What Is Canola Oil? What You Should Know, Plus Canola Oil Substitutes
By: Brent Totty
February 4, 2020
- Canola oil was developed in the 1970s as an alternative to rapeseed oil.
- Today, the production of canola oil has drawn serious concerns about GMOs and pesticides, the use of chemical solvents and other health concerns.
- Want to avoid canola oil? You have plenty of options. Check out our list of the best canola oil substitutes.
Is canola oil bad for you? It’s a question nutritionists and food industrialists have been debating for decades. The controversy dates back to the 1970s, when it became a replacement for rapeseed oil. But what is canola oil, and is canola oil healthy—or not?
What is canola oil?
Canola oil is a vegetable oil with a neutral flavor and high smoke point (400°F). It’s super affordable, so you’ll find it anywhere from restaurant kitchens to bottles of conventional salad dressings.
To understand what is canola oil, we have to start with its history as a cooking oil.
The history of canola oil
Canola oil comes from the canola plant, which scientists created in the 1970s in response to tighter restrictions on rapeseed oil.
At the time, rapeseed oil contained high levels of an omega-9 fatty acid called erucic acid, which was linked to heart muscle damage in animal studies. Rapeseed oil was also high in glucosinolates, antinutrients found in the Brassica family of plants that prevent iodine absorption.
Canadian researchers saw the problem approaching. Through plant cross-breeding, they developed a new variety of rapeseed plant with lower levels of glucosinolates and erucic acid. Their success came in the form of a new product, LEAR (low-erucic-acid rapeseed) oil, which was trademarked with a name to honor the country where it originated: canola. (“Can” for Canada, “ola” for oil.)
Over time, saturated fats became demonized, giving way to the glorification of low-saturated-fat “healthy oils” oils like canola that boasted seemingly heart-healthy dietary stats.
All of this led to one thing: an increased demand for canola oil.
Is canola oil healthy? How canola oil is made
There is controversy surrounding the science being used to grow and manufacture vegetable oils like canola oil, and whether the results can be harmful to public health.
Here are the concerns:
GMOs and pesticides
As production of canola exponentially grew, growers needed a way to protect their crops. In 1995, agricultural giant Monsanto developed Roundup-Ready canola (Brassica napus) plants that were bio-engineered to survive glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weedkiller Roundup. This allowed farmers to douse their canola seed in glyphosate to kill off weeds without harming their crops.
Glyphosate is used on many of the crops that end up in our diet, so the EPA has set maximum tolerance limits for glyphosate residue. For example, cucumber an allowable glyphosate residue tolerance of 0.5 ppm (parts per million); sweet potato is 3 ppm.
In comparison, canola and soybean seed are substantially higher at 20 ppm. Corn, barley, oat, sorghum and wheat are 30 ppm.
The EPA has not set allowable tolerance levels for canola oil because glyphosate does not concentrate inside the seeds pressed for oil. That isn’t to say that small amounts of glyphosate residue doesn’t end up in the final product. In 2016, a group of international researchers published a consensus statement that highlighted the rise of average residue levels in some harvested grains, oilseeds and crops, and, “as a result, human dietary exposures are rising.”
Why is that a bad thing? Studies link high levels of glyphosate exposure to an increased risk of adverse health outcomes, ranging from hormone disruption to changes in the gut microbiome.
If you want to limit your glyphosate exposure, cutting out foods like wheat, oats, corn and vegetable oils—including canola oil—is one good place to start.
Most commercially available canola oil is extracted through a process called hexane solvent extraction.
Hexane solvent extraction is by far the cheapest and most efficient way to extract canola oil. After grinding the seed to a paste, hexane is used to extract the oil, which is heated to 212°F and then bleached to create a lighter-colored final product.
However, these manufacturing processes leave the oils damaged, leading to higher levels of oxidation and trans fats. Oxidation is a normal chemical reaction, but it creates free radicals—molecules that can contribute to inflammation and cellular damage when they accumulate in your body.
What about trans fats? Keep reading to find out why you don’t want these in your diet.
All refined vegetable oils go through a lengthy refinement process to create a more stable, neutral oil—but it also creates trans fats. As a whole, vegetable oils have lower levels of trans fats than other commercial fats like margarine, but they can still appear in the final product. Yes, even if the label says otherwise.
In 2003, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that the amount of trans fat in a food item must be stated on the label for human consumption. The FDA also allowed food manufacturers to label food as 0% trans fat if it contains less than 0.5 grams per serving. But if you consume several servings, how do you know when you’re starting to get more than 0.5 grams of trans fat?
One tablespoon of canola oil might seem like a lot, but think about the trans fats in vegetable oils you consume in packaged foods, ultra-processed snacks and even restaurant meals—it adds up.
Is canola oil bad for you?
We’ve talked about the problems with canola oil production. But on paper, this oil is deceptive: It has a healthy omega fatty acid ratio, and the high smoke point makes it ideal for high-heat cooking. So, why is canola oil so bad for you? Find out why we don’t recommend keeping this oil in your kitchen.
High in omega-6s
Canola oil looks like an optimal vegetable-based oil, with a healthy 2:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Research has shown that consuming this ratio of polyunsaturated fats contributes to reduced inflammation. Ideally, you want all of the foods you consume to have an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in the neighborhood of 4:1 or less.
However, canola oil has a catch: Though the omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio of 2:1 looks great on paper, the omega-3 fatty acid is short-chain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). To use short-chain ALA fatty acids and get those omega health benefits, your body has to first convert ALA to the long-chain fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), before it can be used.
ALA has definite health benefits on its own. But in terms of your ideal 2:1 omega fatty acid ratio, research suggests that your body is only able to convert a small percentage of ALA to EPA and DHA. This means that the alleged 2:1 omega fatty acid ratio isn’t accurate. You’re actually getting less omega-3 fat than advertised. Yikes.
We’ve established that vegetable oils, like canola and soybean oil, are higher in omega-6 fatty acids. You need omega-6s—they support important functions like brain health and muscle growth. The problem is that too much of this fatty acid can contribute to inflammation and oxidative stress.
The even bigger problem? Omega-6s are everywhere, thanks to the prevalence of vegetable oils in a Western diet. Although inflammation is a normal part of your body’s immune response, long-term inflammation can be damaging, increasing your risk for negative health conditions.
Here’s an example: In a study to test the effects of oil consumption on lung inflammation, researchers found a direct correlation between high levels of the type of vitamin E found in canola oil and a 10-17% reduction in lung function due to inflammation.
When you avoid vegetable oils like canola oil, you’re removing a potentially inflammatory substance from your diet. That’s an easy win.
Animal studies point to more problems
A 2011 animal study fed stroke-prone, hypertensive mice canola oil for a period of 25 days to see how it affected their health. Canola oil reduced their antioxidant status, lowered glutathione production (the body’s master antioxidant that flushes toxins from the body) and increased plasma lipid levels, all of which are gateways to cardiovascular disease.
Canola oil may also alter the capacity of working memory. A 2017 animal study tested groups of canola-fed mice and their ability to perform in a memory-based maze test. Mice fed a diet high in canola oil displayed a reduction of postsynaptic density protein-95, which is an indicator of decreased synaptic integrity.
Translation: The communication hubs in their neurons started to break down.
Amyloids are complex combinations of proteins that have the potential to become pathogenic, which can lead to a variety of diseases in the human body. Canola oil has a direct effect on the ratio between beta amyloids 40 and 42, which may ultimately result in neuron damage and memory degradation.
Mice aren’t tiny humans, but these findings are important considerations, especially if you want to make swaps in your diet to support overall wellness.
Best canola oil substitutes
You’ll find a range of oils on store shelves today, ranging from standard vegetable oil blends to high-oleic sunflower oil. What’s the healthiest canola oil substitute? It depends on the label, what you’re cooking and your personal taste.
Here’s a quick primer on some common terms:
- Non-GMO: The product was produced without genetic engineering and doesn’t contain ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are associated with health and environmental concerns.
- High-oleic oil: These oils are higher in monounsaturated fats, similar to other quality fats like olives or cashews. High-oleic oils are stable at higher temperatures, which means they’re less prone to oxidation. Bulletproof uses high-oleic sunflower and safflower oils that meet the same tested oxidation levels for our other fats, like grass-fed butter and coconut oil.
- Cold-pressed oil: This method of producing oil doesn’t use any chemicals (so, no hexane solvents). Cold-pressing involves grinding the source of oil into a paste, then pressing it to separate the oil. These oils are considered the purest and higher-quality than oils produced with other methods.
- Expeller-pressed oil: Like cold-pressed oils, expeller-pressed oils aren’t produced with chemicals. Instead, a press uses intense pressure to squeeze the oil from raw materials. The pressure and friction creates a bit of heat, so this process isn’t technically “cold.”
- Refined or unrefined: Refined oils are more heavily processed to produce a neutral oil with a higher smoke point and shelf stability, like canola oil. Unrefined oils are less processed and retain more of their nutrients, like extra virgin olive oil.
- Smoke point: Also called the burning point, this is the temperature at which an oil begins to smoke. When an oil is heated past its smoke point, the fat begins to break down, lending a burnt flavor and aroma to your food and releasing more free radicals.
The best oils to use in the kitchen
When we say “best,” we’re considering overall nutrition, availability and functionality. This isn’t an all-inclusive list, but it’s a good starting guide to what type of oils to use when cooking. Learn more about the best high-heat cooking oils.
Medium to high heat: In high-heat cooking like roasting or sautéing, look for oils that are stable at high temperatures.
- Ghee (we recommend grass-fed)
- Grass-fed beef tallow
- Avocado oil
Low to medium heat: These oils are good for more moderate temperatures, like baking or slow-cooking.
- Grass-fed butter
- Coconut oil
- Olive oil (not extra virgin olive oil)
Not for cooking: Use these oils when you aren’t dealing with a lot of heat—think salad dressings, finishing oils and other recipes with temperatures at low levels.
- MCT oils, like Bulletproof Brain Octane C8 MCT Oil
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Some nut oils, like pumpkin seed and walnut oil
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This article has been updated with new content.