Meet Your Ingredients

Meet Your Ingredients: Canola Oil

Bowl of canola oil

Known for its mild flavor, canola oil is a staple ingredient in many kitchens. However, there’s been a lot of controversy over how healthy it actually is.

Read on for an overview of both sides of the argument, how to select and store, and when to use this oil in baking or cooking.

The Basics

Created by Canadians, the word “canola” is actually a combination of “Canadian” and “oil.”

While rapeseed plants on their own contain toxic compounds, canola plants were created through cross breeding of rapeseed plants with one’s that don’t contain those toxic compounds.

Canola oil comes from pressing the seeds of the canola plant (plus some additional processing); the leftover pressed seed is then used for animal feed.

Currently, the majority of canola plants are genetically modified to increase plant tolerance to herbicides. But we’ll get to all the GMO-stuff later in this guide.

Nutrition Overview

I’m going to be completely honest: writing and researching this post shook my (nutritional) world.

During my time in grad school and working in the field, I was always taught that canola oil was the second healthiest oil, after extra-virgin olive oil, as it is high in monounsaturated fats and low saturated fat. However, the more I started looking into it, there seems to be very mixed messages as to the level of processing and its effects on the nutrient quality of canola oil.

Nutrition Basics:

1 tablespoon of canola oil contains 124 calories, 12% RDA for vitamin E, and 12% RDA for vitamin K.

As for fat, it contains 7% saturated fat, 65% monounsaturated fat, and 28% polyunsaturated fat, with 21% of the PUFAs being omega-6 and the remaining 11% omega-3.

Controversy:

From the nutrition basics, you can understand why dietitians have always been a fan: not a lot of saturated fat and a good amount of healthy fats. Plus there have been numerous observational studies showing an association between canola oil consumption and decreased risk of heart disease.

However, many of those studies are actually funded by the canola oil industry (such as this one).

In a more recent 2018 review (that wasn’t industry-funded), participants (all of whom were obese or overweight) who regularly used canola oil in cooking were more likely to have metabolic syndrome, while those who cooked with olive oil were significantly less likely to have metabolic syndrome.

As briefly talked about above, most canola oil that we buy in the store has gone through heavy processing, involving exposure to chemicals and high heat. While this refinement process makes canola oil able to withstand higher temperatures, it also decreases the amount of healthy fats, antioxidants, and vitamins in the oil.

And while you can buy unrefined, cold-pressed canola oil, its smoke point will be lower, making it unsuitable for high-heat cooking.

Another concern is that while it does have a good amount of MUFA’s, canola oil is relatively high in omega-6 fatty acids. Check out my previous post here to see why the balance between omega-6’s and omega-3’s is so important.

Finally, over 90% of canola crops in the US are genetically engineered; while GMO’s have been approved for human consumption, we still don’t have sufficient data to show what regular consumption of GMO foods may have on our health in the long-term.

Bottom line:

While I wouldn’t say that canola oil needs to be avoided completely, until we have more robust evidence I think it’s a good idea to try to use extra-virgin olive oil or avocado oil in place of canola for everyday cooking. Instead, reserve canola for the occasional baked goods that require a more mild-flavored cooking oil.

How to select

As discussed above, if looking to use canola for high heat cooking, you’ll want to buy refined canola oil.

Otherwise, an expeller-pressed brand of canola oil is a good option if you still want a neutral oil for baking but are concerned about the chemicals used in processing of cheaper, refined canola oil.

How to store

Similar to other oils, canola should be stored in a cool, dark cupboard or pantry, away from the oven. Always make sure the lid is tightly sealed to avoid oxidation.

It can also be stored in the fridge, just note that it may get a cloudy appearance, which will go away once the oil is back a room temperature.

Generally speaking, opened canola oil will last for 6-12 months when stored properly.

How to use in cooking/baking

The biggest benefit of canola oil compared to olive or avocado, is that it has a neutral flavor, making it ideal for baking. As with other oils, using canola in baked goods with result in a very moist, tender crumb, which is ideal for cakes and cupcakes especially.

Thanks to it’s higher smoke point, refined canola oil can be used for cooking up to 400oF.

What are your thoughts on canola oil? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

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