Canola Oil: Not As Organic or Natural As You Think

Many healthy and natural products in your local health food store may indeed contain canola as a main ingredient.  Everything from sauces to dressings to soups now tend to include canola oil, while espousing natural health claims.  The question is how healthy is Canola oil, or rather, what is it even?

There was no canola plant before 1974. It didn’t exist in nature, despite millions of years of evolution.  To be fair, there is really no such thing as a Canola plant today either, rather, its a Rapeseed plant.  The Rapeseed plant did not have a good reputation, indeed to the contrary, it was and is considered quite poisonous to humans and animals.  Rapeseed oils are comprised of 55% Erucic acid, which is a very toxic acid (studies have linked to heart problems, lung cancer etc,), and Canola is a Rapeseed plant that has been bred so it produces about 1% erucic acid.  Canola was man-made by scientists at a University laboratory in Canada, so that the genes in the plant were now bred to produce less of the toxic erucic acid that Rapeseed naturally produces. Another name for Canola is LEAR meaning “Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed.” You can read more in depth about it from the National Canola Growers Association, as even they admit that what they grow is just a “genetic variation of rapeseed” developed by “Dr. Baldur Stefansson, a University of Manitoba” scientist.

Here is an interesting summary of how Stefansson worked with other scientists, chemists, and plant breeders in the laboratory to create what is essentially a genetically engineered variation of the toxic rapeseed.

There is also a book called the Rape of Canola by Brewster Kneen.

After altering the rapeseed plant, Dr. Baldur Steffanson went to work for Calgene, which later became called MONSANTO.  In fact, Dr. Steffanso indeed also developed the Monsanto Round-up resistant variety of GMO Canola.  Canola has been Monsanto GMO’d to a stunning degree, not only are a considerable amount of the canola plants out there genetically engineered to be resistant to the toxic Roundup herbicides applied to them, but even approximately 80% of WILD Canola plant’s have been infected by the GMO variety, so finding a non-GMO canola oil is exceptionally difficult.

Why Canola?  In the 1970′s the Canadians were apparently in the market for a homegrown oil that could stimulate their economy.  They had a financial incentive to improve on mother-nature — a natural stimulus that seems to animate quite a few scientists in history, if not the present (See Monsanto Alfalfa).  When the Canadians decided to breed the rapeseed plant in the lab to decrease erucic acid content, they also decided they needed a new name for their new laboratory-enhanced crop. The reason why is readily apparent: the general public was perfectly aware that Rapeseed was toxic, so calling the plant Rapeseed would have been foolish from a marketing perspective.  Few people want to eat toxic plants that have been mutated to any degree — perhaps out of foolish distrust for beneficial laboratory-induced mutation.  The scientists were savvy enough to know not to highlight the drawbacks of their own product.   Instead the scientists made up a name for this genetically bred rapeseed plant. Since it was made in Canada and was genetically bred to have low erucic content, they decided to call it CANOLA, as in Canadian Oil Low Acid.  Its indeed a made-up name. The plant is still genetically bred Rapeseed plant. Depending on how strict your definition is of genetic engineering, Canola oil might well tread into the uncomfortable zone in terms of green product, in that it was produced in a lab by a scientists manipulating the genes in a toxic plant so it produced less of one undesirable naturally-occurring substance.  The question that might have been prudent to ask then — and is equally valid to contemplate now that we are using so much Canola — is what might be the unintended consequences of a man-made breeding program that selects out specific naturally-occurring traits?  In other words, how do such fundamental changes at the genetic level of a plant affect other processes/components of the plant itself?  To some, the history of Canola might not be quite up to natural standards — there is something familiar and deeply worrisome about foods that are created in a laboratory setting by a paid scientists bent on selectively enhancing/turning off certain genes deemed desirable from a purely financial perspective. Perhaps that fear comes from the middle-school reading curriculum that placed Brave New World into some of our subconscious — or it may be just plain old common sense fear of man’s good intentions.

Note that a little internet research may reveal quite a bit of comforting assurances that Canola was bred with traditional plant breeding techniques.   You might need to parse your definition of tradition.  Canola was created through a pioneer genetic methodology that could only be produced in a laboratory.  If you read the Rape book, Canola scientists actually took the unprecedented move of using gas chromatography to identify the genes that controlled erucic levels in the rapeseed, and then they seed-split to germinate a half seed.  It wasn’t like they planted two plants and cross-pollinated the species over time. They developed a new procedure known as seed-splitting to accomplish the genetic determinism and the scientists who invented Canola were one of the first to use the technology.  The plants they used represented an international patchwork of trial and error of combining parts that might seem a bit like the task of assembling Frankenstein, as opposed to gardening in the backyard.  The techniques indeed quite obviously paved the way for the full-blow genetic engineering that so many natural and organic supporters worry about today.  In fact, Monsanto’s GMO crops were built on the back of the Canola plant, by the very scientists who created the Canola out of nothing but gas chromatography, split seeds and erucic content.

And yet, a trip to your local health food store, or even Whole Foods, may find Organic Canola Oils sitting on the store shelves, but interestingly enough these “Organic” Canola Oils upon closer inspection may also say that they are REFINED.  Companies selling Canola claims the seeds are expeller pressed, but then they throw in that sometime after that the oil is also REFINED NATURALLY.  Perusing their website will not disclose what they are refining their oil with however.  Is it HEAT?  Some sources say that a refined canola oil is exposed to hydrogenation type heat, as well as precipitation and deodorizing w/minerals and potentially more?  Less information is rarely assuring, especially with products claiming to be organic.  At a minimum, if heat is indeed used, the concept that any cold-pressed organic oil is subsequently refined may sound contradictory.  Isn’t the purpose of expeller processing to avoid high heat and chemical treatments?  Isn’t the assumption the consumer is acting on when they are buying oils that say expeller pressed is that heat and treatments have been cut out of the equation?  So the question remains if you are applying high heat during refining of a Monounsaturated oil, like Canola, won’t you be oxidizing it more from the get-go, and thus creating more free radicals in it, so its quite like your OIL has been PRECOOKED before you even get to use it?

An excellent book on the topic of saturated vs. unsaturated fats, called the Coconut Oil Miracle by Bruce Fife explains the problem with applying high heat to monounsaturated oils like Canola Oil.  Monounsaturated fats have double carbon bonds, meaning they are missing 2 pairs of hydrogen atoms that force the carbon bonds to link together.  Whenever a pair of hydrogen atoms is missing, the adjoining carbon atoms must form a double bond to take up the slack, but this produces a weak link in the carbon chain. The double bonds are so weak that they are vulnerable to oxidation and free radical generation, which causes mutation of cells and disease. The more weak bonds there are in an oil, meaning the more unsaturated, the more the oil is susceptible to rancidity and free radicals.

This means that Polyunsaturated oils (like sunflower, safflower, soybean and corn) are the most unstable. Polyunsaturated oils turn bad the most easily when they are “oxidized” meaning exposed to HEAT, light, or oxygen. This means they are the most prone to free radical generation and also rancidity. The oxidation begins immediately when the oils are extracted from the seeds and exposed to light. The more processing the oil undergoes, the more it has a chance to oxidize (this is why you want expeller or cold-pressed oils, because each additional step of heating breaks more bonds and causes more oxidation & free radicals). The more minimal the processing (i.e. cold-pressed) the more natural antioxidants are left in the oil, so as to delay rancidity/free radicals). When oils are stored in factories, stand on store shelves, or your own home, they are exposed to light and heat, and this only oxidizes them more, producing more free radicals.

Canola, as a monounsaturated oil, with those two weak carbon bonds, is also open to oxidation and free radical generation especially in the course of application of heat.  If refining means adding heat then not only may there be a problem in undermining of the natural antioxidants in an oil, but also in the free radical generation that may be linked to increased incidence of many diseases.

The problem is you cannot tell when a Mono or Poly oil has gone bad. Spoiled oils, strangely enough, very often leave no foul taste, and yet they are spoiled and filled with free radicals that will attack the body, causing disease. This is why oils should be cold-pressed (not heat processed), and stored in dark bottles (so less light gets in), and kept in your fridge where its cold and dark. Leaving them out on the counter may indeed cause rancidity and free radical generation — and you won’t even know it.

Cooking is obviously extreme heat — and this will inevitably break those weak carbon bonds, potentially causing free radical generation, which is why you might hear increasingly that cooking with mono and poly unsaturated oils at high heat is often discouraged.

As an aside to the Canola issue, Bruce Fife’s book makes a compelling case that there are benefits to saturated fats.  Saturated fats have no weak carbon bonds — all of their chains are saturated with Hydrogen, and so they are strong.  The gist is that they can hold up better to oxidation, as in exposure to oxygen & light, and especially heat, which includes cooking in high temperatures. This is why Fife, who advocates for Coconut Oil, says you can keep Coconut Oil out on your counter, and also why its packaged in transparent glass.

Coconut oil is 90+% Saturated Fat.

Butter is 60+% Saturated Fat.

Beef Fat is 40+% Saturated Fat.

So, for cooking, coconut oil, butter, and animal fats may have some advantages worth considering.  If you buy cold-pressed organic olive oil for dressing, it might also be prudent to buy it in a dark glass container, and store it in the fridge.

As for Canola, on the whole, as far as natural and organic products go, this product may not have the sort of pedigree that some would think desirable.  Less might be more.  Or none.

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