Canola Oil: Is It Harmful Or A Heart-Healthy Alternative To Olive Oil?
Besides saving money, the biggest reason why it’s smart to cook at home is that you have full control over the ingredients. It’s not only the foods you cook that impact your health. The cooking oils you use to coat your frying pan, wok or skillet directly influence the level of inflammation in your body.
If you want to live a long, pain-free life, the name of the game is curbing inflammation.
Frequently dining at restaurants places you at greater risk for having higher inflammation markers (total cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL-cholesterol, etc.). This is because most restaurants use vegetable oils, obtained inexpensively, in bulk. Vegetable oils and seed oils quickly spoil when exposed to heat and light.
Furthermore, most veggie and seed oils contain far more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. Although both of these polyunsaturated fats are essential for health, the average Western diet consumes far too many omega-6 fatty acids. Eating food cooked in vegetable and seed oil greatly contributes to this imbalance, which contributes to inflammation in the body.
The two most common oils restaurants use are soybean and canola, which are the first- and second-most consumed oils in the United States, respectively. (Only palm oil is consumed more than these two oils worldwide.)
Is Canola Oil Safe?
Canola oil has become very popular over the years because of the heart-healthy benefits associated with the Mediterranean Diet. Foods rich in monounsaturated fat, such as olives and olive oil offer cardioprotective benefits. Canola oil’s popularity can be attributed to the fact that like olive oil, it mostly consists of monounsaturated fat and only a small amount of saturated fat. Plus, it’s much cheaper than high-quality olive oil.
If canola oil is high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and has the extra advantage of being cheaper than olive oil, end of story, right? Well, not quite.
The University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health’s Berkeley Wellness newsletter is one of the most trusted resources for evidence-based wellness information, according to its website. A Berkeley Wellness article from 2015 on canola oil attempts to dispel certain myths about canola oil. These “myths” are the reason why, according to the article, some people believe that canola oil is “poison.”
One reason canola oil has been vilified, says Berkeley, is erucic acid. This compound was attributed to heart problems several decades ago. Berkeley points out that since then, the oil has been cross-bred to remove most of the erucic acid.
Another reason why some people think canola oil is poisonous is because of an incident in Spain in the early 1980s, in which several hundred deaths from canola oil consumption occurred. The deaths were not attributable to canola oil, argues Berkeley, but rather an industrial solvent that was illegally added to the oil.
Yet another reason why Berekley considers canola oil safe is that even though it’s used in industrial application, all vegetable oils are used to make lubricants, pesticides and consumer products. The fact that it’s used industrially doesn’t mean it’s unsafe, claims Berkeley.
Berkeley Wellness continues, “Despite the long-standing safety of canola oil, the Internet is still awash with rumors that it causes all kinds of maladies. There has never been any evidence to support these claims. According to the EPA, canola oil’s ‘toxicological profiles are similar to those of other vegetable oils that are used as food.’”
Is Canola Oil Genetically-Modified?
Another reason why some people view canola oil as harmful is because of how canola oil was created. According to the Canola Oil Council website, canola oil was developed via traditional plant cross-breeding from rapeseed varieties during the 1960s and 70s.
These days, about 80% of the canola grown in Canada, which is the world’s largest producer of canola oil, is GMO, or genetically modified. (The ‘CAN’ in ‘canola’ pays homage to where the oil was invented—Canada.)
The reason why GMO canola was created was to make it resistant to the herbicide, glyphosate, which is the main active ingredient in Roundup Weed Killer, the most widely-used herbicide in the world. (Currently, there are over 125,000 lawsuits against Monsanto, the inventor of Roundup; plaintiffs allege that it causes cancer.)
The Canola Oil Council says that although the canola plant is [genetically] modified, the oil is not. “Canola oil from the herbicide-tolerant plant is exactly the same safe and healthy oil as canola oil from conventional plants. The modification has been made to only one canola gene and it is a protein. Processing removes all proteins from canola oil. That means canola oil made from GM seed is conventional canola oil.”
The Health Benefits of Canola Oil
In addition to the high monounsaturated fat content, the other main selling point is that it contains ALA, or alpha lipoic acid. ALA is a vegetarian source of essential omega-3 fatty acid. Omega-3s are associated with cardiovascular-protective benefits.
However, ALA is not the most potent source of inflammation-lowering omega-3s. In addition to ALA, there are two other Omega-3s: EPA and DHA. Both EPA and DHA, which can be found in fatty, cold-water fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) and their oils do a far better job than ALA when it comes to lowering inflammation.
Reasons Why Canola May Be Unhealthy
As for its low saturated fat content, this brings us back full circle. What arguably makes canola dangerous for chronic consumption is in fact its lack of saturated fat. Cooking oils that are low in saturated fat and high in polyunsaturated fat are chemically unstable when exposed to heat and light. Even though the Canola Oil Council claims it’s “shelf-stable” this molecular stability doesn’t carry over in the cooking process.
Another major reason why canola oil may harm your health is that even when it’s non-GMO, it may contain trans fats. The process of removing the harmful substance mentioned above, erucic acid, is what leads to the development of trans fats in canola oil.
Although the nutrition label may claim 0 grams of trans fats, canola oil may contain up to 0.5 grams per serving. Trans fats are so harmful to human health, they shouldn’t just be minimized, they should be avoided altogether. Unfortunately, Berkeley Wellness fails to mention the fact that canola oil may contain trace amounts of trans fats.
What About Saturated Fat?
The Berkeley Wellness article touts canola oil as being heart-healthy, in part, because it only contains a gram of saturated fat. However, since the article was written five years ago, new research suggests that saturated fat may not be as harmful (for most people) as was suggested for at least the last half-century .
For instance, a 2018 research article suggests, “Rather than focus on a single nutrient [such as saturated fat], the overall diet quality and elimination of processed foods, including simple carbohydrates, would likely do more to improve [cardiovascular disease] and overall health.”
The author of the paper concludes, “It is in the best interest of the American public to clarify dietary guidelines to recognize that dietary saturated fat is not the villain we once thought it was.”
Perhaps it’s time for Berkeley Wellness to update their official view on the health benefits of canola oil.