Myth or Fact: Is Canola Oil Healthy or Bad?
As for canola oil on if it is healthy or bad, specifically: just because something is all over the net doesn't make it true. Urban myths spread just as easily on the internet as fact.
Most of what you read about canola is nonsense. (It has its own urban myth developing in the alternative health community.) Unfounded and erroneous assertions about Canola Oil continue to proliferate, particularly on the Internet. Many of these "articles" and widely circulated letters contain references to highly questionable tests or studies. None of these studies have been reviewed by the scientific community or found to be true. The information below (much of it borrowed from Spectrum Naturals) is provided in order to help you separate fact from fiction and understand if canola oil is healthy or bad.
Definitions of Canola Oil
- Canola (Also Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed, or L.E.A.R., also the trivialized name form of Canada oil or Canada-olea, shortened to Can-ola.): A rapeseed oil that is very low in erucic acid content.
- Essential Fatty Acid (EFA): Essential dietary fat that the human body cannot manufacture and thus must be derived from dietary fats like Canola and flax.
- Genetically Modified Organism (or Genetically Engineered): Implemented beginning in the 1990's for oilseeds such as soy and canola. Genetic modification involves penetrating cell nuclei and inserting foreign genetic material into host plant cells, resulting in new non-traditional properties and traits.
- Organic: A method of agriculture that eliminates the use of pesticides, fumigants, toxic metals and chemicals. Organically grown foods are, by definition, non-GMO.
- Rape, Rapeseed: A plant belonging to the mustard family. Also known as Cole Mustard Seed. Botanical name: Brassica Napus or Brassica Campestris. For over 3,000 years rapeseed was the preeminent culinary fat for the Indians and Western Asians (Indian sub-continent) and China. It has been cultivated in Western Europe since the 13th century and has become the most popular culinary oil due to its high oleic and mono unsaturated fat profile.
Myth: "Canola is the same as rapeseed."
- The technical name for canola is Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed (or L.E.A.R.). Although it was pedigree bred from rapeseed (see the myth, "Canola is genetically engineered") it has a completely unique and different fatty acid profile than rapeseed, with a different flavor and stability.
- Canola's fatty acid profile is 10% Alpha-linolenic (Omega-3), 24% Linoleic (Omega-6), 60% Oleic (Omega-9) and 6% Saturated Fat. Whereas Rapeseed is a polyunsaturate like regular safflower oil, canola is a monounsaturate like olive oil. The names "canola" and "rapeseed" cannot, therefore, be used interchangeably when discussing properties and behaviors.
Myth: "Canola is genetically engineered." "Canola appears out of nowhere." "Canola is a new cooking oil."
- Canola was bred through a traditional botanical technique used by man since recorded time called selective plant breeding (perfected by Luther Burbank in the 1920s). This is a process whereby specific plants of one particular type (in this case, rapeseed) are selected for certain desired, naturally prominent characteristics. The traits looked for in this case were a balanced fatty acid profile with essential omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, as well as a high percentage of oleic or monounsaturates similar to olive oil, and low to nonexistent levels of erucic acid for a milder taste. These plants are then pedigree bred to produce a new crop variety that displays those attributes in greater abundance. The process takes from five to ten years to complete. Virtually every single fruit or vegetable or grain that we eat today has been developed through this process.
- Selective plant breeding, or pedigree cultivation, is a process used throughout agricultural farming since farming began. It has no connection whatsoever to genetic engineering. Pedigree cultivation has been applied to the development of safflower, soy, flax and sunflower oils. Its intention is generally to produce an oil seed with the best fatty acid profile for the greatest health benefits and cooking stability.
- Canola was pedigree cultivated during the 1970's and has been sold nationwide since the 1980's. It predates the implementation of genetically engineered foods in the marketplace by some two decades.
- Companies that produce organic canola oil use no genetically modified seeds, only edible, naturally selected canola seed stock derived from traditional selective plant breeding techniques. We also operate an extensive organic program for pesticide free seed and oils. To avoid GMO canola, simply buy organic canola as recommended in the newsletter.
- According to the preliminary 2000 estimates of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), of the 25 million hectares that represents the total global canola crop area, 11% are currently genetically engineered. The trend, however, is increasing to GMO crops. Just make sure you look for organic or non-GMO on the label.
Myth: "Research at the University of Florida-Gainseville, determined that as much as 4.6% of all the fatty acids in canola are "trans" isomers (bio-plastics) due to the refining process."
- Analysis of organic canola oil finds no detectable levels of trans-isomers.
- Trans-fatty acids are a by-product of partial and full hydrogenation, the process used to produce margarine and shortening. All oils can be hydrogenated; canola is no different. Trans isomers form under specific conditions of heat at 375 degrees F, hydrogen gas and nickel catalysts.
Myth: "All food-grade canola, including the varieties sold in health food stores, are deodorized from its natural "terrible stink" [i.e., smell/odor] with 300 degrees F high-temperature refining. You cannot cook a vegetable oil at that temperature and leave behind anything edible."
- First, it should be made clear that canola oil, for better or worse, is processed no differently than any other refined seed-based oil such as safflower, sunflower, or sesame.
- Organic canola oils are refined at a lower temperature than conventional oils.
- Seed-based cooking oils are generally refined after extraction for shelf stability, removal of impurities, and to produce a milder taste. As indicated in the newsletter, Jon is, in general, not a fan of refined cooking oils. But he is also not a fan of high temperature cooking. If you are going to high-temperature cook, small amounts of organic super-canola is a good option.
- Unrefined canola oil has a prominent grassy flavor with mustard tones. All unrefined oils have stronger prominent flavors than refined oils.
Myth: "Rapeseed or canola is a penetrating industrial oil not fit for human consumption."
- Canola is not an industrial oil. It is and has been history's most investigated fat and feed source for humans and animals.
- Any organic hydrocarbon (including all vegetable oils) can be processed and denatured to make industrial chemicals. As an example, flax oil can be denatured to make paint, ink, cosmetics and linseed oil.
Myth: "The Canadian government subsidizes it to industries involved in food processing."
- Farmers' subsidies given do not discriminate between canola and other crops. All Western Nations, including the U.S., support local agriculture and are increasing support for organic agriculture.
Myth: "Canola has been shown to harm animals and no studies on humans were made before the U.S. government approved it."
- There is no single published study that supports the negative assertions by some alarmists.
- The U. S. Food and Drug Administration granted GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status for canola oil in 1985 following the submission of a lengthy petition detailing years of research on the health effects of canola oil in human and animal diets.
Myth: "Rapeseed (canola) is the most toxic of all food plants. In lab studies, rats developed fatty degeneration of heart, kidney, adrenals, and thyroid gland. When canola oil was withdrawn from their diets, the deposits dissolved but scar tissue remained on all vital organs."
- Once again, rape and canola are two different plants and the names cannot be used interchangeably.
- The ingestion of canola for animal feed or oil for human consumption presents no known toxicity in either crude or refined states.
- Erucic acid, the substance that gives mustard its tangy bite, at one time was mistakenly thought to be unhealthy. Studies of rats have shown heart lesions, blamed on erucic acid, when the diet was 20% rapeseed oil, a level which would never be reached in any reasonably prudent diet. Even so, the same effect can be produced by other oils when they are consumed at such a disproportionate level.
- Recent laboratory research on canola and many other oils has demonstrated that earlier findings were flawed, but unfortunately the earlier flawed studies continue to be cited in error. Rats are a poor biological model and process fats poorly. Thus, rat studies have proven unreliable in the clinical application of these results in comparing fat metabolism in humans.
- Canola oil available today is quite low in erucic acid, less than one half of one percent. (In contrast, mustards contain up to 66% erucic acid.)
- Erucic acid was bred out of canola to create a more neutral flavor, not because of health considerations.
Canola oil's neutral flavor makes it highly versatile--suitable for use in many kinds of recipes.
Myth: "Rapeseed is so toxic, insects will not eat it. It is an excellent insect repellent"
- Canola is highly susceptible to flea beetles, aphids, cabbage seed-pod weevils and all types of foliar feeding insects which thrive in temperate climates. As such, colder climates that are insect resistant are preferred for growing canola.
- Because canola is susceptible to numerous pests that thrive in temperate climate zones, it is grown only in regions that experience extended periods of freezing such asCanada and the Northern USA.
Myth: "Rapeseed causes Mad Cow Disease. When rape oil was removed from animal feed, a disease ('scrapie') thought to lead to Mad Cow Disease disappeared. We haven't seen any further reports of 'Mad Cow' since rape oil was removed from the feed."
- There is no proven or even suspected connection between canola or mustard rape and Mad Cow disease. Mad Cow disease is a brain disorder (spongiform encephalopathy) caused by errant protein structures called prions (pronounced pree-ons) in the brain. Prions are protein structures that cause decay of synapses nerves and cells in the brain. In humans, mad cow disease is called Creutzfeldt Jakobs disease (CJD).
- In England, which is where outbreaks of Mad Cow disease occurred, cattle are not typically fed canola as part of their diet. Updated reports show the disease cropping up in several European countries with no connection to rape oil. The transmission of Mad Cow disease occurs when the rendered animal tissue from diseased sheep and other animals is added to cattle feed. Offal and diseased organ tissues are the suspected transmission vector, originating in sheep that are infected with a disease called scrapie, with crossover into cattle and then humans.
- There were no known cases of Mad Cow disease until humans intervened and mixed animal based protein into an otherwise vegetarian diet.
Myth: "Canola oil causes glaucoma."
- No credible scientific study links glaucoma to any lipid toxicity or diet.
- Glaucoma is caused by fluid level abnormalities in the ocular membranes of the eye. It is genetic, and advances with age.
Myth: "Rapeseed causes emphysema, respiratory distress, anemia, constipation, irritability and blindness in animals."
- There is no credibly published scientific evidence to support these claims. To date, no sustainable proof of any disease can be traced to canola.
Myth: "Rapeseed "isothiocyates" cyanide-containing compounds cyano-glycosides and glycosides in canola interfere with the biochemistry of humans and animals."
- Most seeds of any type have small amounts of cyanogetic glycosides. For instance, when consumed in large quantities, common apple seeds could be lethal due to the organic cyanide compounds each seed contains. However, super high concentrations of these toxins are not found in seed oils or anywhere else in nature.
- As seeds are expeller pressed and heated above 120°F, isothiocyates and other compounds are destroyed or removed.
Myth: "Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) is a rare degenerative disease caused by a build-up of long chain fatty acids (c22 to c28) which destroys the myelin (protective sheath) of the nerves. Canola is a very long chain fatty acid oil."
- There is no evidence linking canola oil with ALD.
- Canola has medium chains at 18 carbon chains long, not 22 to 28.
- The fatty acid profile of soy, sunflower, safflower and flax oils have even longer chains than does canola and were not associated with ALD.
- ALD is a genetic disease caused by aberrant genes.
Myth: "Canola oil may be toxic when used in cooking."
- No oil should be allowed to exceed its recommended smoke point! This is true for all culinary oils. Besides performing poorly, oils allowed to smoke release carcinogenic free radicals.
- Organic Canola Oil can be subjected to medium high heat and are appropriate for use in baking and other oven cooking, crisp sautéing and medium stir-frying.
- Some specially processed canola oils, with a higher monounsaturated fat content, are available that are specifically suited for higher heat applications. With a smoke point of 520°F, this special form of canola oil can be used for all types of high heat frying as well as for lower-heat cooking. In general, though, high heat cooking is not recommended. (And if you must, an even better choice for high temperature cooking is avocado oil.)
Myth: Rape oil was the source of chemical warefare agent mustard gas.
- Mustard gas is not made from mustard seeds. It is a derivative of a munitions process which, when oxidized, smells like strong mustard (in the same way that decaying eggs can smell by releasing hydrogen sulfide). The chemical smell of poison munitions gas had similar odor fumes to mustard, but they are not the same constituent materials whatsoever.
The bottom line is that you will find that super-canola oil is no more (but also, no less) of a villain than most other refined vegetable oils. And specialized forms of it hold up to heat better. (Note: unrefined oils other than avocado oil do not hold up to high temperature cooking well at all.) Bottom line is that other than using small amounts in high-temperature cooking, you should use NO refined oils, canola or otherwise.
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