Canola derives from the rapeseed plant – hence the controversy because rapeseed produces toxic oil with a high level of a dangerous fatty acid. The latter is an industrial oil and is poisonous to living things; apparently even insects won’t eat it.
As the original crop grown in Canada was too toxic for consumption, the rapeseed plant was hybridised to produce crops with lower acid levels and a better nutritional profile.
The name ‘canola’ (Canadian oil, low acid) was created to reflect this; it is also more marketing-friendly. Today it is grown extensively in Canada and the USA and is largely genetically modified.
New ‘heart-healthy’ oil
I went to have a look at canola oil on the supermarket shelf. Some canola oil bears the heart foundation logo, claims to be non-GM, presents as a healthy oil with a high omega-3 content and low saturated fat, and sells for approximately R15, which is a few rand more than refined sunflower oil, and a lot less than olive oil.
The Canola Council of Canada states that it is the ‘healthiest’ of all commonly used cooking oils because of its good fatty acid profile, and professional bodies such as the American Dietetics Association and the American Heart Association endorse its heart health benefits.
It is said to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to its unsaturated fat content.
On the other side are those who claim that canola is rapeseed oil genetically modified and skilfully repackaged. Unknown to us it is apparently present in a huge spectrum of processed foods, for instance peanut butter no longer contains peanut oil but canola oil instead (I checked, and it did). Claims against canola include that it acts as an inhibitor in the body, inhibiting metabolism of food and prohibiting normal enzyme function.
The oil is said to depress the immune system, alter the bio-electric terrain, and cause degenerative diseases which have escalated in incidence since the introduction of engineered fats and oils. Refined canola oil has inevitably been exposed to high temperatures, deodorising and bleaching. Its health-giving constituents have been processed away, and its omega-3s converted into the undesirable trans-fat form. There are further more extreme claims, such as that the Canadian government paid the FDA $50 million dollars to have canola oil placed on the GRAS (Generally Recognised As Safe) list.
Whatever the eventual facts of the story, my feeling is to stay with oils as nature made them. Olive oil is thousands of years old and in its virgin cold-pressed form is unbeatable. Even simple cold-pressed sunflower oil is a healthy option. Remember that fats should not be heated as they become carcinogenic; rather add them after your food is cooked.