Like so many other foods — think eggs and soy — canola oil has been vilified, accused of everything from mad cow disease to skin cancer. While it isn’t perfect (we’ll get to that), canola oil has been of the subject of much misinformation.
The federal government regards it as safe to eat and has even granted it a qualified health claim. Researchers say it has some health benefits.
It would be easy to dismiss the canola sceptics as cranks, but the ongoing campaign against canola oil is illuminating. If ever there was a food seemingly designed to incite fear and disdain, it is canola.
Perhaps canola oil can teach us a few things about the way we perceive food.
Is Canola Oil “Toxic,” as Many People Warn?
No. The confusion involves erucic acid, a substance in traditional rapeseed that has been linked with structural changes in heart tissues and other problems in animals. But canola has been specifically bred to be very low in erucic acid. In 1981, several hundred deaths in Spain were linked to food-grade rapeseed oil—but it turned out the oil (mislabeled as “olive oil”) was contaminated with an industrial solvent that was being used illegally.
Despite the long-standing safety of canola oil, the Internet is still awash with rumors that it causes all kinds of maladies. There has never been any evidence to support these claims. According to the EPA, canola oil’s “toxicological profiles are similar to those of other vegetable oils that are used as food.”
Isn’t Canola Oil used Industrially?
Yes, though that doesn’t mean it’s dangerous to consume. Canola oil can be used, for example, as a pesticide (it smothers insects), industrial lubricant, and biofuel—but that’s true of any vegetable oil. It’s also used to make soaps, plastics, cosmetics, and printing inks. In fact, such uses are generally considered environmentally friendly alternatives.
How Does Canola Compare to Other Oils Nutritionally?
All vegetable oils contain a mix of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and saturated fatty acids. Canola oil consists mostly of monounsaturated fats (61 percent, almost as much as olive oil) and polyunsaturated fats (32 percent). Of all vegetable oils, it is lowest in saturated fats (7 percent). And, notably, it is second highest in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 polyunsaturated fat related to the omega-3s in fish (11 percent ALA, compared to 57 percent in flaxseed oil). In contrast, olive, corn, safflower, and sunflower oils contain just 1 percent ALA.
Like many other plant foods, canola oil contains phytosterols (such as beta-sitosterol), which lower cholesterol, along with some vitamin E and K.
What are Canola’s Health Benefits?
Twenty years ago, the well-known Lyon Diet Heart Study from France, which put the “Mediterranean diet” on the map, found that an ALA-rich diet (with fats coming largely from canola oil-based margarine) significantly reduced heart attacks and deaths in people who had a prior heart attack.
Several studies since then have also shown that canola oil, when substituted for saturated fats, has heart benefits. For example, in a small study in the Journal of Internal Medicine in 2011, a high canola oil diet (from a spread) lowered LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides in people with high cholesterol after three weeks. And a review of 40 studies in Nutrition Reviews in 2013 linked canola-based diets to reduced LDL oxidation (oxidation makes LDL more harmful) and decreased blood clotting, compared to saturated-fat-based diets.
Other vegetable oils have similar effects, however, and it’s not clear how canola oil compares with them.
Like other healthful vegetable oils, canola oil can be used in place of butter or shortening in all types of cooking, including baking and sautéing, as well as in salad dressings and marinades. If you’re concerned about hexane processing or just want to be more environmentally friendly, look for cold- and expeller-pressed oil. If you want to discourage the use of genetic modification, buy organic or European-produced oils. Keep in mind that all oils—including canola—are calorie-dense, with about 120 calories per tablespoon.
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