I never use canola oil for cooking and don’t recommend it. But an offhand mention of it recently ignited a grease fire of concern from some attentive Daily Dispatch readers. So today, I’m taking a close look at the evidence on canola oil, much of which appears more than a little “slippery.”
Without a doubt, canola oil is a very deceptive product.
First of all, there’s no such thing as a “canola” plant or vegetable. Canola oil comes from rapeseed. (I’ll tell you more about the problems with rapeseed in a moment.) But in the 1970s, manufacturers believed rapeseed wouldn’t appeal to Canada’s neighbors to the south (namely in the U.S.). So the Rapeseed Association of Canada chose a new name–a combination of “Canada” and “ola” for oil. And they began marketing “canola” oil as a “healthy” replacement for butter or lard.
This whole idea stemmed from the government’s misguided mandates that all saturated fats are “bad” and only unsaturated fats are “good.” Unfortunately, this misconception–which began 40 years ago–still holds sway among many health professionals and “experts” who write about diet and nutrition. Mind you, this is the same, outdated crowd that still wastes space talking about whether or not you can “get away” with eating just three or four eggs per week, or using one or two pats of butter. So, it’s no wonder many people still have misconceptions about canola oil being healthy.
As I mentioned earlier, canola oil originally comes from a plant source. In fact, it comes from the Brassica family, which is the source of many healthy vegetables such as kale, Brussel’s sprouts, broccoli, and “broccoli rabe.” (Broccoli rabe, or rapini in Italian, is related to turnip greens, from the Latin word rapum meaning turnip.)
These foods are all ancient Asian and European cultigens whose greens are indeed healthy. Proponents point out that rapeseed oil itself has been around since ancient China and India. And it’s been used in Northern Europe since the 13th century.
However, rapeseed oil was traditionally used to burn as a fuel–for example, in oil lamps–and as a lubricant. But it was never used in cooking.
That all changed after World War II…
You see, during WWII, rapeseed oil became popular as a lubricant for use in steam engines. Eventually, this popularity led to a wartime shortage. The Canadians responded to the shortage by vastly expanding its production. But after the war ended, they had an oversupply on their hands. So they scrambled to find a new use for the excess. And they found one, thanks to the post-WWII “baby boom”–and the expanding food market it generated “south of the border.”
Several problems arose during these early years of using the oil as a food product. First, many bottles of oil looked greenish, due to chlorophyll. It also had a disagreeable taste. And it contained erucic acid, which was thought to cause damage to the heart muscle.
In the early 1970s, industrial farmers began to experiment and genetically breed the rapeseed plant to address these problems. The resulting oil had lower erucic acid (about 2 percent) and a different nutritional profile.
Then in the 1990s, agribusiness tinkered with rapeseed even further. They produced genetically engineered varieties of rapeseed that were disease- and drought-resistant. In fact, in 1995, Monsanto introduced a genetically engineered rapeseed tolerant to its popular herbicide “Roundup.” They called it “Roundup Ready” canola.
By 2009, 90 percent of the Canadian rapeseed crop was genetically modified.
Of course, it’s not just the genetic modifications that are cause for concern. The processing that removes the unpleasant colors, tastes and smells from rapeseed oil involves the use of organic solvents–such as hexane–which are toxic. (In 1975, the FDA actually banned canola oil for consumption by infants for this reason.)
This whole story sounds like a series of unfortunate events from the standpoint of the consumer.
Instead of the food industry finding healthy foods to meet consumer demand, they gave us a product that was never really intended as a food. But for which they needed to create a market. They essentially dumped a dangerous, unnatural, non-food product onto unsuspecting consumers.
It reminds me of the sad story of margarine, which we now know doubles heart disease rates in the men who misguidedly used it as a butter substitute.
Today, rapeseed is a major cash crop. And major player in the ecologically dangerous world of genetically modified agriculture. Indeed, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are growing disasters for all plant life on earth.
And unfortunately, paying more to shop at places like Whole Foods doesn’t ensure that you’re only eating canola-free foods. (I’ve warned you about those high-end stores before.) In fact, when you buy a prepared salad at Whole Foods or other “healthy,” high-end grocery stores, you probably get some canola oil mixed in. So always read the labels!
I also want to thank my dear readers who demanded to know more about the slippery story of canola oil. This is one Canadian import we don’t need. And like other protestors around the country, tell Canada this is one oil it can keep!