Canola oil, also known as rapeseed oil in the UK, is among the most ubiquitous cooking oils available on your supermarket shelves. It's also prevalent in many processed foods, including foods that claim to be healthy. It has a relatively high smoke point for cooking, and it's also inexpensive. So what's the problem?
The issue is that canola oil is a highly processed (to the point of likely denaturing) cooking oil made from a seed that's naturally high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. It's not a health food, despite claims you might see on heart-healthy websites or other "nutrition sites" around the internet.
Let's go over some of the facts about canola oil and other seed oils. We’ll clear up any misconceptions and then talk about canola oil substitutes.
What Is Canola Oil?
The word "canola" is actually a made-up word, derived from the words "Canada" and "oil." Made from the rapeseed plant, canola oil underwent a rebranding in North America in 1978 in an attempt to find a more pleasant-sounding name. The name caught on, but you'll probably still see rapeseed oil here in British markets or other places outside of North America from time to time.
The rapeseed is a tiny, hard seed that’s a type of mustard seed with only a small amount of oil that's a bit challenging to extract. It's part of the Brassica family, which includes broccoli, kale and cauliflower (to name a few).
Originally, rapeseed was grown in Canada for industrial use to keep steam-powered ships running smoothly during World War II. That's because it sticks to metal when combined with moisture, making it a great lubricant. It was not fit for human consumption until it was bred differently for the food market .
You might be wondering how an industrial oil made it to your kitchen table. Well, the war ended and the crop nearly disappeared until Japan saved it by using it for deep-frying. Canadian farmers then decided to transform their industrial oil crop into a food source in order to keep their businesses alive.
Canola Oil Nutrition
A quick internet search of canola oil will reveal a host of nutrition experts and doctors alike who tout the health benefits of canola oil, even comparing it to olive oil as a heart-healthy cooking oil for anything from low-temperature sauteing to high-heat frying.
This is where things get confusing. Health claims say that canola oil is heart-healthy, high in omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats, a good source of omega-6 fatty acids, a great cooking oil for pan-frying and high-heat cooking and a less expensive alternative to olive oil. But this isn't really the whole story.
Here are the nutrition facts for 14 grams of canola oil :
- 124 calories
- 0 grams carbohydrates
- 0 grams protein
- 14 grams fat
- 0.9 grams saturated fats
- 10.1 grams monounsaturated fats
- 2.4 grams polyunsaturated fats
- 364 mg omega 3 fats
- 2030 mg omega 6 fats
- 3.1 grams vitamin E
While it's true that canola oil is high in monounsaturated fat, it's not really a true comparison to olive oil without a fuller picture of how each of these oils is processed.
Chemical Extracted vs. Expeller and Cold-Pressed
Close your eyes and imagine an olive or an avocado. They're soft and shiny, and they give a bit when you squeeze them. You can see evidence of oil in the meat of these fruits, much like you can see the evidence of coconut oil in the meat of a coconut. Now imagine a mustard seed, cottonseed, or popcorn kernel. They have hard exteriors and dry, smooth surfaces.
In thinking about these plant-based sources of cooking oils, you can imagine that the first group is probably easier to extract oil from than the second, just based on appearance and touch. And you'd be correct.
Expeller-pressing and cold-pressing are two physical types of oil extraction that are done at relatively low temperatures with oily fruits and certain seeds. These high-quality methods retain the oil's integrity by keeping chemicals and extremely high temperatures out of the process.
But when it comes to chemical extractions (using chemicals like hexane, for example), the end result is totally different. That's because when you add a chemical into the extraction process, you have to then heat the oil in order to cook out the chemical, which changes the flavour and odour of the oil.
In fact, extreme heat damages oil down to the cellular level, denaturing and even oxidising the oils before they even make it to the supermarket shelves. Some oils require further deodorising in order to achieve a uniform neutral flavor for the finished product, which no longer has any health benefit and can even be considered toxic. Once oil turns rancid, it behaves differently in your body, namely introducing free radicals and adding to your level of oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress causes cell damage, which can lead to cardiovascular issues, cancer and a shortened lifespan. In a study done comparing the effects of canola oil versus soybean oil on stroke-prone rats, canola oil consistently shortened the rats' lifespans and added to their oxidative stress . Canola oil isn't quite the solution to heart health you thought it was, but neither is soya. We’d love to see future research comparing these seed and bean oils to healthier alternatives like avocado oil, olive oil or even healthy animal fats like tallow or ghee.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Both omega-3 and omega-6 are polyunsaturated fatty acids, but they behave very differently in your body. Oils that are made from seeds and nuts (safflower oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, canola oil, soybean oil, grapeseed oil, corn oil and the generic vegetable oil) are all high in omega-6 fats. We need omega-6, but when it's over-consumed in relation to omega-3 it can be pro-inflammatory in your body . This means an elevated risk of heart disease, cancer, inflammatory autoimmune diseases and type 2 diabetes.
Most Western diets are too low in omega-3 fatty acids and too high in omega-6. That's why you see so many omega-3 supplements on the market. Humans evolved eating a roughly 1-to-1 ratio, but researchers have found that a diet that ranges from 2-to-1 to 3-to-1 (omega-6-to-omega-3) suppresses inflammation that leads to cancer and inflammatory autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis . Unfortunately, the average Western diet is 15- or 16-to-1. Not great.
Most commercial cooking, processed baked goods and pre-made salad dressings contain oils that are higher in omega-6. And not only that, they contain the lowest quality versions of these oils — the ones that have been chemically extracted and overheated.
It's important to understand the health ramifications not only of eating foods like this but also of cooking with oils like this at home — especially if you've been led to believe that they're healthy cooking oils.
The Best Canola Oil Substitutes
Now that you're armed with the knowledge that canola oil isn't all it's cracked up to be, what are the best alternatives? It depends on how you're using them. Some top-quality oils aren't good for baking recipes or grilling because they're too sensitive to heat. Those oils are perfect to replace unhealthy oils you'd use for salad dressings or even homemade mayonnaise (as long as you don't plan to cook with it).
Oil substitutes that shouldn't be heated to high temperatures include:
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Walnut oil
- MCT oil
Oil substitutes that are more heat-stable include:
- Avocado oil
- Coconut oil
- Butter (less heat-friendly than ghee, but gets more heat stable when mixed with avocado oil in the pan)
Avocado oil can replace canola or other vegetable oils in marinades, as well as any other recipe that needs an oil that remains liquid at room temperature. It's also the preferred oil in healthy mayonnaise.
Know Your Oils
Eating adequate fats every day is an essential part of any well-balanced, nutrient-dense healthy diet. But understanding the quality of the fats you're eating makes all the difference. Canola oil is marketed as a heart-healthy oil, but despite its high level of monounsaturated fats, it's not at all heart-healthy. The process of making it often involves chemical extraction and high heat, and it's too high in omega-6 fatty acids to truly be a heart-healthy food.
The alternatives you choose will depend on how you use them, whether you plan to heat them and what your dietary needs are. Cooking with avocado oil is a failsafe place to start, as it remains a liquid at room temperature and offers a wide variety of cooking applications.
All information provided on our website and within our articles is simply information, opinion, anecdotal thoughts and experiences to provide you with the tools to thrive.
It is not intended to treat or diagnose symptoms and is definitely not intended to be misconstrued for medical advice. We always advise you seek the advice of a trained professional when implementing any changes to your lifestyle and dietary habits.
We do however recommend seeking the services of a trained professional who questions the conventional wisdom to enable you to become the best version of yourself.