Do you know about the dangers of canola oil? Erucic acid levels, solvents, trans fats, and omega-6 fats - these are all some of the common concerns. But how much do you really know about canola oil, in general? Please join me as we go on a deep dive of the science behind canola oil, and you will see why I argue that the right kind of canola oil might just be one of the healthiest foods you can find.
Why canola oil?
The main thing that I want you to keep in mind during this entire discussion is that I really do not have a vested interest no matter where you stand on the canola oil debate. I am a fan of science, and I am a fan of facts. Most of all, though, I am a big fan of you having a good relationship with the food that you eat.
When I hear that canola oil is bad, dangerous, and harmful to your health, I cannot help but be curious as to why that is the case - and if it is a universal rule that has no exceptions. If we want to focus our efforts on both avoiding the things that can harm you, while focusing on the things that can help, I think it is dangerous to rule things out completely without considering every single aspect of an issue.
Just because something sounds scary, it does not mean that it needs to be avoided. At the very least, you should avoid it once you know what you are avoiding. So, here we are, looking into the drawbacks and (potential) benefits of canola oil.
Bottom Line: When it comes to cooking, at some point you are likely to use oil in the kitchen. Which one is best for you, though? And can we come to a very solid recommendation based on science, evidence and outcomes? That is what we will explore, using canola oil, today.
Objections About Canola Oil
First, we need to get a really solid understanding as to why people object to the use of canola oil as a food product. Here are a few of the things that have been said, and discussed, about the use of canola oil:
This is the overall top concern about canola oil. The canola plant is a cruciferous vegetable that had very high amounts of erucic acids in the seeds. In the 60’s, though, it was hybridized so that it would no longer make high amounts of erucic acid.
Erucic acid is made by other cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower and is found in the chemical family of glucosinolates. If you have heard of the protective compounds in broccoli, cauliflower, or brussel sprouts, this is what we are talking about when we consider glucosinolates.
Key Insight: All glucosinolates are good for you, but toxic in high quantities. Erucic acid is absolutely no different. Canola is a cruciferous plant and other cruciferous plants also contain trace amounts of erucic acid.
In the past, we might have found upwards of 30% of erucic acid in canola oil. As far as most laboratory assays are concerned, canola oil nowadays contains about 0.01% erucic acid (1).
We can also find erucic acid in plenty of common foods (2), such as:
- Brussel sprouts
- Broccoli seeds
- Collard greens
Erucic acid is also found in some types of fish, marine mammals and human milk (3). All of this is to say that erucic acid is undoubtedly common in our day-to-day lives - we can find it in so many areas - that it can be hard to avoid.
Bottom Line: If erucic acid is bad for us, it is all a question of dosage. Arguably, though, these glucosinolates (like erucic acid) are really good for us - in the correct quantities.
Another concern about canola oil is that it is a genetically modified food product (or a GMO, as it is more commonly known). GMO products may be higher in certain pesticides, and I think at this point it is worth giving them a second thought and working around them whenever possible.
Thankfully, about 20% of the canola oil crops that are made are GMO-free. This is information that can be easily found on labeling, especially as more and more people seek out products which are not associated with GMOs. All you have to do is check the label, and you will be able to tell whether or not it is GMO-free.
Trans Fat Content
Some have recommended avoiding canola oil because of the amount of trans fats. This is a spot-on concern, because the more you can avoid and minimize the trans fats the better you will ultimately feel. Trans fats, especially those which are hydrolyzed, clearly associated with more risk of heart disease (4) and more inflammation in the body.
Trans fats may also be found in many other oils which are extracted using high levels of heat. Refined, heat and chemically-extracted canola oil, in 2015, was found to have 0.46% trans fats (5). For context, butter contains 3.5% trans fats (on average) - with clarified butter roughly containing 4% trans fats (6).
Key Insight: Many that are fearful of canola oil, are not fearful of butter. This does not make much sense, as clarified butter (like ghee) has multiple times more trans fats than canola oil. Those fears just do not seem to line up with their relative comparisons.
Bottom Line: You do want to avoid trans fats, and you do that by minimizing dairy fats and oils that are created using high heats and high temperatures. Overall, trans fats are not detectable in mechanically cold-pressed oils.
Many seed oils that you can buy are chemically extracted, which means that they use solvents such as hexane. While I have read some arguing that the minimal amounts of hexane left is not all that bad, I can tell you that readily absorbing even a little bit of hexane is not what you want to be doing. If you can avoid it altogether, you should be doing exactly that.
Bottom Line: This is a problem with chemically extracted coconut oil, olive oil, canola oil, sesame seed oil and more - you are going to have some hexane, and that really is not all that good for you.
Roundup: Canola Oil Negatives
In order to summarize, here are some of the common concerns and what we have learned:
- Erucic Acid - not bad for us, in small quantities, and is readily available in plenty of other food products that we can see in our day-to-day lives.
- GMOs - I agree that you should be avoiding GMOs, but there are plenty of canola oil products on the market that are GMO-free - and those ones are good.
- Trans Fats - in the context of oils and fats, canola oil is on the lower end of what one might consider a high trans fat food (with the exception of those which are high heated). They even contain less trans fats than olive oil!
- Hexane - we definitely want to avoid hexane, which means that we need to focus on non-solvent extracted oils. This would include mechanically cold-pressed oils (which is always good to consider).
Positives About Canola Oil
Now, let’s think about some of the positives that we might be able to get from canola oil. This is definitely going to help inform our final decision, especially now that we have talked so much about the negatives (or the not-so negatives):
Human Outcome Studies
This is where we need to create a distinction between speculation and evidence. Speculation is where something sounds scary, so we avoid it. Evidence is where something happens to someone, and we can point to it and say, “this is why we should avoid product x, y or z.” Evidence matters, and evidence should really inform the decisions we make about our bodies over blind speculation.
The evidence for canola oil having beneficial effects on human health is tremendous. There are now over 270 high-quality, peer-reviewed studies having been done on canola oil and its effects on human health outcomes (9). What we have seen is the following:
- An improved lipid profile (cholesterol, LDL, triglyceride levels)
- No adverse effect on lipid peroxidase (which other oils and fats can have)
- No negative effects on inflammation
- No negative effects on energy metabolism and body weight
- Improved glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity
- Lowered cancer risks
Bottom Line: Over 270 human-based outcomes research has uncovered no “dirt” on canola oil and your health. In fact, there are many benefits to using canola oil more. The evidence speaks for itself, and it creates an overall more compelling argument for using canola oil.
Canola Oil’s Nutritional Profile
When it comes to canola oil’s nutritional profile, I want to raise the issue of our omega-3 to omega-6 ratio - and the importance of having more omega-3 fats over omega-6 fats in our diet. In terms of vegetable oils, the single highest source of omega-3 fats relative to omega-6 is flax. The problem with flax, though, is that it is incredibly heat fragile (you cannot cook with it) (10).
Key Insight: The second best omega-3 to omega-6 ratio vegetable oil is canola oil, and you can cook with it (as opposed to flax).
The other positive about fats is having mono and saturates, of which canola oil is one of the highest sources. These fats can help with:
- Blood sugar
- Heart disease
Canola oil has been shown to help with all of these things. Also, we can consider canola oil as a quality source of vitamin E in our diets, especially gamma tocopherol. Finally, we have plant sterols - such as beta sitosterol and campesterol - which can lower cholesterol levels by up to 25% and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Canola Oil’s Heat Stability
When we think of cooking oils, we often think of heat stability. The smoke point for canola oil is 450ºF (11). Compared to other oils, canola is about the second-highest (apart from avocado oil, which has both its own benefits and drawbacks). When we look at it from a big picture perspective, we can rank them like this:
- Avocado Oil - 570ºF
- Canola Oil - 450ºF
- Olive Oil - 375ºF
- Coconut Oil - 350ºF
- Sesame Oil - 350ºF
- Flax Oil - 225ºF
- Butter - 200ºF
Bottom Line: Lower smoke points means more potential damage from oxidization, and more free radical creation. Canola oil, with a higher smoke point, is overall more stable and better to cook with than those oils which have lower smoke points.
Canola Oil: Recommendations
Whenever we think about pesticides and GMOs, these are incredibly valid concerns that we should be having about the food we are eating. Try, when you can, to go GMO-free or to buy organic. Any oil that you want to buy should be cold pressed and mechanically extracted.
Personally, I would prefer that you get more fat content from things besides oils. Try and focus fat calories on whole-food sources of fats that provide essential fats, fiber, and phytonutrients, like:
- Fish (and other sources of seafood)
When choosing a neutral flavored oil for cooking, canola oil has many distinct and well-research advantages:
- A higher smoke point
- High omega-3 content
- Polyphenols and phytosterols
- A low cost
- Human outcome studies
When you consider all of these positive factors, you will immediately start seeing canola come up time and time again. It will be at the top of the list, and that is for good reason. Canola oil has many demonstrable benefits that have been seen, and even the negatives have been disproven to a certain extent.
Love Your Body Today
Now that we have uncovered the science behind canola oil in our diets, why not learn a little bit more about your body? Take the Thyroid Quiz (12), and you can easily start to uncover what might be troubling you. From there, you will be able to take some real action steps to help take your health back and bring it to where it belongs. This could be the start of something amazing - so why not take the quiz today?
Dr. Alan Glen Christianson (Dr. C) is a Naturopathic Endocrinologist and the author of The NY Times bestselling Adrenal Reset Diet.
Dr. C’s gift for figuring out what really works has helped hundreds of thousands of people reverse thyroid disease, lose weight, cure diabetes, and regain energy. Learn more about the surprising story that started his quest.