From Trans Fats to Weight Gain: is Canola Oil Dangerous?

Blooming fields of yellow rapeseed are among the most beautiful natural scenes. Yet, some experts claim that rapeseed (canola) oil is bad for you. Do those yellow flowers really hide danger?

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Blooming fields of yellow rapeseed are among the most beautiful natural scenes. Yet, some experts claim that rapeseed (canola) oil is bad for you. Do those yellow flowers really hide danger?

Rapeseed vs canola

There is a lot of confusion surrounding canola, often called rapeseed in Europe. Rapeseed was widely grown in Eurasia since the Middle Ages, since it’s a great crop to plant when fields need rest, and you can feed cattle with it. Humans didn’t consume it, though: old-time rapeseed oil was very bitter and contained toxins (like erucic acid) in such concentrations that the FDA even banned it for human use.

However, in the 50’s and 60’s Canadian scientists did a lot of work on rapeseed, breeding new varieties that contained only tiny amounts of erucic acid. The new cultivar was given a trademarked name Canola, which means “Canadian Oil, Low Acid”. Very soon, thousands of acres in Canada were planted with canola, and it was taking the world by storm (it’s widely grown in the UK and in China, for example. So when you buy rapeseed oil, it’s actually canola.

What’s good about canola?

Canola oil has a few distinct advantages:

  • Canola is very affordable
  • It is a gret cooking oil, since it has a very high smoke point (the temperature when it starts to burn and good nutrients are destroyed) – much higher than that of olive oil.
  • High level of monounsaturated fats, omega-3 and omega-6 (good for your heart and cholesterol levels – see this study
  • Low levels of saturated fats – only 7%, as opposed to 12% in sunflower and 15% in olive oil.

On the other hand, rapeseed belongs to the cruciferous family – same as cabbage, cauliflower, etc. – and has a cabbagey smell and a slightly weird taste on its own; therefor, it’s not great as a dressing, though fine for mayonnaise.

Why are people scared of canola?

A lot of recent publications state that canola oil is bad for you; however, such claims should be taken with a grain of salt.

  1. Erucic acid – indeed, it is bad for your health in high doses, but, as we have said, modern rapeseed oil contains just 0.01% of erucic acid (and by the way, it is found in broccoli, kale, and even human milk). In such doses it’s completely safe.
  2. Trans fats – they increase the risk of stroke and diabetes and are bad for your cholesterol (more info here). However, canola oil contains much less trans fat than butter, ghee, or cheese, for example (0.5% vs 4-5%).
  3. Hexane – this is a solvent often used to extract oils (canola, soybean, and olives), and while it is classified as a neurotoxin, it is unclear if consuming trace amounts can be bad for your health. Canola oil contains tiny concentrations of hexane – much less that soy meat, for example. If you want to stay on the safe side, stick with cold-pressed virgin rapeseed oil.
  4. GMOs – it’s true that 90% of all rapeseed is genetically modified (mostly to be resistant to RoundUp, used to kill weeds). However, the single protein gene that was modified is removed when oil is made. Therefore, there are no GMOs in canola oil itself. If you are still worried about GMOs, choose organically grown rapeseed oil.
  5. Weight gain – a lot of online articles cite studies (like this one) made on rats that show that canola oil (especially erucic acid) causes weight gain and damage to the heart and liver. The key fact to point out is that all those studies were done 20-35 years ago on much older cultivars of rapeseed. There is no link between present-day canola oil and weight gain, apart from the fact that – like all oils – it is rich in calories and should be consumed in moderation.

As you see, a lot of claims about the “dangers” of rapeseed oil are either outdated or made for sensational purposes, creating confusion among Internet users. Do not give in to confusion – canola oil is fine and won’t hurt you.

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