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. 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’s backed by Canada’s government, cheap to manufacture, and many packaged or processed 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. (2)
With so many oils on the market and so much talk about the different types of oil, it’s difficult to sift through what’s fact, what’s 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 add to your shopping cart from genetic modification to an overload of unhealthy fats — plus, better alternatives and resources to help you avoid GMOs 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 in 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. 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. (3) Canola oil is a much more appealing name than LEAR oil or rape oil, but should you use 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 a source of 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.
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:
- Over 90 percent of canola oil is genetically modified. (4)
- Canola oil is a refined oil that’s often partially hydrogenated to increase its stability, but this increases its negative health effects.
It’s for these two reasons that I recommend you switch to healthier oil alternatives that I list below.
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 makes 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:
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.
- Sugar beets
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’s 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 the GMO labeling law to be a requirement. (5)
Dangers of Canola Oil
1. Kidney and Liver Problems
The majority of canola oil 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 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 male mammals and the liver being disrupted in female mammals by 30.8 percent. (6)
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’s associated with heart damage, specifically Keshan disease, a disease that manifests itself with fibrotic lesions of the heart. Studies have shown that in areas where people are prone to Keshan, not only are selenium levels lower, but eurucic acid levels are higher. (7)
3. Hypertension and Strokes
Previous studies have shown that the consumption of rapeseed oil and some other types of vegetable oils shortens the life span of stroke-prone and hypertensive animal subjects. Specifically, research carried out at the Nutrition and Toxicology Research Divisions of Ottawa 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. (9)
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. (10)
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, 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 it to the generally recognized as safe list. (11)
Not only is it highly concerning to feed developing infants a GMO oil, but it’s also highly questionable to give them unhealthy fats. Proponents brag about canola’s overall healthy fat profile, but I don’t buy it. Now it’s being sold in the form of a baby’s first meal. Of course, I highly encourage skipping the commercial formulas and opting for breastfeeding 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.” (12)
When canola oil undergoes hydrogenation, which it often does to become a partially hydrogenated oil, this increases its level of trans fats. These are a group of fats you want to avoid as much as possible since they’re scientifically known to increase LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol.
When you read “partially hydrogenated oil” on any food label, that guarantees there is some amount of 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, the company is allowed to indicate there are no trans fats. Frustrating, I know. (13)
Trans fatty acids are hazardous byproducts of food processing and are truly health destroyers. In fact, if you decide to get rid of your canola 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 GMOs 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 unearthed by scientific research: (14)
- Allergic reactions
- Loss of nutrition
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:
1. 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.
2. Olive Oil
People often compare canola oil to olive oil. Olive oil wins every day of the week!
I don’t recommend it as the first option for cooking, but olive oil benefits are tremendous and at the heart of the Mediterranean diet. Look for an organic extra-virgin or cold-pressed olive oil that’s available in a darkly colored glass container. Many inferior, fake 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.
3. Ghee or Organic, Pasture-Raised Butter
Both butter and ghee benefits come from alpha lipoic acid and conjugated linoleic acid, which can promote weight loss. Also, they contain healthy short chain fatty acids and have a higher heat threshold. When buying butter, stick with organic grass-fed varieties.
4. Red Palm Oil
Red palm oil is made from the palm fruit instead of the palm kernel, and in its unrefined state, it’s 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’s 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’s still illegal to use genetic engineering or modification in certified organic products. (15)
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.
One cup of canola oil contains about: (16)
- 1,927 calories
- 218 grams fat
- 16.1 grams saturated fat
- 0.9 gram trans fat, yet other reports claim that it is much more
- 155 micrograms vitamin K (194 percent DV)
- 38.1 milligrams vitamin E (190 percent DV)
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. (17)
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 its was closer to 2:1 (the first number being omega-6s and the second the omega-3s).
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’s linked to heart damage, in particular Keshan 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 1970s 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.
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.
Final Thoughts on Canola Oil
Whether the canola oil you’ve been using is genetically modified or not, you really can’t afford to keep using it for the sake of your health.
It can be confusing to know which are the best oils to choose to cook with and use at home. But one thing you can bet on is that canola oil is simply not the safe, healthy alternative that the mainstream media would have you believe. Canola oil has become so popular it’s found in many foods, including ones you may think are “healthy” food choices. In fact, canola oil is marketed to the health-conscious industry rather than the junk food industry. However, you must beware and read labels diligently in order to protect your health and the health of your loved ones from the dangers of this popular cooking oil.
Now that you’re armed with the facts, use them to guard your health! I truly hope you will steer clear of canola oil and all GMO foods. Look for foods with the non-GMO label. Find more info here: nongmoproject.org. I also suggest checking out the Non-GMO Shopping Guide.