By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Recently, one of my readers wrote in asking me why I’ve been so vocally against canola oil. She believed I was giving this oil a bad rap.
In fact, she’s not the first to question my position on canola. A lot of my readers and patients over the years have pushed back when I’ve advised them to avoid canola oil, mainly because so many other doctors—and medical associations—tout it as a “heart-healthy” oil.
On paper, canola oil looks like it has some health benefits. But in reality you’re better off avoiding it. Here’s why…
What Is Canola Oil?
Canola oil was first created in Canada in the 1960s, from seeds of the canola plant—a genetic variation of the rapeseed plant. Scientists developed canola when they realized that certain components of rapeseed oil were toxic (namely the erucic acid and glucosinolates). The new canola plant was made to be genetically similar to rapeseed but without most of those harmful compounds.
Today, canola is recognized all over the world. It’s the top cooking oil in Canada and Japan, the second most used oil here in the states, and the third most consumed oil worldwide.
There are a few qualities that drive canola’s popularity. One is a light texture and neutral taste. Another is its relatively high smoke point (the temperature at which oil begins to smoke and to release free radicals and potentially carcinogens). From a consumer standpoint, these make it perfect for sautéing, deep-frying, and other high-heat cooking.
Beyond that, though, I’m sorry to say canola’s benefits don’t really live up to their billing.
Is Canola Oil Healthy?
Mainstream medicine and nutritionists would have you believe that yes, canola oil is healthy. On the plus side, it’s relatively high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat (not unlike olive oil). It’s also low in saturated fat and high in omega-6 essential fatty acids.
Because of this, the Food and Drug Administration approved marketing language for canola oil that suggests you may be able to help reduce the risk of heart disease by using it as a replacement for saturated fats in your diet.
But there’s just one problem with that: Mainstream medicine’s views on fats are just plain wrong.
Canola Concern #1: Saturated Fats Aren’t the Enemy
For decades, saturated fat has been vilified. It’s been blamed for our surging obesity epidemic and for continued high rates of heart disease. But that blame is misplaced. The truth is, we need saturated fat in our diet.
Saturated fat has a lot of health benefits. It’s an important building block for cell structure. It also helps the body digest and absorb proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, and fat-soluble vitamins like A and D. Furthermore, it plays a role in raising levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol, which improves your heart health, not harms it.
In fact, the “saturated fat causes heart disease” myth has been disproven in several well-designed studies and analyses. Cutting back on saturated fat doesn’t help you—it hurts you!
Canola Concern #2: Too Many Omega-6 Fats
As far as omega-6 fatty acids go, I agree that canola oil is a great source. But again, it’s not the boon that food marketers and doctors claim.
Our bodies don’t have the ability to make essential fatty acids on their own, so we have to get them through our diet. There are two main types of essential fatty acids that we need: omega-3s and omega-6s. Omega-3s are the fats in fish and marine oils. I love them because of their health-promoting, anti-inflammatory properties. Omega-6s, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect and actually cause inflammation.
Even though we need omega-6s, they’re only good for us when the amount of them we consume is balanced with a healthy dose of omega-3s. And guess what? The standard American diet absolutely doesn’t deliver the right balance.
Ideally, you want the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 to be as close to 2 to 1 as possible. In reality though, most people are in a range that’s closer to 20 to 1…or even as high as 30 to 1!
This throws off the critical balance of essential fatty acids, and instead of calming inflammation, stokes it—upping your risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other chronic, progressive illnesses.
So, bottom line, the fact that canola oil is low in saturated fat and high in omega-6s is not reason enough to include it in your diet.
Canola Concern #3: GMOs
To make matters worse, more than 90 percent of all canola grown in the United States is genetically modified.
Virtually all canola plants are genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup—allowing the plants to be endlessly sprayed, yet not die. This means the crops are continually exposed to glyphosate (the primary ingredient in Roundup), which has been linked with disruption of sex hormones, fertility problems, miscarriages, thyroid and neurological concerns, cancer, and ironically, heart disease.
Another unfortunate aspect of GMO canola is that after the oil is extracted the remaining “meal” is often added to animal feed. So not only are you potentially getting a hefty dose of toxins in canola oil, you’re also potentially getting it in your meat, cheese, and eggs.
This is why I always encourage you, to the extent you can, to buy organic, pasture-raised/grass-fed meats that come from animals that aren’t fed this type of industrial junk.
Canola Concern #4: Too Much Processing
There’s one final reason I’m not a fan of canola oil, and it has to do with how the oil is produced.
Canola and other vegetable oils are made when seeds are crushed, then heated and mixed with chemical solvents, such as hexane, to extract the oil. Hexane is derived from petroleum and crude oil. It’s used as a cleaning agent in the textile and furniture industries and as an additive in gas, glue, and varnishes. The EPA classifies hexane as an air pollutant, and the CDC says it’s a neurotoxin.
Vegetable oil manufacturers, on the other hand, want us to believe hexane is completely safe. They claim that all of it is removed post-production, but I don’t buy it. The FDA doesn’t monitor hexane in food and companies aren’t required to test for it, so it’s impossible to know for sure if any trace residues may remain.
I’d rather not take the risk…would you?
One final note… Remember when I mentioned that canola oil has a pretty high monounsaturated fat content?
Well, during production, all vegetable oils (including canola) go through a procedure called deodorization, to create the bland taste that most consumers like. As part of this, canola oil is heated to extremely high temperatures—and high temperatures are exactly what turns beneficial fatty acids into dangerous trans-fatty acids. So obviously, I don’t trust this aspect of canola oil production, either!
When it comes to oils, cold- and expeller-pressed options are the safer and healthier alternative. These oils don’t use any chemical solvents, and because they undergo less processing, they tend to be higher in nutrients and antioxidants. This is one of the many, many reasons I am such a huge fan of cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil.
Better Options Than Canola Oil
So if not canola, then what? After all, you’ve still got to cook, right?
First, let me say that I’m not a fan of high-heat frying with oil of any kind because the heat can cause the oil to oxidize, which makes it inflammatory. If I’m going to use some oil on the stovetop to cook meat or veggies, I prefer a quick saute.
For that type of cooking, I like coconut oil—or if you can’t handle the taste of coconut oil (it does have one, so beware), avocado oil is another good option.
One oil that I love but try to stay away from in a skillet is olive oil. You can use it in a pinch, but whenever you apply heat to olive oil, it starts losing its great antioxidant benefits. I prefer to keep olive oil for “finishing” meals—drizzling it over roasted or sauteed veggies and salads, adding it to sauces for extra flavor, and even basting it on cooked meats.
Used that way, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is great in any amount (I recommend eating as much as you can handle). I consider it the “secret sauce” of the Mediterranean diet, and study after study has proven just how much olive oil can improve our health. It’s been shown to:
- Improve blood pressure
- Reduce oxidation of LDL cholesterol while increasing protective HDL
- Inhibit abnormal blood clotting
- Lower risk of certain cancers
- Decrease risk of age-related cognitive decline
Whatever minimal nutritional benefits canola oil does have, they’re fully negated by the fact that canola is not only genetically modified, but so highly processed. That’s why I’ve been telling patients for years to avoid it and opt instead for healthier oils, including EVOO. When it comes to truly amazing taste and nutrition, olive oil simply can’t be beat.
- Chowdhury R, Warnakula S, et. al. Association of dietary, circulating, and supplement fatty acids with coronary risk. Ann Intern Med. 2014;160(6):398–406.
- Ecowatch. 15 Health Problems Linked to Monsanto’s Roundup. 23 Jan 2015. Accessed December 4, 2017.
- Ravnskov U. The questionable role of saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids in cardiovascular disease. J Clin Epidemiol. 1998 Jun;51(6):443–60.
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