Canola Oil 101
Sources: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee; The Mayo Clinic; DrWeil.com; usda.gov
What is canola oil and should we use it?
Canola stands for Canada Oil Low Acid, a name created by a Canadian industry group of rapeseed oil producers. The canola plant is a type of rapeseed that is low in two compounds that when removed, makes its oil healthier and taste better.
Rapeseed oil is not new. Its name comes from the Latin word rapum, which means turnip, a plant that is related to common rapeseed varieties. Despite the fact that the oil derived from the plant has always been harmless when consumed by humans, it had a bitter flavor and contained unhealthy fatty acids. So instead it was used more in industry, as in biodiesel fuel and as a lubricant for ship engines. During World War II when the oil's primary sources in Europe and Asia were blocked, Canada boosted its rapeseed production to take advantage of the increased industrial demand.
Using rapeseed oil for industrial purposes continued until the 1970's when Canadian scientists working at the University of Manitoba discovered that they could use traditional plant breeding methods with edible rape plants (rape is also called rapeseed, oil seed rape, rapa, and in some varieties, canola) to remove much of that harmful fatty acid called erucic acid, and glucosinolates, the bitter compound that gave the oil a bad taste.
When this was achieved and its potential for consumer use recognized, Canada's rapeseed oil producers were troubled by the plant's unappealing name that had obviously negative connotations. They came up with a new name for the rape variety that produces the consumer version, not the industrial oil. And Canola oil was born.
Today Canola oil is the third most popular type of vegetable oil in the world after soybean and palm oils. Commercially it's used in frying and baking, and as an ingredient in salad dressings, margarine, and other products. Canola oil has also become a turn-to choice in commercial high temperature frying to replace the now banned partially hydrogenated oils. Home cooks also use canola oil for frying and in recipes that benefit from its bland flavor, such as salad dressings and mayonnaise.
Healthy Or Risky?
Canola oil is similar to olive oil in that it is extremely healthy. With FDA approvals and positive reviews from experts ranging from the Mayo Clinic to Dr. Andrew Weil, Canola's notable health benefits are that it is low in saturated fat, high in polyunsaturated fats, and it includes omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids -- all of which contribute to heart health.
Its calories are like any fat: one tablespoon contains 120 calories.
From a cooking perspective, Canola oil is very versatile due to its neutral flavor. Plus it has a medium-high smoking point and a relatively high burn temperature of 400° F (olive oil's is 380° F and peanut oil's is 437° F).
But because the oil is high in polyunsaturated fats, it can easily become rancid, which you might not always know because of its neutral flavor and scent.
Like all rapeseed oil, Canola oil is easy and cheap to produce. But extracting the fatty acid and bitter flavor compounds requires processing. Some critics maintain that the aggressive and often chemically induced processing leaves toxins and trans fats in the oil. Reports and data on this vary and like many things in our modern food, it is difficult to really know the facts and the risks.
Moreover, the vast majority of Canola oil is genetically modified. It is reported that in the 1990's, Monsanto created a genetically modified canola plant that was resistant to certain herbicides. Since then as much as 93% of all Canola oil is genetically modified.
Canola oil ends up being a cooking ingredient that on the one hand is heart-healthy, with a neutral flavor and high temperature versatility. But on the other hand, it's hard to know how the oil we buy was produced. The compromise, for me, and for others is to buy Canola oil that is organic and labeled as having no GMOs.
I'd add that the other good practice is to only use it when you need the neutral taste and high burn temperature; the rest of the time use extra virgin olive oil.