Is canola oil devil or angel?

Posted: Friday, July 13, 2007

Recently, a lot of people have been asking me about canola oil. It seems they have read one or more articles on the Internet which make canola sound like evil incarnate. Among the accusations: All canola oil is genetically engineered. It is an industrial oil not fit for human consumption, canola contains a toxin related to poisonous mustard gas, and consumption of canola meal by livestock somehow contributes to mad cow disease.

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Of course, these claims fly in the face of glowing press reports that make canola sound divine. These include assertions that it is a "perfect" oil since it is high in heart healthy monounsaturated fats, that it is good for cooking because of its neutral flavor and high smoke-point, and that it contains significant amounts of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. So what is canola, devil or angel?

Well, neither. But first some background. "Canola" is a variety of rapeseed developed in Canada in the 1970s. Rapeseed oil had been used in India and China for thousands of years. However, it had some problems. It contained erucic acid, a suspected carcinogen. It also had a rather strong taste. The new variety reduced the erucic acid and improved the flavor. In a clever stroke of marketing, the new seed was renamed "Canola," short for "Canadian oil," and was soon in commercial production.

Contrary to the claims of some detractors, the original canola plant was not genetically engineered. Only years later, in the 1990s, did Monsanto genetically engineer a variety of canola. This variety accounts for about half the canola grown today.

Rapeseed's historical use as a lubricant and for other industrial purposes has little bearing on whether canola is edible. Many healthful oils are used for things other than eating.

As for claims about poison mustard gas and mad cow disease, they are preposterous. Mustard gas doesn't have anything to do with the mustard plant, which canola is related to. And it has been well established that mad cow disease is transmitted when cows eat feed containing the offal of cows or other animals.

So canola isn't the devil. But it isn't exactly an angel either. It is important to remember that refined canola oil has a very brief history of human use. Unlike rapeseed oil, which was traditionally eaten freshly pressed, commercial canola oil is highly refined, bleached and deodorized to improve shelf-life. Some of the omega-3s in canola oil are transformed into trans-fats during this process.

The biggest thing canola has going for it is that, like olive oil, it is a good source of monounsaturated fat. There is evidence that monounsaturated fats are beneficial in reducing blood triglycerides and supporting cardiovascular health. But even here, it may be possible to get too much of a good thing.

Mary Enig, one of the country's leading experts on edible oils, argues against using monounsaturated fats as the major type of fat. She says too much may create cellular imbalances that inhibit prostaglandin production, and may be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. In fact, there is some evidence that they may not even protect the heart when eaten to the exclusion of other fats.

Enig recommends incorporating saturated fats such as butter or coconut oil into your diet. Eating saturated fats enables you to better convert the omega-3 fatty acids in canola or flaxseed oil into forms the body can readily use.

In light of Enig's advice, the following recipe seems appropriate. It is adapted from the classic vegetarian cookbook "Laurel's Kitchen." I recommend you make sure that your canola oil is "expeller-pressed" and certified organic.

Canola better-butter

1 cup canola oil

1 cup (½ pound) butter

Use butter that is soft but not melted. Blend equal parts oil and butter together, pour into covered container, and store in the refrigerator. Use this all-purpose spread as you would butter or margarine. Makes 2 cups.

• David Ottoson owns Rainbow Foods.

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