarily to the U.S.
With its rise in the food industry, worries about its health implications have grown.
Canola oil is high in omega-6 fats
While both omega-3 and omega-6 fats are essential for health, modern diets often have a surplus of omega-6s, mainly from processed foods, and lack omega-3s from natural sources. This imbalance can lead to inflammation.
Ideally, the intake ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should be 1:1, but in Western diets, it’s closer to 20:1.
This skewed balance is linked to several chronic ailments, including Alzheimer’s, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
Even though canola oil’s omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is 2:1, its widespread use in foods means it’s a significant dietary source of omega-6.
For a healthier balance, consider swapping canola-rich processed foods for natural sources of omega-3, like fatty fish.
Canola oil is predominantly GMO
Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are altered at the genetic level to either introduce or remove certain traits.
High-demand crops, such as canola, have been modified to better resist pests and herbicides.
Although many authorities consider GMOs safe, concerns linger about their environmental impact, public health effects, and more.
Suggested read: Is peanut oil healthy? Unveiling the health impacts
In the U.S. and Canada, over 90% of canola crops are genetically modified. While GMOs have been consumed for years without direct adverse effects, opinions remain divided. Choosing GMO foods is a personal decision.
Canola oil is extensively processed
Canola oil undergoes high-temperature processing and chemical exposure.
Being chemically processed, canola undergoes steps like bleaching and deodorizing, which use chemicals.
In fact, several oils, like canola, soy, corn, and palm, are termed refined, bleached, and deodorized (RBD) oils.
Such processing significantly depletes the nutrients in these oils.
Most commercial plant oils undergo this treatment. However, oils labeled as cold pressed, expeller pressed, or extra virgin, such as olive and coconut oils, don’t. If GMOs or processing concerns you, you can easily find organic cold-pressed alternatives, including canola oil. But note that these oils might not be the best for high-temperature cooking due to lower smoke points.
Summary: Widely available canola oil is a GMO and undergoes extensive refining. It’s also a prominent source of omega-6 fats found in processed foods, which, when overconsumed, can promote inflammation.
Is canola oil bad for your health?
Canola oil is popular in the culinary world, but there aren’t many long-term studies about its health effects.
However, a 2021 study highlighted its benefits, showing that canola oil improved blood fat levels and insulin responsiveness in women with PCOS.
The high amount of unsaturated fats in canola oil might offer protection against issues like inflammation, infections, or even cancer, among other advantages.
Research also indicates:
- Canola oil might lower risk factors related to heart and metabolic health.
- It could slow down the progression of heart diseases.
- It might help slightly reduce body weight.
Yet, there’s also some data hinting at potential health downsides of canola oil.
Canola oil may raise inflammation
Animal-based studies have linked canola oil to increased inflammation and oxidative stress. Even though we can’t directly apply these findings to humans, they’re still significant.
Oxidative stress is when there’s an imbalance in our body between harmful free radicals, causing inflammation, and antioxidants that counteract this damage.
A recent study on rats revealed that heating canola oil resulted in compounds that boosted some inflammation markers. Furthermore, another rat study showed that a diet with canola oil led to a shorter lifespan and raised blood pressure compared to a soybean oil diet.
Suggested read: Are vegetable and seed oils bad for your health?
Canola oil may affect memory
Research on animals also suggests canola oil might harm memory.
A mouse study found that a diet high in canola significantly damaged memory and led to noticeable weight gain.
In a year-long study with 180 older humans, participants were given diets either rich in refined oils, including canola, or one where such oils were substituted with 20–30 ml of extra virgin olive oil daily. The olive oil group showed better brain performance.
Canola oil may influene heart health
Although canola oil is often labeled as good for the heart, some research challenges this.
A 2020 study had participants use either olive oil or canola oil exclusively for cooking for six weeks. The olive oil users had considerably reduced blood levels of interleukine-6, a heart inflammation promoter. The canola oil group didn’t show such improvements.
This 2020 research contrasts with a 2013 study funded by the industry that associated canola oil consumption with positive effects on factors like overall cholesterol and harmful LDL cholesterol.
Many studies pointing out the heart health benefits of canola oil reference less processed or unheated versions, unlike the refined variant used for high-temperature cooking.
Conversely, a newer research review suggests using canola oil over butter or margarine may lower the chances of death from heart disease or diabetes. Another review found canola oil might reduce overall and harmful LDL cholesterol, especially in older individuals.
More insights are required to understand canola oil’s effects on heart health better.
Summary: Some research indicates canola oil might raise inflammation, negatively impact memory, and potentially affect heart health. On the other hand, there are studies showing its potential health benefits, such as lowering LDL cholesterol.
Canola oil alternatives for cooking
More clarity is needed on the health implications of canola oil.
Meanwhile, several other oils have well-documented health advantages.
For cooking activities like sautéing, the following oils are stable at high temperatures:
Remember, for high-temperature methods like frying, saturated fats like coconut oil are the safest as they resist oxidation best.
- Olive oil. Olive oil has anti-inflammatory properties and is packed with antioxidants called polyphenols, which might prevent heart diseases and cognitive decline.
- Avocado oil. Heat-friendly avocado oil is rich in carotenoid and polyphenol antioxidants, supporting heart health.
- Coconut oil. Ideal for high-heat cooking, coconut oil can boost “good” HDL cholesterol. However, due to its high saturated fat, it could also raise “bad” LDL cholesterol, so moderation is key.
For no-heat applications like salad dressings:
- Flaxseed oil. Research indicates flaxseed oil might lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation.
- Walnut oil. With a distinct taste, walnut oil may help in reducing elevated blood sugar and cholesterol.
- Hempseed oil. Nutrient-dense hempseed oil, with its nutty taste, is great for salads.
Summary: Many oils can serve as alternatives to canola oil. Oils like coconut and olive are suitable for cooking, while flaxseed, walnut, and hempseed oils are better for cold dishes.
Canola oil, extracted from seeds, is commonly found in our kitchens and in food production.
Research on canola oil provides mixed insights. Some animal studies hint at potential concerns like inflammation and memory problems, but many findings suggest it’s beneficial for our health.
Until we have more comprehensive studies, it might be wise to opt for oils with established health credentials, like olive oil.