Jane Says: Know Your Cooking Oils

What, exactly, is canola oil? And how does it stack up to olive oil? Food advice columnist Jane Lear gives you the lowdown.
May 2, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

Jill Sidelinger writes, “What is the truth about canola oil? Healthy or not?

I cannot thank you enough for this question, because it gives me the chance to debunk one of the most persistent, pernicious myths in the culinary (and Internet) world.

Oils, like all fats, are complicated, but it’s fair to say that canola oil—unlike safflower, sunflower, corn, or “vegetable” (i.e., soybean) oil—is a rich source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid that’s essential for health. Its relatively high proportion of omega-3s to omega-6 fatty acids is increasingly viewed as beneficial as well. And with a neutral flavor, light mouthfeel, and medium-high smoke point, it’s versatile in the kitchen.

But according to an urban legend that’s been making the rounds in various guises since the 1990s, canola oil is a poison, blamed for everything from the mustard-gas-blistered lungs of World War I soldiers to irreparably stained fabric, loose teeth, stools like black marbles, emphysema, and B.S.E. (Mad Cow Disease).

Here’s the scoop.

Canola oil was developed in Canada in the 1960s from a type of rapeseed bred to be unusually low in erucic acid, a fatty acid that may cause health problems when it’s used as the primary source of dietary fat. And what’s rapeseed? It’s derived from two brassica species, B. rapa (get it?) and B. napus. Other brassicas includes cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and the plants that give us brown mustard seeds and yellow mustard seeds. Perhaps that last example gave rise to the notion that mustard gas was made from rapeseed, but that isn’t true; the chemical warfare agent got its name from the fact that it can smell like mustard. Cross my heart.

The new Canadian strain was given its market-savvy (and trademarked) moniker to tout its country of origin and to distance itself from the negative connotation of the word rape. (One of my all-time favorite headlines in the “Purple Prose” category: “The Health Effects of Canola Oil—None Dare Call It Rape.”) Canola oil was originally a product of the centuries-old tradition of selective plant breeding. Other examples of this type of propagation include stringless snap beans, seedless cucumbers, and many apple varieties.

Today, though, most of the canola oil available in the U.S. does come from genetically modified plants. If you, like me, don’t want to buy GM products, there are non-GM brands to be found; look for them at natural foods stores or supermarkets such as Whole Foods Market. And although in the past the omega-3s in canola oil could turn into trans fats when the seeds were processed at high heat, these days, the temperature is more carefully regulated. In general, the less processing that goes on, the better, so I also go for canola oil that’s expeller- or cold-pressed. If you can’t find the canola oil you want at your local market, ask for it! This is one small way in which you can make your food dollars count.

So how does canola oil stack up against olive oil? Olive oil has only a small amount of omega-3s and a correspondingly small amount of omega-6s. But it’s chock-full of antioxidants and other good-for-you compounds, so I keep both of them in my pantry. No matter what oil you use, it’s important to think of it as simply one part of a balanced, varied diet, and keep in mind as well that one tablespoon of any oil (even those labeled “light”—a reference to the color) contains 120 calories.

When storing oils, remember that they are perishable. Heat, light, oxygen, and age cause them to turn rancid, so keep them in a dark, cool place (not next to the stove) and buy them in relatively small quantities, so you can use them up quickly.

What’s your go-to cooking oil? Are you surprised most canola oils contain GMO ingredients?