Canola: a healthy alternative to olive oil

canolaoil“Canada” + “ola” = canola

According to the Canola Council’s history of canola oil, that’s where the word “canola” came from.  The rapeseed plant was the original source, but rapeseed contains a high level of erucic acid, which can be toxic to humans.  Plus “rapeseed” isn’t a great name to put on a food label.  Canola oil comes from plants that were bred to have only negligible amounts of erucic acid.  It’s now widely available in grocery stores, and is used in food processing.

Nutritionally Unique

Canola oil has two unique nutritional properties:

  1. it’s the lowest saturated fat oil, about 7%
  2. it’s high in omega-3 fats, which are about 11%

The catch is that the omega-3 fats from all plant food sources (also flax and walnuts) is that the omega-3 is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).  This 18-carbon fatty acid must be metabolized to add more carbons to form the biologically active EPA (20 carbons) and DHA (22 carbons).  And that metabolic process is not very efficient in humans.  So while vegans or strict vegetarians might benefit from a plant source of omega-3 fats, canola oil doesn’t necessarily translate into better EPA or DHA status.

And there’s another catch related to ALA: omega-3 fats are very susceptible to oxidation which makes the fat rancid.  So the high ALA content of canola oil makes it more susceptible to rancidity.  You can reduce this effect by storing your oil in a dark location, away from heat sources like the stovetop.  Better yet, refrigerate it if you don’t use it up quickly.  You can tell an oil is rancid by the harsh, off-putting odor when you open the bottle.

Omega-3 fats can give off a decidedly fishy odor as well, especially when heated.  After all, omega-3 fats are also found in high fat fish and contribute to the distinctive smell.  Using canola to fry foods on high heat can sometimes create that fishy effect.  Solution: don’t use it for high temperature frying.

The best uses for canola oil are for salad dressing, baking or low temperature cooking.  You could also use it on cooked and drained pasta, to prevent sticking.  And unlike many olive oils, canola oil has a bland flavor, so the oil doesn’t overpower the taste of the food.  That makes it more useful for baking foods like quick breads, cakes, muffins or even cookies.  In addition to tossed green salad, I like to use it to dress grains such as a couscous salad, bean salads and chopped salads.  In all of these examples, you get the nutritional benefits of canola, without damaging the fragile omega-3 fatty acids, while enjoying the flavors of the food.

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