When it comes to canola oil, some people view it as a healthy food while others avoid it at all costs. When there are two extremely passionate viewpoints, it can be very challenging to get to the bottom of it all. On the one hand detractors claim that canola oil is completely toxic, contains “the infamous chemical warfare agent mustard gas,” and causes everything from mad cow disease to blindness. (1) On the other hand, supporters believe that canola oil is one of the healthiest oils on the planet because it’s rich in omega-3s, low in saturated fats and is a good source of oleic acid (2). Granted, these properties are true on a surface level, but there is much more to the canola story.
A genetically modified product, canola oil is a Canadian invention that is backed by their government, cheap to manufacture, and many processed or packaged foods contain it. Canola oil was first created in the early 1970s as a natural oil, but in 1995, Monsanto created a genetically modified version of canola oil. As of 2005, 87 percent of canola grown in the U.S. was genetically modified and by 2009, 90 percent of the Canadian crop was genetically engineered. (3)
With so many oils on the market and so much talk about the different types of oil it’s difficult to sift through what is fact, what is entirely fiction, and most of all which is the healthiest oil to use. I want to explain all the reasons why canola oil is not what you want to be adding to your shopping cart from genetic modification to an overload of unhealthy fats. Plus, better alternatives and resources to help you avoid GMO’s across the board.
What is Canola Oil?
Rapeseed oil is made from the rapeseed plant. Specifically from the seeds of the rape or rapeseed plant, which is a member of the mustard (Brassicaceae) family. It was in the early 1970s that canola was first bred from rapeseed at the University of Manitoba, Canada, by Keith Downey and Baldur R. Stefansson. In 1998, “the most disease- and drought-resistant canola variety to date” was developed using genetic modification and this is how the majority of recent varieties are produced. (4) Rapeseed oil and canola oil are often used interchangeably.
Wild rapeseed oil contains large amounts of erucic acid, which is known to cause health problems, so the canola plant was developed from rapeseed in order to use it to produce a food-grade canola oil with lower erucic acid levels. The name of canola oil was originally LEAR (Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed), but for marketing purposes was changed to canola oil. This word was derived from the combination of “Canada” and “ola,” meaning oil. (5) Canola oil is a much more appealing name than LEAR oil or rape oil, but should you be using it in your foods?
Canola oil works well as an industrial oil and has been used in candles, soaps, lipsticks, lubricants, inks, biofuels and even insecticides. Once the powers that be figured out how to genetically modify rapeseed oil, it began being sold as an edible food product. Hence, it’s been brought to market with the claim that it’s a wonder oil, low in saturated fats and has omega-3 fatty acids. But in its current hybridized and modified state, it can cause a large number of health issues that you will learn about shortly.
Canola Oil Nutrition Facts
Are you wondering about canola oil nutrition? As is true with any food, the key to understanding the health qualities of canola is to look at the entire nutritional profile and not just one or two components. This is what the nutritional value of 1 cup of canola oil looks like: (6)
- Calories: 1927
- Total Fat: 218 grams (335 percent DV)
- Saturated Fat: 16 grams (80 percent DV)
- Vitamin E: 38.1 milligrams (190 percent DV)
- Vitamin K: 155 micrograms (194% RDV)
- Trans Fat: 1 gram, yet other reports claim that it is much more (7)
A study published in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association reports that a majority 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. (8)
Canola Oil’s Full Fatty Acid Profile:
- Saturated Fat: 16.1 grams
- Monosaturated Fat: 138 grams
- Polysaturated Fat: 61.4 grams
- Omega-3 fatty acids: 5,018 or 19,921 milligrams depending on the source
- Omega-6 fatty acids: 40,646 milligrams
One of the things I noticed while doing research is that most canola oil had a poor omega-3/6 ratio of 8:1 and loads of trans fats, with only one source that showed theirs was closer to 2:1 (the first number being Omega-6’s and the second the Omega-3’s).
Why is Canola Oil Bad for You?
Originally, rapeseed oil may not have had so many negative health effects. But for two main reasons, most canola oil today can be very harmful to your body:
1. Over 90 percent of canola oil is genetically modified (9)
2. Canola oil is a refined oil that is often partially hydrogenated to increase its stability (but increase its negative health effects)
It’s for these two reasons that I recommend you switch to healthier oil alternatives that I list at the conclusion of this article.
What can it do to you? There have been NO long-term, viable studies done on GMO canola oil, but there are reports that it has caused many kidney, liver and neurological health issues. This would make sense since there are other reports that GMO products like corn and soy also can cause negative health effects.
According to the Weston A. Price foundation and fat experts Sally Fallon and Mary Enig state: (10)
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. The consumer has no clue about the presence of trans fatty acids in canola oil because they are not listed on the label.
In 2016, some progress was made when it comes to food containing genetically modified ingredients. A bill was signed by the President amending the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946. So now companies are required by law to disclose the presence of GMO ingredients through text labels, symbols, or digital links (like scannable QR codes). Sounds great, but the problem is that it is left up to the Secretary of Agriculture to decide what amounts of GMO ingredients need to be present in a food product in order for GMO labeling to be a requirement. (12)
Dangers of Canola Oil
1. Kidney and Liver Problems
The majority of canola oil being produced today is genetically modified. The side effects of GMOs in general cannot be overstated. In a 2011 review published in Environmental Sciences Europe, 19 studies of mammals fed GMO soybeans and corn were evaluated. The 90 day long trials indicated liver and kidney problems as a result of GMO foods. The kidney and liver findings actually were differentiated by sex with the kidneys being disrupted by 43.5 percent in men and the liver being disrupted in women by 30.8 percent! (13) The kidneys and the liver are absolutely vital to our existence so ingesting a genetically modified food like canola oil is really not something to take lightly.
2. Life-Threatening Heart Trouble
As a monounsaturated oil, rapeseed oil has high levels of erucic acid. Erucic acid is a fatty acid that is associated with heart damage, specifically Keshan’s Disease, a disease that manifests itself with fibrotic lesions of the heart. Studies have shown that in areas where people are prone to Keshan’s not only are selenium levels lower, but eurucic acid levels are higher. (14)
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils like canola are also known for causing inflammation and calcification of arteries, which well-established risk factors for coronary heart disease (CHD). (15)
3. Hypertension and Strokes
Previous studies have shown that the consumption of rapeseed oil and some other types of vegetable oils shorten the life-span of stroke-prone and hypertensive animal subjects. Specifically, research carried out at the Nutrition and Toxicology Research Divisions of Ottawa, Canada discovered that rats bred to have high blood pressure and proneness to stroke died sooner when fed canola oil as the sole source of fat. Additionally, the rats fed the non canola oil-based diets lived longer than the rats fed canola oil. (16)
Another study published in 2000 in Toxicology Letters specifically looked at the effects of canola oil on blood coagulation time or how long it takes blood to clot in stroke-prone animal subjects. The study found that there was a “canola oil-induced shortening of blood coagulation time and increased fragility in [red blood cell membranes]” which may promote the occurrence of strokes in animal subjects that are stroke-prone. (17)
4. May Retard Normal Growth
Up until recently, it was not legal to use canola oil in infant formulate. There have been what I think are valid concerns about canola oil retarding growth in children. Specifically, that the euroric acid in canola oil is harmful to infants due to an inability to properly break it down. The FDA previously made the use of canola oil illegal in baby formula. However, as of a few years ago, canola oil made to the generally recognized as safe or GRAS list. (18)
Not only is it highly concerning to feed developing infants a GMO oil, it’s also highly questionable to give them unhealthy fats. Proponents brag about canola’s overall healthy fat profile, but I’m not buying it and now they are truly selling it in the form of a baby’s first meal. Of course, I highly encourage skipping the commercial formulas and opting for breast-feeding or if necessary, homemade baby formula.
5. Increases Intake of Unhealthy Trans Fats
According to a study published in the Journal of Food Lipids, when soybean and canola oils purchased in the U.S. were evaluated, “The trans contents were between 0.56% and 4.2% of the total fatty acids! (19)
When canola oil undergoes hydrogenation, which is often does to become a partially hydrogenated oil, this increases its level of trans fats. This is a group of fats you want to avoid as much as possible since they are scientifically known to increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol. When you read “partially hydrogenated oil” on any food label that guarantees you that there is some amount trans fat present. This is true even when the label tells you that there is zero trans fat. How can that be? Well if a serving contains less than 0.5 grams then the company is allowed to indicate there are no trans fats. Frustrating, I know. (20)
Trans fatty acids are hazardous by-products of food processing and are truly health destroyers. In fact, if you decide to get rid of your canol oil, I would also stop cooking with these oils as well: corn oil, safflower oil, soy oil and vegetable oil.
6. Numerous Potential GMO Health Side Effects
I already mentioned the link between GMO’s and negative liver and kidney implications, but it doesn’t stop there. According to the Center for Food Safety, there are several new and very serious health concerns and “unexpected effects” of genetic engineering according to scientific research: (21)
- Allergic Reactions
- Loss of Nutrition
History of Canola Oil
Canola oil was developed as the food industry began to search for healthy and cost effective alternatives to saturated fats in oils. These saturated fats had come to the mainstream attention as a result of the American Heart Association and other government agencies spreading reports of saturated fats, often found in commonly used cooking oils, being bad for your heart health. Many of these reports were particularly aimed at corn oil and soybean oil.
As food manufacturers searched and experimented they discovered rapeseed oil. Rapeseed oil is monounsaturated oil. The problem with this original type of rapeseed oil is that it was very high in erucic acid. Erucic acid is a fatty acid found in rapeseed and mustard oils that is linked to heart damage in particular Keshan’s Disease, a disease characterized by fibrotic lesions of the heart.
Food manufacturers continued their journey into refining rapeseed and canola oils until they came up with a formula in the late 1970’s to genetically manipulate the rapeseed plant by seed splitting. This seed split oil produced canola oil with less erucic acid and higher amounts of oleic acid. This was the oil referred to at the time as LEAR as in Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed.
Although there are not the previously high levels of erucic acid in canola oil there are still reasons for serious concern if you use canola oil.
What to Substitute for Canola Oil
So, what are the best oils for cooking? Here are the top oils I personally use as a substitute for canola oil:
Coconut Oil – coconut oil is best when it’s cold-pressed and virgin. Do NOT buy refined coconut oil. Your coconut oil should smell like you’re on a beach in the Caribbean. It has a high heat threshold and contains medium-chain fatty acids that can support both fat loss and your nervous system.
Olive Oil – People often compare canola oil vs olive oil. Olive oil wins every day of the week! I don’t recommend olive oil for cooking, but it has tremendous health benefits and is at the heart of the Mediterranean diet. Look for an organic extra-virgin or cold-pressed olive oil that is available in a darkly colored glass container. Many inferior olive oils are mixed with cheaper, GMO vegetables oils so make sure it’s GMO-free. Olive oil is great in homemade salad dressings and for drizzling on finished products like cooked vegetables.
Organic Pastured Butter / Ghee – Contains ALA and CLA which can promote weight loss. Also, contains healthy short chain fatty acids and has a higher heat threshold. When buying butter, stick with organic and ideally, also grass-fed.
Red Palm Oil — Red palm oil is made from the palm fruit instead of the palm kernel, and in its unrefined state, it is high in vitamin E and beta-carotene. It’s also stable under high heat and great for cooking. Make sure when buying palm oil that it is certified sustainable.
If for some reason you must buy canola oil, make sure that it’s organic because then it at least can’t be from genetically modified plants. It is still illegal to use genetic engineering or modification in certified organic products. (22)