Aah, Canola Oil. It's been demonized all over the place. But does it live up to its evil reputation?
The name "Canola" comes from CANadian Oil, Low Acid. The oil is derived from rapeseed (a much nicer seed than its name lets on), which contains high amounts of eurcic acid, which is toxic to humans. Canola oil is made from seeds that have been cultivated to have a much lower percentage of this acid, however. Canola oil is not allowed to contain more than 2% eurcic acid, a level considered safe for human consumption.
Here is the good about Canola: its Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio is quite good. Let's talk a little bit about what this means.
Both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are essential to the diet, as the body can't manufacture them on its own (this is what is meant by an "essential fatty acid," or EFA). The shortest-chain Omega-6 fatty acid, Linoleic acid, is used in the body to synthesize arachidonic acid, another Omega-6 acid, which is necessary for the formation of prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are sort of like hormones. They are messengers which, among other things, are essential in the contraction and relaxation of smooth muscle tissue (e.g. your organs). So cutting Omega-6 acids out of the diet would not be very smart.
Omega-3 fatty acids are also EFA's. They are necessary in order for the nervous system to function properly and healthy DNA to be produced. They appear to reduce inflammation in the body, which leads to reduction in heart disease risk, anticancer properties, and help with a host of other diseases.
The problem is that Omega-6 acids are really, really easy to get in the diet, particularly when people eat processed food. Soybean, cottonseed, corn, safflower, sunflower, and "vegetable oil" have really high Omega-6:Omega-3 fatty acids-- some as much as 200:1! Even if you're super-heath conscious, you can get a surprising amount of Omega-6 fatty acids in your diet-- a lot of packaged health foods are coated with a very thin layer of vegetable oil to enhance appearance, texture, and taste. Plus, all nuts have a high Omega-6:Omega-3 ratio (the lowest ratio is English walnuts, at 4:1; the highest is peanuts, at 5500:1!) The average American gets a ratio of about 15:1 Omega-6:Omega-3. The problem with this is that this imbalance is connected with a much higher mortality rate, more disease, and a bunch of other un-fun health problems.
Now, back to the subject at hand. Canola oil is, indeed, great as far as Omega-3:Omega-6 ratio is concerned (about a 1:2.2 ratio). For this reason, it is a healthy oil. That having been said, here's my gripe:
Currently, 80% of the rapeseed plants grown for canola manufacture is genetically modified (GMO) by the Monsanto company. If you know me, you know I have major, major problems with Monsanto and anything coming from them. (If you'd like a small example of why, read here. I don't normally use Wikipedia as a source, but this particular article has a good summary of the cases against Monsanto.)
That having been said, there is now a certified non-GMO company called Viterra making non-GMO, non-hexane Canola oil. I've not seen this company's product in the stores I shop in, so I'm not sure if it's local to Canada or not, but I will do more research on this. If you've seen it around in the USA, let me know.
In sum: Canola oil can be a good thing if it's produced without hexane and isn't genetically modified. Unrefined canola has a smoke point of 225 degrees Farenheit, but refined, it smokes at 400 degrees Farenheit. Viterra, at first glance, seems to use a non-chemical refining process of some kind, so this is worth looking into further.
Questions? Comments? Post 'em here!