Anything with the term “vegetable” is commonly advertised as healthy or a healthy alternative to a food item we love. For a long time, Canola oil was considered by most as a healthy cooking oil option ultimately, being the oil of choice for most due to its versatility and price point. In recent years, canola oil’s health claims have been put in question. This has led to many of my patients asking me: What are the best fats to use at home?
Currently, in the USA, the top 4 vegetable oils consumed regularly are soybean, canola, palm oil, and corn oil. These 4 oils are referred to as RBD which stands for refined, bleached, and deodorized oils, named after their manufacturing process. RBD oils are produced through a refining process by crushing the plant material to express the oil, commonly followed by treating the plant material with hexane, a petrochemical solvent, to extract the last bit of oil left in the plant material. Refined oils then go through various treatments. These treatments may include: using an earthen bleaching clay to reduce the color and smell of the oils by filtration, steam distillation, exposure to phosphoric acid, and more. Ultimately, the exact process will differ for each oil. Interestingly, when you compare Organic Virgin Coconut Oil or Extra Virgin Olive Oil(EVOO), vegetable oils are considerably cheaper.
Canola Oil Origins
Canola oil was originally bred from rapeseed cultivars of B. Napus and B.Rapa in Canada in the early 70s. There is no canola plant. Canola oil is made from crushed seeds from a variety of rapeseed, which are in the turnip family. The name canola is the combination of “Can” from Canada and “OLA” that stands for “Oil, low acid”. Originally, Canola oil had a different nutritional profile than what is currently accessible on the shelf of our grocery stores today. Traditionally, rapeseed oil contains almost 60% monounsaturated fats. However, two-thirds of that 60% is erucic acid. Erucic acid has a chain length of 22 carbon atoms with one double bond at the omega 9 position. Erucic acid consumed at high levels is very dangerous as animal studies have shown that its exposure leads to adverse heart health effects. As of 1956, the American FDA has banned rapeseed from the human food chain as a whole. Since the strain developed in Canada was considered low acid, it was granted GRAS (generally regarded as safe) by the FDA, making its way to the United States in the 80s.
In 1995, a genetically engineered rapeseed was introduced to Canada to increase plant resistance to herbicides. This resulted in a genetically modified variety being developed a few short years later. Genetically modified crops are traditionally lab-made by combining the DNA of various species that cannot naturally reproduce together (think Salmon and Romaine Lettuce). In the case of Canola, this genetically modified variety is considered the most disease, herbicide, and drought-resistant canola variety to date. In fact, currently, around 90% of this Canadian variety is herbicide-resistant.
Concerns over GMO
Currently, in the United States, around 93% of the canola grown is from genetically modified seeds. Despite this, it is commonly considered a GMO-free product. There have been health and ethical concerns surrounding genetically engineered foods such as:
Impacts on traditional farming practices
GMO agricultural practices were originally developed to prevent crop and food loss. Unfortunately, this has also led to superweeds and resistant pests. This has forced farmers to have to utilize more labor and use more toxic chemicals to manage this. In an effort to combat this, there has been an overuse of glyphosate which hinders the plant’s ability to absorb nutrients and adversely reduces the longevity and health of the soil. The overuse has resulted in several glyphosate-resistant weeds.
Harm to human health
A group of scientists conducted a study where they fed rats a diet of GMO potatoes and reported after 10 days of feeding that every organ system was adversely affected. Several organizations have expressed concerns as introducing foreign genes that we would otherwise not have exposure to may hurt human health. Currently, scientists do not believe GMO foods present a risk to human health.
Threat to Genetic Biodiversity
Biodiversity is the variability among living organisms. In farming, this includes plants’ genetic resources and is critical for the sustainable production of food. Additionally, genetic diversity helps us adapt to new conditions whether it be weather, disease, or pests, and aid ecosystems in acclimating to changing environments.
Unintended crossbreeding to non-modified crops
Generally, Crossbreeding occurs when you intentionally select a plant for specific traits and then transfer pollen from one plant to another. GM crops can crossbreed with non-modified crops by pollen. While many times unintended, pollen can be carried by the wind, by water, or even insects and cross-pollinate non-modified crops.
Potential allergic reactions
There have been many concerns regarding the allergenic potential of a genetically modified plant.
Many countries have placed a total ban on GMO products.
So why is this touted as a healthy oil?
Canola oil is commonly marketed as a healthy oil and a healthy alternative to replacing saturated fats and trans-fat. The American Heart Association recommends using oils such as Canola as a substitute for butter, shortening, lard, and even coconut oil. Let’s look at the nutritional fatty acid composition of Canola Oil:
- Saturated Fats: 7%
- Monounsaturated Fats: 62%
- Polyunsaturated Fats: 28%
- Trans Fat 1.9-3.6%
Canola oil is low in saturated fat at 7%, making it one of the cooking oils with the lowest amount of saturated fats. It is important to note that Canola oil has low (yet some) trans-fat content although it is commonly marketed as “zero grams trans-fat”. Despite this claim, all vegetable oils contain small amounts of trans-fat. However, the FDA allows a “zero grams trans-fat” claim for any serving size with less than >.5 grams of trans fat.
With the health industry promoting eating less fat, specifically saturated fat, I believe this has opened room for Canola to take center stage as the oil of choice for many. Critics for decades have associated saturated fats with increased heart disease-promoting a low-fat diet. Despite many health organizations pushing for a lower saturated fat diet, The Journal of the American College of Cardiology published an article that there is mounting evidence that saturated fats are not the issue in itself but of combining saturated fats with highly refined carbohydrate foods. Saturated fats are not all the same and it is a complex nutrient. We simply cannot compare grass-fed, organic, lean cuts of steak to a highly processed, cheap, low-quality, fast food burger. Additionally, it is important to note the difference between fat and fatty acids. Saturated fats as we have learned in the past few weeks are foods that are primarily lipids and solid at room temperature due to their structural property of fatty acids.
Most of my patients prefer whole naturally occurring foods and prefer their oils to reflect that as well. Luckily, we have an array of options with oils.
– Quality EVOO: – Quality EVOO: Primarily made of oleic acid, a beneficial monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid that is linked to health benefits such as reduced inflammation and blood pressure levels. EVOO also contains oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol that have strong antioxidant, cardioprotective, and neuroprotective properties. EVOO is made from pure, cold-pressed olives. This makes it the least processed version of olive oil readily available. Since many antioxidants and vitamins are lost throughout the manufacturing process cold-pressed oils are considered better choices as their processing preserves their nutritional integrity.
– Extra Virgin Coconut Oil: is unrefined coconut oil. We want to stick with unrefined oils as the refined process can strip the flavor and nutrients.
– Extra Virgin Avocado Oil: This is another great option and has a high smoke point (≥250°C). Additionally, the fatty acid profile is similar to that of olive oil and is primarily made up of oleic acid.
– Extra Virgin Cold Pressed Grapeseed Oils: High smoke point making it a better option for sautéing or stir-frying. High in vitamin e and phenolic antioxidants. Also, a rich source of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (70%).
One of the best things you can do is have a variety of oils in your pantry between higher monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and get creative. What are your favorite oils? Leave a comment below.