Canola Oil: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Canola oil is considered safe to eat, and while it's not bad for you, there are some reasons experts take caution.
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Like so many other foods, canola oil has been the subject of controversy and debate. But despite the rumors, canola oil is considered safe to eat and cook with. In fact, it has some important nutrients and has been linked to a number of health benefits.

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Below, we asked experts to share the good, bad and everything in between when it comes to canola oil so you can make an informed choice for your health.

What Is Canola Oil?

So, where does canola oil come from? Here lie the seeds of mistrust. The canola plant — a member of the Brassica family, which includes broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower — is actually a genetically modified rapeseed plant (making it a "GMO") that has been bred to improve its taste and nutritional content.

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The oil is then extracted from the plant using a chemical solvent or a chemical-free pressing process.

The canola plant is bright and yellow-flowering in the field, and grows primarily in Western Canada. Canola gets its name from "Canadian" and "ola," which means oil, according to Manitoba Canola Growers. The name was trademarked in 1978.

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Is Canola Oil Safe to Eat?

There's been some debate over whether or not canola oil is safe to include in your diet for a few reasons.

Erucic Acid

Concerns have been raised over the fact that canola oil is derived from rapeseed, a plant traditionally known to have a lot of erucic acid, which is toxic in high amounts, according to a June 2013 review in ​​Nutrition Reviews​​. But in the 1970s, the rapeseed plant was cross-bread to produce the canola plant, which is much lower in erucic acid.

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To this day, all commercialized canola oil must contain less than 2 percent erucic acid to be considered "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS), a standard set by the FDA.

A GMO Product

Because canola is a GMO, many people question the health benefits of the cooking oil. It's estimated that 95 percent of canola crops are genetically modified, per the FDA.

Genetic modification is a process that allows farmers to use fewer pesticides and resources to grow crops, and concerns have been largely unfounded, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM).

If you're concerned about GMOs, choose an organic canola oil.

Trans Fats

There are some concerns about the amount of trans fats in canola oil.

It's true that high temperatures used during processing can degrade some of the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids in canola oil and turn them into trans fats. But the amount of trans fat is still very little and not likely a cause for concern, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Hexane

Pressing and/or solvent extraction with hexane is used to get canola oil from a canola plant. Solvent extractions are commonly used because they produce oil easily and are quite economical, according to January 2017 review in ​Chemistry Central Journal​.

When it comes to the hexane in canola oil, there's probably not much to worry about. Hexane residue in canola oil (and other food sources) tends to be very low, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

There are hexane-free canola oil options on the market that don't use the solvent in the extraction process. Look for oils labeled "expeller-pressed" and "cold-pressed."

Is Canola Oil Bad for You?

Canola oil often falls under harsh criticism, and while some animal studies point to potential side effects, no human research shows canola oil is bad for you.

Canola oil is high in healthy fats, which are tied to a number of health benefits. But, it does have a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, which concerns some dietitians.

"Taking in more omega-6 than omega-3s has been linked to inflammation. Ideally, a 1:1 ratio is better for health," she explains. "The standard American diet is generally made up of foods higher in omega-6 fats, with a much higher ratio of 15:1," says Johna Burdeos, RD.

"As a cancer survivor, I try to limit GMOs in my diet. Fortunately, it's easy to find organic, expeller-pressed canola oil," says Jean LaMantia, RD. Expeller-pressed canola oil may contain fewer trans fats because of how the oil is processed, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Is Canola Oil Healthy?

Experts tend to run the gamut on whether or not canola oil is good for you: Some cook with it, some prefer to use other cooking oils.

High Smoke Point

"Canola oil is my preferred oil to use for three reasons: the healthy fats, the high smoke point and the affordability," says Colleen Wysocki-Woods, RDN, CLC, of ZEST Nutrition. "It is one of the most affordable, health-promoting oils available in supermarkets."

The high smoke point prevents the fatty acids in canola oil from breaking down when heated to high temperatures during cooking. Heating oil beyond its smoke point may cause carcinogenic byproducts to form, according to an April 2020 review in Nature. (​Not to mention will impart an unpleasant, burnt flavor.​)

Fat Content

Wysocki-Woods points out that canola oil has the lowest saturated fat compared to safflower oil and olive oil, and is relatively high in polyunsaturated fats, which are tied to a number of health benefits.

The high omega-3 content in canola oil is the main selling point for LaMantia: "Only flaxseed oil and hemp oil are higher, but you can't cook with those," she says.

Benefits for Heart Health

Canola oil has been tied to lowering total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, according to a February 2019 review published in Journal of the American College of Nutrition.

It has also been linked to improvements in several heart disease risk factors when compared to safflower and even olive oil, according to a November 2020 systematic review in Nutrition Metabolism and Cardiovascular Disease.

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