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How does canola oil compare with other cooking oils, and should I consider using it in my meal plan?

Canola is a seed oil obtained from seeds of one particular variety of rape plant (Brassica napus subsp. Rapus). For this reason, canola oil is also often called rapeseed oil. The "can" in "canola" refers to initial commercial development of rapeseed oil in Canada in the 1970's, and the "ola" in "canola" comes from the Latin word for oil. Siberian kale and rutabagas are very closely related to the variety of rape that is currently being used for extraction of seed oil.

While originally developed in Canada using traditional hybridization and breeding methods, over three-fourths of all rape currently grown in Canada for production of canola oil begins with seeds from genetically modified plants. This genetic engineering has been used to provide the plants with tolerance to specific herbicides. Like all certified organic foods, organic canola is made without the use of genetic engineering.

Nutritional Profile of Canola Oil

Like all plant oils, canola gets 100% of its calories from fat. Because cooking oils are virtually identical in this respect, most all of them contain about 14 grams of total fat and 120-125 calories per tablespoon, and canola is no exception. However, even though cooking oils are virtually the same in terms of fat quantity, they not the same in terms of fat quality.

The omega-3 fat content in canola oil falls into a moderate-to-moderately high range in comparison to other cooking oils. Omega-3s in canola are only 15-20% as high as omega-3s in flaxseed oil (1.3 grams versus 7.2 grams per tablespoon), but they are over ten times as high as the omega-3s in extra virgin olive oil (1.3 grams versus 0.10 grams per tablespoon). Canola combines this omega-3 content with high monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA) content that is very similar to extra virgin olive oil. Regular canola oil contains about 8.6 grams of MUFA per tablespoon, and high-oleic canola contains about 10 grams. By comparison, extra virgin olive oil contains 9.6 grams per tablespoon. You will also get very similar amounts of vitamin E and vitamin K in both canola oil and extra virgin olive oil.

Health Benefits from Canola Oil

Research studies show health benefits from the use of canola oil, mostly in the area of decreased cardiovascular disease risk. We have seen studies showing decreased risk of coronary heart disease and decreased blood levels of LDL cholesterol when canola oil was incorporated into a meal plan at an amount roughly equivalent to 1-2 tablespoons per day. In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed a health claim for canola stating that a possible health benefit from its use in the amount of 1.5 tablespoons per day might lead to reduced risk of coronary heart disease. The FDA also made it clear that in order to receive this potential benefit, canola oil needed to be used as a replacement for other saturated fats already being consumed in the diet and not as an "add on" food providing additional calories. We have also seen a study showing similarly improved quality of blood fat profiles with comparable amounts of canola oil versus nuts (including walnuts).

Interestingly, one research study on canola oil versus extra virgin olive oil showed that inclusion of both oils in a meal plan was better able to lower total cholesterol levels in the blood than inclusion of either oil alone.

Why We Prefer Extra Virgin Olive Oil Over Canola

There are three reasons why we prefer extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) over canola oil. The first of these two reasons is nutritional. Even though canola has very similar MUFA content to EVOO, a much higher omega-3 content, and similar amounts of vitamin E and vitamin K, it does not have the same diversity of phytonutrients as EVOO. For example, canola does not contain oleuropein, an anti-inflammatory polyphenol found in EVOO.

Second, we think about EVOO as an oil that is deliberately used for its unique flavor. For example, EVOO is commonly used in salad dressing, and simply "on its own" in uncooked form. We like the idea of incorporating any nutrient-rich food into a meal plan not only because of its nutrient richness but also because of its fantastic taste! We think about canola oil as a more mild and neutral oil that is more commonly used in baking, stove-top cooking, or frying, and less often as an uncooked stand-alone for reasons of taste.

Third, this difference between canola and EVOO in terms of flavor matches up especially well with our overall approach to cooking at WHFoods. Our cooking approach at WHFoods features minimal cooking temperatures and minimal cooking times in order to preserve both flavor and nutrients. This approach extends to cooking oil as well! For example, many of our recipes feature use of EVOO straight from the bottle without heating. Our taste buds find something unique and delicious in the taste of uncooked EVOO. When coupled with the greater nutrient benefits from uncooked versus cooked EVOO, the unique flavor of this culinary oil makes it a great match with our minimal-temperature/minimal-time approach. By contrast, we think of canola oil as being used less often in uncooked form, less often for its stand-alone flavor, and more often to achieve other desired recipe goals in a stir-fry or baked dish.

Should You Consider Using Canola Oil in Your Meal Plan?

Our most direct answer to this question is, "it depends." Since we prefer to avoid potential nutrient loss and potentially unwanted taste changes associated with moderate-to-high heating of EVOO, we steer clear of its use in many stove-top and oven applications. And we believe that your meal plan can be infinitely diverse and delicious without making use of EVOO in these other ways. However, if EVOO is not as satisfying to your taste buds as it is to ours, or if you decide to use cooking oils at higher heats, or if you want to focus on other flavors in a recipe and prefer a milder and more neutral oil, canola oil would make a good choice. Canola is a notable oil in terms of its fat quality (providing both omega-3s and MUFAs), and the somewhat limited studies on cardiovascular risk and canola intake still suggest important potential health benefits. If you do decide to use canola oil, we recommended that you purchase it in certified organic form to reduce exposure to potentially unwanted contaminants.

References

  • Chisholm A, Mc Auley K, Mann J, et al. Cholesterol lowering effects of nuts compared with a Canola oil enriched cereal of similar fat composition. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2005 Aug;15(4):284-92.
  • Gebauer SK, Psota TL, Harris WS, et al. n-3 fatty acid dietary recommendations and food sources to achieve essentiality and cardiovascular benefits. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Jun;83(6 Suppl):1526S-1535S. Review.
  • Hoffman R and Gerber M. Can rapeseed oil replace olive oil as part of a Mediterranean-style diet? Br J Nutr. 2014 Dec 14;112(11):1882-95. doi: 10.1017/S0007114514002888. Epub 2014 Oct 17. Review.
  • Lin L, Allemekinders H, Dansby A, et al. Evidence of health benefits of canola oil. Nutr Rev. 2013 Jun;71(6):370-85. doi: 10.1111/nure.12033. Epub 2013 May 2. Review.

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