Is Canola Oil Healthy?

“Poisonous.” “Toxic.” “Avoid like the plague.”

Is canola oil healthy? For some reason, people love to hate it. Really hate it.

That’s partly because the canola plant is derived from rapeseed, which contains a toxic compound called erucic acid and bitter-tasting compounds called glucosinolates.

But in the 1970s, Canadian scientists—using conventional breeding—developed a type of rapeseed that has very low levels of erucic acid and glucosinolates. Since then, canola has become the second most popular oil in the United States. (It’s a distant second to soybean oil.) But, at least on some websites, the idea that canola is “toxic” has stuck.

Chefs prize canola for its neutral taste. And health experts recommend it because it’s very low in saturated fat and high in mono- and polyunsaturated fats. That means it helps lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

So why all the vitriol? Some critics worry that most canola plants are now genetically engineered. So are most soybean plants, but that’s a subject for a different article.

Is canola oil healthy? Here’s the lowdown on the other main charges.

Charge: Canola oil is unfit to eat.

The Facts: “Are you cooking with motor oil?” asks Al Sears, one of the Internet’s most vocal opponents of canola oil (alsearsmd.com).

Sears, a Florida physician who specializes in what he calls “integrative, anti-aging medicine,” warns that canola oil has been used as an engine lubricant and in synthetic rubber and ink.

But people have been using edible fats and oils for soap, lubrication, and fuel for thousands of years. Even coconut oil, which Sears touts, is used to make soap and shampoo. So is Sears cooking with shampoo?

Charge: Canola oil damages the heart.

The Facts: Critics are confusing canola with rapeseed. The high level of erucic acid in rapeseed did cause lesions in the hearts of a rare breed of laboratory rat, says Sean O’Keefe, a professor of food science at Virginia Tech.

“But there was no damage to the hearts of other strains of rats or other animals,” he adds. “After many studies, the researchers realized that their data was accurate only for that inbred rat and certainly not for humans. And, anyway, canola oil doesn’t have enough erucic acid to matter.”

Charge: Canola oil stiffens cell membranes, causes kidney damage, and leads to premature death.

The Facts: All of that did happen when researchers fed canola oil—as the only fat in the diet—to a special strain of rat that easily develops high blood pressure and suffers strokes.

But that doesn’t mean anything about what happens in people, points out physiologist Paul Lewandowski, an assistant professor and researcher at Deakin University in Australia.

“Unlike humans, this strain of rat absorbs toxic amounts of phytosterols from canola oil, which may account for some of the oil’s toxicity to it,” he explains.

Researchers haven’t had reason to do long-term trials on toxicity in humans. But “based on several human intervention trials we have conducted, there is no evidence to suggest that the typical consumption of canola oil is unhealthy,” notes Peter Jones, Canada Research Chair in Nutrition and Functional Foods at the University of Manitoba.

Charge: Canola is one of the most chemically altered oils.

The Facts: Not true, says Jennifer Marchand, who supervises oil processing at Cargill, the largest oil processor in the United States.

“We don’t process canola oil any differently than other seed oils,” she says. Cargill uses essentially the same machinery and methods to produce canola, soy, corn, and sunflower oil, notes Marchand.

Charge: Canola oil contains LDL-raising trans fat.

The Facts: “The use of heat during the processing of vegetable oils can create trans fats,” explains O’Keefe, whose 1994 study at the University of Florida has fueled some of the fears about trans in canola. “But these particular trans fats haven’t been tested to see if they raise LDL,” he adds. “And the amounts in canola are usually quite small.”

In fact, a 2002 survey by the Food and Drug Administration found trivial amounts of trans fat—0.02 grams and 0.07 grams per tablespoon—in two major brands of canola oil. The soybean oils the FDA tested had about the same tiny amounts.

Sources: Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 100: 88, 2014; J. Food Lipids 1: 165, 1994; Lipids 39: 11, 2004.

This article was originally published in 2014 and has been updated.

9 Replies to “Is Canola Oil Healthy?”

  1. What about the fact that canola oil is high in Omega-6 fatty acids which are inflammatory. This wouldn’t be so bad if we all ate enough Omega-3 fatty acids, but the fact is while our normal Omega-6;Omega-3 ratio is about 2:1, currently the average American’s ratio is about 12:1, promoting chronic inflammation which has been linked to many chronic diseases.

  2. I have a hard time taking comments by supervisors at Cargill seriously. They hardly represent the epitome of good food business practices. That they process canola the same as all of their other oils makes me question the fidelity of all of their oil processing. Translate: Perhaps they chemically alter all of their oils equally.

  3. It is my understanding that buying organic canola oil avoids issues of GMO and potentially undesirable effects of industrial processing. Am I correct?

  4. Great piece, thanks! A couple of points. Helen, canola oil is actually relatively low in omega-6; it is higher in omega-3 and omega-9 than several other common seed oils. Jennyy, yes, organic canola oil (and its OUS counterpart, organic low-erucic rapeseed oil) can be considered GMO-free. With regard to the article itself, my two cents is that the comment “But these particular trans fats haven’t been tested to see if they raise LDL” is not any sort of exoneration (possibly worse). As Sharon pointed out, feedback from large companies and their hired help often needs to be taken with a few grains of salt. All of that aside, I do indeed recommend (organic) canola oil to my clients. Thanks again, Mr. Schardt.

  5. Wow..this is just BS!!! I live in Oregon and the GM canola industry has been trying to grow their CRAP toxic crops for a few years now. If they get their way (they have been given rights to do experimental growing which is seriously messed up) they will not only harm other (organic) canola crops but cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and turnips (which are in the same plant species family) but will forever harm the soil w/ their pollen and chemicals. Why not just SAY NO to canola….organic or gmo…and YES to sunflower oil which is a great oil to cook with and has very little flavor what-so-ever? Don’t support canola please!

    1. I am trying to figure this out. I normally use olive oil except for high temperature cooking. For this situation, some suggest coconut oil which is very low in all omega fats but the amount of saturated fats is higher than any other vegetable or animal oil. Everyone seems t.ook at the 6 to 3 ratio of omega fats which is important . However, I eat the right kind of fish, put flax seed oil in my salad dressing, and eat ground flax seed on my cereal. I get a good amount of omega 3 without too much omega 6. Hence for cooking, the ratio is not important but the absolute amount is. Organic pressed canola is 19% omega 6 . That is only double olive oil but a lot less than many vegetable oils. What organic vegetable oil is really really better for high temperature cooking?

      1. Jamesi7 – (I use canola and olive for higher heat, but I don’t deep fry, just stir fry)
        a few resources said this:
        When it comes to cooking, however, not all oils are created equal. Some oils can handle the heat, and some can’t.

        An oil’s smoke point is the temperature at which it will start to smoke and break down. When cooking oil starts to smoke, it can lose some of its nutritional value and can give food an unpleasant taste.

        Oils with high smoke points, such as corn, soybean, peanut and sesame, are good for high-heat frying and stir-frying. Olive, canola and grapeseed oils have moderately high smoke points, making them good for sauteing over medium-high heat.

        Oils with low smoke points, such as flaxseed and walnut, are best saved for use in salad dressings and dips.

  6. Believing the “trace” amounts the F.D.A. “allows” in an outright mistake. We know those people have been bought and sold many times over by differing groups all after the same thing, the freedom to do whatever they wish in the search for the almighty dollar. In my search for healthy Information, I have lost 180 lbs in one year and Kept it off for 6 yrs now, I have found, that when conflicting interests arise, those that speak cannot be trusted, period. I do Not use canola. I keep to organic olive and coconut oils in my kitchen. I Rarely eat any other place. I grow my own fruits and vegetables because I cannot trust my own grocer to buy what is best for me. In the interest of true information we must leave those with purely monetary gains out of the equation.
    We find ourselves at an impasse with government, agriculture, ranching, health, and the environment. Why do people find it so hard to stop something they know is harming Anyone, Anywhere? In my business, art and jewelry design, once I find out something is wrong, I find a different supply source or simply stop using it. Like with gold and the atrocities committed just to fulfill our demands. I stopped using metals unless I know where, who, why, what, etc. of its life. Just as I do with my nutrition in my home. No on will convince me they know what is best for a plant and where it’s evolution is “going to take it”. I prefer whole, original foods and canola is a part of one that is toxic to start so, No to canola in my home. Sorry. I disagree here.

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