Is canola oil healthy? Some warn that canola oil is unnatural or even toxic. Should canola be banned from the cupboard?
I got an email from a listener a while back who wrote that she had been a big fan of the podcast until I mentioned canola oil as a healthy choice. Like olive oil, canola is high in monounsaturated fats--the healthiest kind of fats--but it’s a better choice than olive oil when you want a neutral flavor. (See also: When to Use Olive Oil).
In some circles, however, canola oil has gotten a very bad reputation. It’s said to be unnatural or even toxic. For this one listener, anyway, my recommendation of canola was enough to convince her that she couldn’t trust anything I said.
Should canola be banned from the cupboard?
Is Canola Oil Healthy or Horrible?
So, what’s all this about canola oil being toxic? It’s really a misunderstanding. Canola oil is made from a type of rapeseed, which is a plant in the cabbage family, and is also related to turnips and mustard. That last relation maybe the basis for the urban legend--which is, by the way, completely unfounded--that rapeseed oil was used to make poisonous mustard gas in World War I. It wasn’t.
In fact, rapeseed oil was used for centuries as a cooking oil in Asia. In modern times, it fell out of favor as a food oil, especially here in the West. First, it has a bitter taste that most people find unpalatable. And secondly, it’s naturally high in a fatty acid called erucic acid and some early animal studies raised concerns about the effects of consuming large amounts of this fatty acid.
From Rapeseed to Canola
Still, like many other plant oils, rapeseed oil is used industrially, as a lubricant, and, more recently, to make biodiesel fuel. And, in fact, research has now largely put to rest most of the health concerns about erucic acid--or at least put them into perspective. But long before that happened, some Canadian growers solved the problem a different way. They simply bred a type of rapeseed that was low in erucic acid.
In the process, they also reduced the bitter taste that made rapeseed oil unpalatable. The seed they bred produced a light, flavorless oil that was very high in the healthiest types of fats: the monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids.
The Canadian growers appeared to have a highly marketable product on their hands--in all ways but one. “Low-erucic rapeseed oil” just didn’t have that winning ring to it. So they coined--and trademarked--the term canola oil to identify this new cultivar, or breed, of rapeseed oil.