The facts about canola oil

“Many people won’t use canola oil because it is too highly refined. How does refining affect the oil, or does “higher refining” ruin an oil? Or why is it refined, if it is at all?” asks Enlightened Eater Facebook fan, Jennifer Burnham.

Jennifer, canola oil seems to be one of those foods where much controversy surrounds it – and without merit. An internet search will reveal that for almost every positive site extolling canola’s virtues, you will find one that spouts negative effects. There is so much science fiction out there that it’s even led to the myth-buster Snopes.com dealing with the issues. But if you delve further on all the sites, you’ll find that the reputable ones, those that provide information based on scientific evidence, and also dispel all of the fables surrounding canola oil. (For more information including health benefits on canola oil, check out my previous post on the subject)

Most of the canola oil used in North America is the refined variety but you can purchase cold-pressed canola oil. (More on that later) Oils that are refined can be subjected to a number of different processes such as bleaching and deodorizing. The processes the oil is subjected to depends on factors such as the colour or the aroma. Canola, sunflower, soybean and olive oil are all oils which may be refined. Why canola oil is singled out beats me.

During the refining process, hexane is used as a solvent to extract the oil and while this might sound alarming, the amounts are, in fact, considered to be safe. Now while this information is available from canola industry websites, those such as the Nutrition Source from the Harvard School of Public Health back this up.

Another issue is that during the refining process, trans fatty acids are formed. But again, it’s key to put this in context. According to the Nutrition Source, the amount ranges from 1.9% to 3.6% (or 1.9 grams – 3.6 grams for 100 grams). That translates into 0.2 -0.5 grams per tablespoon. Walnut oil is 2.0% to 3.9%. Compare those figures to soon-to-banned partially hydrogenated oils which supply about 44%- 50% trans fats. They’re not even in the same ballpark.

In deciding whether to use refined canola oil, you also need to look at the benefits. Classified as a monounsaturated fat, canola oil can also claim the title of having the most omega-3 fats of all the vegetable oils. As well, the phytosterols contained also contribute to the oil’s ability to reduce blood cholesterol levels. Another plus is that it’s packed with the antioxidant, vitamin E.

Refined canola oil is a super option for both baking and cooking when you’re looking for an oil which provides no taste and won’t compete with the other ingredients.

But just as we have unrefined olive oil, there is also cold-pressed or virgin canola oil where the oil is simply pressed from the canola seed. No solvents are used in the extraction and like virgin olive oils, these oils are not tasteless or colourless. The flavour profile, aroma and colour depend on a number of factors such as the soil and climate or growing temperatures. So as with extra virgin olive oil, the terroir plays a role- something most people don’t think about when they consider the type of canola oil to purchase.

As a result of the method used to process the oil, the yields are smaller, making the unrefined oil more expensive. But as with other virgin oils, the polyphenol content is higher and because they’re not refined, their shelf life is shorter than its refined counterpart. As for health benefits, there hasn’t been much research conducted on cold pressed canola oil, but as with any oil with an abundance of polyphenols, you might expect a range of extra health perks. But we need research to show this to be true.

While these oils have been available for a while, I have to admit that I had not tasted them until recently. The oils I sampled were each unique but I haven’t yet figured out the best combinations for the various oils. But locals who live on the prairies and are much more familiar are diehard fans.

Here in North America, we aren’t seeing much information or many recipes. But if you head across the Atlantic, in Europe, the cold-pressed canola, which is called virgin rapeseed (I won’t comment on that), the oil is extremely popular.

It does seem to be time for the canola industry to put more effort into promoting this Canadian product (after all, canola does stand for Canadian oil!). Here’s a message for the Canola Council: let’s see more research and recipes using cold-pressed canola oil.

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Categories: Your Questions Answered

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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4 Comments on “The facts about canola oil”

  1. Debra
    December 14, 2017 at 8:55 am #

    Whiles traveling through India and the czech republic ones sees fields of rapeseed, (Canola) beautiful yellow flowers. In Czech it is used to mix with peteolium, many are against this. While many of my friends are food snobs, i prefer canola oil for salad dressings and most baking as it is so neutral. Thanks for myth busting again Rosie.

    • December 14, 2017 at 11:52 am #

      My pleasure, Debra! Yes, for some reason, canola oil inspires unusual responses but the research points to beneficial effects. Its neutral taste, as you say, makes it a choice for many dishes.

  2. December 14, 2017 at 4:23 pm #

    To answer your question about why canola oil is “singled out,” it isn’t really. Those who diss it are against *all* seed oils as well as refined olive oil (only extra virgin olive oil is considered acceptable). The reason you may hear more about canola oil is because it is so highly recommended by dietitians!

    Thanks for this column, as it definitely allays my concerns. I still favour EVOO for most of my uses, but it’s nice to know, when the olive flavour just isn’t acceptable, why canola oil really is okay.

    • December 15, 2017 at 2:55 pm #

      Michele, I’m happy to hear I’ve helped to clear up your concerns! Yes, I too am an EVOO fan but also use canola oil for when I don’t want the taste of olive oil. These are my two standby oils. I do wish, though, that the canola oil bashing would stop. There’s too much fear of food everywhere you go.

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