The good news about good marketing is that it works. The bad news about good marketing is that, well… it works. The marketing of canola oil has been nothing short of exceptional in this country for a very long time.
The story begins with well-intentioned public health messages from decades ago. Non-profit groups like the American Heart Association and a slew of government agencies started getting the word out that traditional fats used in cooking, like butter, lard, and coconut oil, were loaded with saturated fats that would result in high cholesterol – which in turn would clog arteries and result in heart disease.
Alternatives were then offered up, including vegetable, seed, and bean oils (safflower, soy, corn, canola) because they had less saturated fat (SFAs), more polyunsaturated good fats (PUFAs) – such as omega-6 and omega-3 fats, and contained lots of oleic acid, a monounsaturated (MFA) omega-9 fat with all kinds of purported health benefits. The food industry kicked production of these “healthier” oils into high gear and produced many a marketing message to drive the point home.
Not only did many people switch to using the “healthier” oils in their home kitchens, but these new “health foods” also started showing up in all kinds of processed food products, such as margarine spreads, salad dressings, mayonnaise, and more.
As it turns out, not only was the danger from saturated fats overstated, but the alternatives many started using and still use today are downright toxic. And that has a whole lot to do with how they’re made. The very worst of the worst among these products is arguably canola oil.
What Exactly is Canola Oil?
Once upon a time, someone discovered that oil produced from the inedible rapeseed plant (a member of the Brassicaceae family that includes turnips, rutabaga, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and mustard) was a great lubricant for steam engines because it stuck much better to metal surfaces, even when water is present.
Rapeseed oil had already been used in ancient times as a fuel oil. More recently, industrial uses have included soaps, lipsticks, candles, inks, insecticides, and biofuels. It was never used as a food product because it has high levels of erucic acid, which not only has a horribly bitter taste but also wreaks havoc on the heart in the form of Keshan Disease, a condition that produces fibrotic lesions of the heart.
Then along came all those public health messages about eliminating saturated fats from your diet. If only rapeseed oil could be modified to reduce its erucic acid content, somebody could make a killing. Enter our friends to the north. Canadian growers managed to breed a hybrid that reduced the erucic acid content to around 2%.
Now if only it didn’t have such a nasty name. After all, who wants to buy something called rapeseed oil? Let’s see…Canada + oil = Canola! Voila! Now we have an oil that’s low in evil saturated fats and high in good polyunsaturated fats. Let the marketing begin!
The actual nutritional and fat profile of a cup of canola oil looks like this:
- Calories (1,927)
- Total Fat (218g or 335% recommended daily value)
- Saturated Fat (16g or 80% RDV)
- Monosaturated Fat (138g)
- Polysaturated Fat (61.4g)
- Omega-3 fatty acids (5,018-19,921mg depending on the source)
- Omega-6 fatty acids (40,646mg)
- Vitamin E (38.1mg or 190% RDV)
- Vitamin K (155mcg or 194% RDV)
- Trans Fat (1g+ variable by product)
Canola quickly became a big cash crop, which in turn attracted the attention of megacorporation Monsanto. In 1995, it took over the canola seed market with genetically modified versions to make the growing even easier by making the plant resistant to the company’s pesticides. Well over 90% of all canola is now genetically modified.
With Monsanto’s backing, canola has continued to be a big cash crop with a global value of $2 billion. In 2009, it had risen through the ranks to become the second largest oil crop in the world (soy being the leader).
Why is Canola Oil Bad for You?
Setting aside the obvious GMO angle, it’s the manufacturing process involved in making canola oil that’s at the root of many of its evils. Anyone interested in eating healthier already knows that highly processed foods tend to cause more harm than good.
Making canola oil is more like an industrial chemical process than making a food product. The seeds are heated up, which helps when it comes time to extract the oil. The extraction process is accomplished with the use of a dreadful petroleum-based solvent called hexane, which is toxic. The raw oil has a lot of icky solids in it that settle during storage, so the next stage is a de-gumming process that involves more heat and chemicals, typically various acids.
After that comes bleaching it, and finally, because it’s still very stinky, it has to be deodorized using super-hot temperatures up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Did you get all that? Here’s a summary:
- Genetically modified
- Extracted with chemicals (hexane)
- De-gummed with chemicals (acids)
- Deodorized with high heat
Does that sound like something you’d actually want to put in your body by way of your mouth? Whatever potential health benefits such an oil might have, they’re all wrecked in the process of making it.
Take another look at the nutritional and fat profile of canola oil. Do you see how unbalanced the omega-3 and omega-6 contents are? Omega-3 fats are great at fighting inflammation, which is a driving force behind many (if not most) disease conditions.
But for omega-3 to be able to do its anti-inflammatory job, it has to be in the right balance or ratio with omega-6 fats, which tend to cause inflammation. Americans already get way too many omega-6 fats and too few omega-3 fats, and canola oil isn’t going to help that balance.
This didn’t used to be a problem, because back in the day we not only consumed more omega-3 fats from natural game sources, but there also weren’t highly processed foods loaded with omega-6 fats.
Inflammatory omega-6 fats counteract and overwhelm anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. Having too many omega-6 fats in your diet contributes to psychiatric disorders and mental illness, heart disease, asthma, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, cancer, irritable and inflammatory bowel syndromes, eyesight degeneration, and autoimmune diseases. But wait, there’s more!
The production of canola oil also involves hydrogenation or partial hydrogenation to harden it off, which means that on top of everything else bad about it, the final product has trans fats in it. Talk about adding insult to injury!
In fact, the processing actually turns many of the omega-3 fats into trans fats. The amount varies widely depending on the specific product, with some having trans fat content of 4.6% and others as little as 0.2%. And trans fats are linked to many of the health problems listed above.
Rancid oils cause the generation of free radicals in the body, and free radicals in turn cause inflammation. See how all this connects?
The bottom line is this— cooking and consuming polyunsaturated fats is simply not good for you. They should never appear in your pantry, and if they’re in there already, get rid of them!
If Not Canola Oil, Then What Should You Cook With?
Even if you can find canola oil that isn’t as highly processed as most of it is, it still has the omega-6/omega-3 imbalance problem, not to mention the erucic acid content, however much it may be reduced. It’s better to just avoid canola oil completely, especially since there are a number of great alternatives.
When it comes to cooking, saturated fat is a great choice, especially when it comes from organic grass-fed animals in the form of lard, butter or ghee. It can be used in high-heat cooking and has lots of healthy short-chain fatty acids that help with weight loss.
There are only two other oils that should be used for cooking. The first is coconut oil. Unlike most oils, it can take higher heat without breaking down in ways that are bad for you. If you choose the unrefined, extra virgin variety, it’ll have a distinct coconut odor and flavor. If you’d like, you can go with refined coconut oil as well, which is odorless and has an even higher smoke point.
The medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil maintain a healthy nervous system and aid in fat loss. Plus, there’s a staggering array of other healthy applications for coconut oil.
The other oil good for cooking is red palm oil, which is made from the fruit of the palm rather than the kernel. When it’s unrefined, it’s loaded with vitamin E and beta-carotene. Like coconut oil, it can withstand high heat for cooking. Just make sure that what you buy is certified as sustainably produced.
Olive oil is a great choice for salad dressings and cold dishes, but it’s not a good choice for high-heat cooking because it oxidizes. At most, it would be appropriate for a light sauté. The best choice would be an organic, cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil darker in color in a glass container.
With choices like these, you have no excuse to stop poisoning yourself with canola oil immediately. Your health is worth it, so take action!