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Canola Oil: Health Food or Health Hazard?

Recently, a friend brought an article to my attention. It was actually written to Whole Foods about their use of canola oil. Since I am both a dietitian and work part-time for Whole Foods, the friend thought I'd have particular interest in this subject. The blog is rather incendiary against both Whole Foods and canola oil, but if it's right, it's worth digging into.

First, the good.

Canola oil comes from the canola plant. The plant is grown in Canada, and is a derivative of the rapeseed plant. There is some concern over the rapeseed plant - it has a high concentration of erucic acid, which may be toxic in large doses. However, canola oil has been bred to reduce the concentration of erucic acid to no more than 2%. This breeding is a natural process, and not what we classify as a genetically-modified organism (GMO).

Canola oil has a low level of saturated fat, high level of monounsaturated fat ("heart healthy"), and some omega 3 and 6 fats. In 2006, the FDA authorized a qualified health claim for canola oil - for its ability to reduce the risk of heart disease when used instead of saturated fat. Qualified health claims are tightly regulated and not given lightly. More about the qualified health claim for canola oil can be found here

Canola oil has a very mild flavor, which makes it great for baking or in any dish where you want the other ingredients to be the star of the show. Most canola oil has a very high smoke point, which also makes it very versatile in the kitchen.

All of that makes canola oil sound pretty fabulous, and you can see why it would be widely used. So what's the problem?

Now, the bad.

The problem doesn't lie with the natural aspects of the oil, but the processing that introduces less than desirable methods and chemicals.

First, most of the commercial canola that is grown has been genetically modified to resist pesticides. While we don't have conclusive evidence on the effects of GMO foods on our health, many people are currently choosing to avoid them. I think the lack of current evidence should make us wary, but it's not a reason to go on a rampage. However, we definitely have conclusive evidence that pesticides aren't good for us :) But that's not a canola-specific issue - I would issue this same warning for any product that has high pesticide use.

Second, most canola oil is pressed out of the canola plant not just through mechanical pressing, but through the use of chemical solvents. Specifically, sodium hydroxide (lye) is used, and then bleach is used to lighten the color and alter the smell. That's pretty nasty stuff, and not anything I want to put in my body.

Conclusion?

If we just had the good and the bad to compare, it would seem a no-brainer against canola oil. HOWEVER, it is possible to get canola oil that is not is not GMO, does not use those chemicals, and is organic. Basically, buying organic will cover all 3 of the issues, but you can also find conventional oil that is not chemically expressed.

I took a look at my own canola oil, which is the 365 Whole Foods brand. It is not organic, but it clearly states on the label that it is not produced using chemicals. 

Additionally, Whole Foods states that their prepared foods department uses only non-GMO and non-chemically extracted canola oil.

I feel rather strongly about only using non-chemically extracted for myself. I prefer non-GMO, but that isn't a deal breaker for me. I know that if I buy organic, I can cover both of those concerns, and that is my policy moving forward.

Final Thoughts

Talk about reading labels more carefully, now. Many foods use canola oil in them - whether you find them in a grocery store or restaurant. Because of the versatility of this oil, it is probably used more places than you think. This knowledge may turn you into "that person" when you eat out. Oops.

You should note that these oils will be more expensive, especially if you buy organic. That organic certification is very costly to maintain! Also, the chemical extraction enables more oil to be removed from the plant, which gives a greater yield. But the price is rather negligible compared to consuming all those chemicals.

Finally, I singled-out Whole Foods only because the article I was given was making an example of them. I have not done research on other grocery stores and their prepared foods - there may be others who have this same standard. I'm not trying to push Whole Foods on anyone! 

If you know of other stores or restaurants that have quality standards for their canola oil, please let us know in the comments!