I will admit that I never thought much about the canola oil I routinely use for my baking until I asked myself one day, “is there a canola plant”? Canola oil comes from crossbreeding several types of rape plants. The rape plant is part of the mustard family, along with turnips, cabbage, watercress, horseradish, and radish. Traditional rapeseed oil was used for cooking in Europe, India, and Asia. But it naturally contains a high percentage of erucic acid, a toxic fatty acid. These levels have been reduced significantly through the process of crossbreeding, which replaces the erucic acid with oleic acid (a monounsaturated fat). This was done by Canadian scientists in the 1970’s and is the origin of the name, canola oil-“Canadian oil, low acid”. They gave this product a new name, so it wouldn’t be associated with the negative aspects of rapeseed oils. Natural rapeseed oil is used in the manufacture of biodiesel in Europe and there have been correlations with breathing problems from inhaling the dust or smoke of the oil.
Americans got their first taste of canola oil in 1986 and have since been bombarded with the many purported health benefits. A few years ago, the FDA gave the O.K. for the health-labeling claim that canola oil may reduce the risk of heart disease. This comes from the fact that it has less saturated fat compared to most other oils. Canola oil has omega-3 polyunsaturated fat and a high amount of monounsaturated fat. But I still prefer my extra virgin olive oil, especially since there are more studies backing up its health benefits. When I do decide to use canola oil, I choose organic, expeller pressed varieties to reduce my exposure to chemical solvents, pesticides, and genetically modified varieties. Although there are still mixed opinions out there about canola oil, I feel it’s a good option for cooking and baking in moderation.