Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
14 Dec

Dear Mark: Canola Oil

I get a lot of questions about differentiating fact from fiction when it comes to all the “healthy” labels out there. Spanning everything from “heart healthy” to “boost your child’s immunity,” these classic marketing ploys are just part and parcel for the food industry. And yet these companies wouldn’t get away with the games if their claims didn’t reflect conventional wisdom on some level. The industry’s marketing tactics simply manipulate already strained, twisted messages about health and nutrition. The consumer is left to wonder what’s truth, half truth and bold-face scheme. Unfortunately, it’s never safe to judge a product by its label. In fact, if it needs a label at all, it’s already subject to questioning. The safest assumption is this: there’s always more to the story.

Dear Mark,

I’ve been adapting my diet to the Primal Blueprint over the last few months. I like olive oil for salads but wonder about the bottle of canola oil sitting in my cupboard. I tend to use it more for cooking, but I don’t see canola oil mentioned on MDA like I do olive oil. The label says something like “good source of omega-3.” Is this true? I’m wondering what your take on canola is. Thanks!

Thanks to Deb for this week’s question. Canola oil isn’t part of the recommended Primal foods for a number of reasons actually. Of course, you’ll find it everywhere these days – in bottled mayonnaise, salad dressings, margarine spreads, etc. It’s the latest darling of the “heart healthy” food industry, and their marketing gurus splash “omega-3” all over the labels to catch consumers’ interest. The problem is, canola oil goes through more primping and processing than a dog at a Kennel Club show.

Canola was a hybrid derived from rapeseed to reduce the high erucic acid content of traditional rapeseed oil, which had a bitter taste and toxic effects from the acid. Canola oil is also called LEAR (Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed). Like most cash crops, the largest share of the market is by far GMO-based, and one corporate GMO giant, Monsanto, has been accused more than once of the release of unapproved GMO seed varieties. Despite all the genetic engineering, somehow canola remains one of the most heavily pesticide-treated crops. Hmmm – wonder how that all works.

Continuing on the canola’s journey now…. Once harvested and graded, seeds are heated to facilitate oil extraction. Most canola oil is chemically extracted using the harsh petroleum-derived solvent hexane. Even when expeller pressing is used, a process common to organic brands, the massive force of industrial presses still produces heat. True “cold-pressed” canola oil (extracted with millstones) does exist but can be hard to find and is more expensive.

Following extraction, canola oil must be de-gummed to remove unappealing solids that settle during storage. The process involves heat and sometimes the addition of acids. Next stop, the oil is then bleached and separated. Finally, the oil (known for its stench) must be deodorized through heating methods that use temperatures as high as 500 Fahrenheit.

(Frankly, the whole process is rather unappetizing if you ask me. Deodorized food? Seriously.)

This brings us back to the omega-3 issue. Polyunsaturated fats aren’t the most stable fats out there. In fact, they’re pretty sensitive to heat and will turn rancid quickly. Obviously, canola oil undergoes a good deal of heating and heat-related degeneration in its processing. Needless to say, this is no good. Whatever omega-3 benefit there might have been is gone – like keys in lava, as one of the old Jack Handey quotes put it. What’s more is, you end up with a small but damaging amount of trans fat in your “heart healthy” oil. How’s that for irony?

My thinking is this: why bother with something so processed and unhealthy when there are umpteen other, better options out there? Olive oil, coconut, palm oil, lard and ghee are suitable for most cooking applications. And for salads and other “no heat” dishes, you have dozens of tasty (non-deodorized) choices, including avocado and nut oils. As for canola, who needs it?

For more on canola oil check out The Great Con-ola by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig and join the discussion in our forum.

I’m sure many of you have something to say about this oil. Share your knowledge and thoughts in the comment board, too. Grok on!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Like keys in lava… love it.

    jay wrote on December 14th, 2009
    • The full quote:
      “If you ever drop your keys into a river of molten lava, let ’em go, because man, they’re gone.” – Jack Handy

      Furious Mittens wrote on December 14th, 2009
  2. There’s a new article out today about Monsanto.… it’s pretty ugly business.

    Melissa "Melicious" Joulwan wrote on December 14th, 2009
    • Have you noticed that the link “Cannot be found” and that many other links like this have also dissappeared?

      Claudette wrote on January 28th, 2013
  3. I pretty much stick to olive oil for everything these days. Though I’m interested in trying avocado oil. Anyone know if foods fried/cooked in avocado oil have an avocado aftertaste? Because I’d love an avocado aftertaste on my grilled chicken, but not on my coconut pancakes.

    Greg wrote on December 14th, 2009
    • Lately I’ve tried using avocado oil for cooking (stir fries, pan-fry etc). Apparently it has a high-heat cooking point?

      It has a subtle/mellow avocado aftertaste. I’ll also add that it’s a deep green, so it gives a greenish tinge to meats when I pan fry. lol

      allie wrote on December 14th, 2009
  4. I don’t think cooking with olive oil is wise. Breaks down once heated and becomes oxidated. No thanks.

    Prefer coconut, palm oil, lard and ghee for cooking as mentioned in post. FWIW.

    Ken wrote on December 14th, 2009
    • I concur! Those are exactly the oils I use for cooking. And occasionally stuff like rendered duck fat (makes great sweet potato fries!) and beef tallow that I render after making beef broth.

      Aaron Blaisdell wrote on December 14th, 2009
  5. Good article about canola oil. I’ve been using grapeseed oil for cooking. Is this a good alternative?

    Les wrote on December 14th, 2009
    • No.

      Brian Kozmo wrote on September 15th, 2011
      • Why not? Please explain.

        Pedal Power wrote on February 7th, 2012
  6. YAY! my favourite Jack Handy quote…

    what I did with my leftover canola? I drive a diesel Jetta so I dumped it in the fuel tank.

    Peggy wrote on December 14th, 2009
  7. My inlaws have a tough time that I cook with lard, but the irony is that they used to cook with lard when they grew up, because that was all that their parents new. Their parents live into the late 90s, while my father inlaw who has been eating a low-fat diet and uses margarine since the 1980s suffers congestive heart failure in his 60s.

    His wife uses canola oil in everything.

    Johnny at The Lean Saloon wrote on December 14th, 2009
  8. This is to reply to Greg;
    I have been using avocado oil for a year or so now. I use it almost exclusively for roasting chicken. I have never found it to leave an avocado “taste” but it browns up the skin quite nicely. I do use it mixed with olive oil or mac nut oil for salad dressing too. I can’t back this up, but I do remember reading that it has a fairly high smoke point so should be safe for roasting at say 375°. Try it out!

    Diana wrote on December 14th, 2009
    • Oh Diana is this really true? I wonder if they have some simple and cheap procedures for me to follow so I can make avocado oil out of my 6 avocado trees.

      Tyler wrote on December 15th, 2009
  9. Mark,

    What about grapeseed oil for cooking/baking? It’s not a grain and can tolerate heat. It’s light and has no taste. It is high in PUFA’s, so is that a problem? Any thoughts?

    Jan Jones wrote on December 14th, 2009
    • I’ll chime in. When there are such wonderful and healthy oils for cooking, such as coconut oil, palm oil, ghee, and lard, that are so readily available, why bother using anything else? I LOVE the flavors that the list of four oils above provide. Perhaps it is difficult to conceive of using oils that are solid (i.e., fat) at room temperature most of the year around most of the world? I don’t worry about this. I scoop the fat out of the jar, plop it into the frying or roasting pan, and lick the rest off the spoon. Or if it’s a dry winter, I’ll just rub the rest into my skin (except the very red palm oil). The only time I find a liquid oil is more convenient than a solid is when I’m backing, such as pancakes. I just melt the oil in a ramekin in the toaster oven and add it to the mix. A little extra step, but hey, it’s healthy and delicious. My red pancakes made with palm oil are a big hit in my house.

      Aaron Blaisdell wrote on December 14th, 2009
      • Per the book, TPB, grapeseed oil has an Omega 6 to 3 ratio of about 690 to 1. Even corn oil is 80:1 (and lost of others which are WAAAAY below).

        I guess you could use it externally. If you have a tub of it just standing around…

        Dione wrote on December 16th, 2012
    • As I understand, grape seed oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids. I’d need to look a little closer before giving a definitive answer.

      Mark Sisson wrote on December 14th, 2009
      • I use expeller-pressed grapeseed oil as a moisturizer. It is absorbed well and doesn’t leave a greasy residue.

        Sonagi wrote on December 14th, 2009
      • I had the very same question, since I use grapeseed oil often. Would love to hear your findings!

        Alisa - Frugal Foodie wrote on December 15th, 2009
  10. Here is some food for thought about rancid fats

    Rancid fat: Rancidity is caused by oxidation or hydrolysis. The main gist of the process is that these generate highly reactive molecules and destroy vitamins. Fats with lower free fatty acid content keep better because the chemical structure of them is less easily degraded. Highly rancid fats taste unpleasant, but somewhat rancid fats may not be detectable by taste. Keeping fats in cool, dark places and in tight containers can slow down the process. (from my Food Science text and, which is nice, but a little outdated)

    Oxidized Fat in the Diet by Jeffrey S. Cohn is a review article summarizing several research studies: “Consumption of lower levels of oxidized fat on repeated occasions may pose a more chronic threat to health, however, particularly because low-level oxidation of meat, milk, poultry and cereal products during storage and processing is virtually unavoidable [4]. More extreme oxidation of fat can also occur when oils are used for cooking.”

    He mentions that the natural oxidation of cholesterol produces at least 30 different compounds that are biologically active and are particularly prevalent in the milk and egg powders used in processed foods. Compounds such of these are shown in experiments to absorb quite easily into the intestinal wall. In animal studies, oxidized fat led to higher incidence of atherosclerosis. In studies of healthy adults, the consumption of these fats led to impaired arterial function. These effects were not seen following low-fat meals or meals of less oxidized fats.

    Comparative Nutritional Value of Diets Containing Rancid Fat, Neutral Fat, and No Fat by Dorothy Whipple is an old one and describes the diet of lab animals. Lab rats fed slightly rancid fats slowly developed rather horrible symptoms like swelling, hair loss, and neurological degeneration…and eventually died prematurely. Animals fed no fats developed the typical dry-skin symptoms and lived somewhat longer. Animals fed fresh fats were the healthiest and lived the longest. The researcher concluded that in terms of her experimental animals, it was better to feed no fat than oxidized fat, though neither was optimal.

    I looked up more info on oxidized fats and digestion and one experience noted that animals fed them showed “altered intestinal function or flora”

    melissam wrote on December 14th, 2009
  11. “Despite all the genetic engineering, somehow canola remains one of the most heavily pesticide-treated crops. Hmmm – wonder how that all works.”

    One purpose of genetic engineering is to make the plant resistant to the damaging effects of pesticides, hence, the greater pesticide residues owing to heavier spraying. Yet another reason to avoid GMO foods.

    Sonagi wrote on December 14th, 2009
  12. If I’m not mistaken, I thought I read somewhere that a food only has to have 10% RDA to be labeled a “good source.” And for something like omega-3’s, which have such a low RDA anyways…..

    Gary-A wrote on December 14th, 2009
  13. Hi Mark, any thoughts on Macadamia oil? I live in South Africa and it’s far more readily available than coconut oil, palm oil and lard over here.

    vanmartin wrote on December 14th, 2009
  14. Macadamia oil is great – it is mono saturated
    works well in salads and mayo
    but is horrible expensive here in Denmark so Vanmartin you make me very envious.

    Henriette wrote on December 15th, 2009
    • Want to start a business importing macadamia oil into Denmark? I have the contacts 😉

      vanmartin wrote on December 15th, 2009
  15. 😉 think it will be a tad expensive

    Henriette wrote on December 15th, 2009
  16. It’s hard to find store-bought mayo that isn’t made with canola or an even worse oil (soybean, safflower, etc.)… impossible, actually. I’d like to try coconut oil, but at the moment it’s cold enough at room temperature that the coconut oil is rock solid – and this is in sunny Tucson, Arizona. I wouldn’t want to heat the coconut oil because I’d be worried about accidentally cooking the eggs. Macadamia nut oil is too expensive; extra-virgin olive oil too strong. :-( What’s a mayonnaise-loving girl to do?

    Icarus wrote on December 15th, 2009
    • I’ve run into the same problem in norCal, just can’t find a mayo without either soy or canola. :( I found a jar of “olive oil” mayo once and was excited for five seconds until I read the label and realised that olive oil was actually at the bottom of the ingredients. I haven’t been brave enough to try making my own yet.

      What about avocado oil? I’ve also seen some Groks make bacon fat mayo.

      paleo_piper wrote on December 15th, 2009
      • You should absolutely try the mayo recipe on this site. It’s not tricky at all and it turned out delicious.

        vanmartin wrote on December 16th, 2009
    • Wilderness Family Naturals makes a mayonnaise without soy or canola oils, or sugar. It has a lovely deep yellow color. But you must really love mayonnaise, because the shipping is costly.

      heykapo wrote on December 16th, 2009
  17. How can key in the lava … love it Here is something to think about rancid fats

    Monica oil wrote on December 22nd, 2009
  18. Ok, this came as a chock to me. A couple of questions:

    1. On the back of my canola oil it says that 100 grams contain 7.5 grams of saturated fats, 62.5 grams of monosaturated fats and 30 grams of polysaturated fats of which 9 grams is omega 3. These numbers are for the oil thats in the bottle, after the refinement. Suppose that the rest of the polyunsaturated fats (21 grams) are omega 6, this gives a ratio of roughly 2 in the finished product. Is that really that bad?

    2. I read somwhere that 40% of the canola oil may consist of “transfats” (I don’t know the word in english). If this is true, are these “hidden” in the monosaturated fats in the declaration?

    3. On the bottle it says that the refinement of the oil does not change the content of fatty acids in the oil. Is the company behind the product lying to me?

    /Concerned mayo lover :(

    Chris wrote on August 12th, 2010
  19. Coconut oil for cooking and olive oil to dress is definitely the way to go.

    Jeff wrote on November 11th, 2010
  20. This is a reply long after the previous posts. I thought the mayo recipe was going to show up. Just make mayo with olive oil, following Joy of Cooking or an Internet recipe. EASY and GOOD.

    Eleanor Snyder wrote on May 26th, 2011
  21. Derülo is presently outlining his voyage tracking the album, Future History via a series of webisodes that are usually placed on his official site every Fri

    Willis Leisey wrote on September 12th, 2011

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