Is Canola Oil Bad for You?
Canola oil is a vegetable-based oil found in countless packaged food products and has been touted as a heart-healthy alternative to animal fats and butter. But is canola oil actually good for you? Or is canola oil bad for you? Here is a complete breakdown of canola oil, how it’s made, its benefits, its drawbacks, and an answer to whether canola oil is healthy or not.
What is Canola oil?
Canola oil is made from the canola plant, a member of a large family called crucifers, which was developed in the 1970s by Canadian plant scientists using traditional plant breeding. (1) Using selective breeding techniques, developers were able to lower the two unwanted components of rapeseed and develop a new plant now called canola. The name ‘canola’ was a condensation of “Can” from Canada and “OLA ” meaning “oil, low acid”.
How is Canola Oil Made?
Canola oil is made from the seeds of the canola plant. The canola plant produces small yellow flowers that develop into pods, much like pea pods, which contain 20 to 30 tiny black seeds, about 1mm in diameter. (2) Once harvested, the seeds undergo several steps in order to turn them into canola oil and canola meal, a by-product of canola oil production used in animal feed. According to the Canola Council of Canada, canola oil is made via the following steps (3):
- Cleaning: The seeds are first cleaned to remove any “dockage”; weed seeds, stems, pods, and other materials picked up during the harvesting process.
- Heating and Flaking: The seeds are then heated to help ensure more oil can be released during the extraction process and then seeds are passed through rollers to gently break and flake the seeds to just the right thickness.
- Seed Cooking: The flakes then go through a series of cookers, which optimizes the viscosity of the oil and moisture of the flakes for the steps ahead.
- Pressing: The cooked flakes then go through a series of presses for mild pressing, which removes most of the oil and compresses the rest of the seeds into a cake.
- Solvent Extraction: The cake is then put into an extractor and saturated with a solvent called hexane to remove any remaining oil. The hexane is then removed from the oil, reused, and recycled.
- Refining and Processing: This crude canola oil is then further refined to improve color, improve flavor and extend shelf life. At this point, the canola oil is ready to be sold as cooking oil or used in the production of a wide range of consumer and commercial products.
Although most companies use this traditional method, some Canadian canola is processed without solvent extraction and/or the use of heat.
Canola Oil Nutrition
Canola oil is a source of fat and is, therefore, rich in calories and dietary fat, while containing no protein or carbohydrates and limited nutrients. One tablespoon (14 g) of canola oil provides (4):
- Calories: 124
- Protein: 0 grams
- Fat: 14 grams
- Carbohydrates: 0 grams
Fats in Canola Oil
Like many sources of fat, canola oil contains a combination of fatty acids and breaks down as follows (5):
- Saturated Fat: 7%
- Unsaturated Fat:
- Monounsaturated Fat: 64%
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 28%
Canola oil is primarily a source of unsaturated fat, specifically monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids in the form of well-known omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The polyunsaturated fats in canola oil are made up of roughly 11% α-linolenic acid (omega-3), 21% linolenic acids (omega-6), and about 61% oleic acids (omega-9). (6)
Benefits of Canola Oil
Contains Omega-3 Fats
Canola oil is a good source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a form of omega-3 fatty acids derived from plant sources. ALA helps to boost the omega-3 fats DHA and EPA, which are critical for health. (7)
Thanks to its neutral and light taste, canola oil is a versatile cooking ingredient that can be used in sweet and savory dishes while allowing other ingredients to shine through.
Given that canola oil is relatively inexpensive to grow, harvest, and produce, canola oil and products made with canola oil have a relatively low price point compared to other cooking oils and fats.
Canola Oil Concerns
High in Omega-6 Fats
The primary concern with canola oil is its high content of omega-6 fats. Much like omega-3 fats, omega-6 fats are essential fatty acids and essential for human health, however, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in our diet is important. An optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats for the human body is 1:1 and, in excess, omega-6 fatty acids have been shown to contribute to chronic conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, and heart disease. (8) While the 2:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats found in canola oil may not seem extreme, when used as a primary cooking oil or regularly consumed in pre-made foods the consumption of canola oil has the potential to become a major source of dietary omega-6 fat.
The unsaturated nature of canola oil makes the oil less stable and, therefore, more susceptible to oxidation and damage by light, heat, and air.
The production of canola oil involves chemical solvents, bleaching, deodorizing, high heat, and heavy processing. This intense process of production has been shown to damage the oil and create refined, bleached, and deodorized oils, also known as RBD oils. (9)
Almost all canola crops are genetically modified (GM or genetically engineered) to be tolerant to herbicides. (10) Although many scientists and governing bodies deem GMO foods safe, there remain public concerns over the environmental impact and human health impact of these crops.
Is Canola Oil Healthy?
Overall, the concerns around canola oil outweigh any potential benefits. Although canola oil is a natural plant oil with omega-3 fats, the high level of processing required to produce canola oil and its high content of omega-6 fats have the potential to create rancid oils and contribute to inflammation in the body. In moderate quantities, there is no evidence to conclude that the consumption of canola oil is unhealthy or overly damaging, however, total intake should be considered in conjunction with other sources of omega-6 fats in the diet. At this time, it is clear that more research is required.
Canola Oil Substitutes
If you are concerned about the potential negative impacts of canola oil, there are many other oils and cooking fats to choose from. For higher-heat cooking, fats with a higher level of saturated fat are ideal given they are more stable and less prone to oxidation and damage, these include ghee, tallow, lard, duck fat, butter, and coconut oil. For lower-heat cooking, olive oil and avocado oil are ideal, while nut and seed oils such as flax oil are best unheated and used as dressings.
The Bottom Line
Canola oil is a heavily processed form of vegetable oil with few health benefits. Compared to other natural cooking oil, such as olive oil, butter, and animal fats, there are minimal benefits to using canola oil. Generally speaking, canola oil is not recommended as a primary, everyday cooking oil, and overall consumption of processed foods should be limited.