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Canola Oil Controversy: Is It a Health Food?

June 26, 2013

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We’ve come a long way since the low-fat craze of the early 90s, and many people now embrace avocados, almonds, olives, and other high-fat foods as an essential part of a healthy diet. Yet not all fats are created equal, and some fats, such as trans fats in highly processed hydrogenated oils, are harmful to the body.

Where does canola oil fall on the health spectrum? Is it a healthy fat that’s great to enjoy in moderation, or is it an unhealthy fat that should it be avoided? The answer isn’t simple, and when making your decision, it’s important to separate fact from rumor.

Canola oil comes from the canola plant, a cultivar of the rapeseed plant. During World War II, rapeseed oil was widely used to lubricate steam engines in ships; when demand plummeted after the war, farmers tried to market rapeseed oil as a food product. Yet rapeseed oil was unpalatable and contained high levels of erucic acid, a toxin that may cause heart damage.

Canadian scientists bred the first canola plant from rapeseed in the early 1970s and created a mild-flavored oil that contained less than 2% erucic acid. The name “canola” is a contraction of “Canadian oil, low acid,” and scientists agree that the low levels of erucic acid pose no health risk.

In fact, canola oil’s nutritional profile is impressive. High in anti-inflammatory monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, canola oil also contains a healthy 2:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. In 2006, the FDA ruled that canola oil reduces the risk of coronary heart disease and can be marketed with this qualified health claim. Integrative Nutrition visiting teacher and Chair of Harvard School of Public Health Dr. Walter Willett is a vocal proponent of canola oil, citing it as an excellent source of unsaturated fat that can improve blood cholesterol profiles and lower triglycerides.

Despite these health benefits, canola oil continues to be controversial. Many of the rumors are completely unfounded – for example, canola oil is not linked in any way to mad cow disease or blindness. Yet other objections are legitimate.

Canola oil is a highly processed food created through heating, chemical refining, bleaching, and deodorizing. This harsh processing stands in stark contrast to the gentler methods used to create olive oil, sesame oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil. Oil is extracted from these foods simply by crushing the seed or nut, and this process of cold pressing generally produces higher quality oils that taste better and are more nutritious. If you’re opting for a diet full of whole, unprocessed foods, extra virgin olive oil may be a better choice than highly refined canola oil for cooking or in your salad dressing.

In addition, nearly all of the canola plants grown in the United States are genetically modified. Although GMOs are “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA, many people would rather not eat bio-engineered foods. Unfortunately, the powerful agribusiness lobby has blocked any legislation requiring labeling of products that contain GMOs. Canola has been at the center of several legal battles, with Monsanto prosecuting farmers who accidentally harvested genetically modified canola for patent infringement.

What’s your stance in the canola debate? Do you eat canola oil? Let us know why or why not in the comments section below.