Hello dear friends!
I thought I would devote my next blog post to one of the most common questions that I get from people, even within the “health and wellness” community, and certainly a question that I hear from friends and family. I have found myself having to answer it multiple times lately, so I figured, why not write a whole blog about it? And that question is:
“What’s wrong with canola oil?”
Some people lump in all “vegetable” oils when asking, and I’ll touch on those briefly in this post. However, I want to focus on the big player in the conventional oil/fat world: canola oil. You’ve probably seen it in the ingredient lists of all sorts of so-called “health” foods, from salad dressings and canned condiments, to frozen pizza and gluten free crackers. After all, this oil has been a darling of the “heart-healthy” diet train for over 20 years, and it’s one of the last holdouts in our recent shift to more natural, nourishing, primal-inspired nutrition.
For a little bit of back-story, let’s rewind to my strident vegan days. (And for the record- I have nothing against veganism, or vegans…it just didn’t help my personal healing process any!) I won’t lie- I got caught up in the rabid avoiding-animal-products-at-all-costs mentality, and thus, filled my plate with more “pseudo-foods” than I can count. And vegetable oil margarine, aka vegan butter, was one ingredient I used on the daily. Many of you are probably familiar with the popular brand, which I won’t mention here, but it was, and still is, touted as a heart-healthy alternative to butter. This is what is on the back of the tub:
Of course, there are many problems with this, including the overwhelming presence of soy, which I will probably write a separate blog about in the future. But the “natural oil blend” is the main ingredient, and, given how much it’s used by so many people (I know, for myself, it was a staple, not only on bread, but also in sautéing veggies and fake meats), this can be a big problem. These “buttery” spreads are simply margarine with a fancy new label, and I would have hoped, by 2017, these kinds of things would be firmly in the past. Sigh…a girl can hope!
Needless to say, after much education and personal experimentation, I fell back in love with real butter. Like, the good stuff. The creamy, fragrant, golden yellow stuff that only comes from grass-fed cows, that’s packed full of healthy conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), vitamins, and minerals. But we’ll get to some healthy canola alternatives later!
So, what the heck IS canola oil, anyway?
Canola oil is also known as rapeseed oil, and is extracted from the rapeseed plant, which is part of the mustard family. It was first intentionally bred and harvested for oil production in the 1970’s, and since then has become a staple crop for big-ag giant, Monsanto, which has used extensive genetic modification to make the specialized rapeseed plant disease and drought-resistant. The original rapeseed plant contained very high levels of erucic acid, which is known to cause health problems in humans, so they had to reduce these levels in the subsequent generations of the plant. This allowed them to create a food-grade oil that was lower in erucic acid, which they originally called “low erucic acid rapeseed” or LEAR.
In order to extract the oil, the plants seeds are first dried and heated. Then, the vast majority of canola oil is produced using the petroleum-derived solvent, hexane, which is used to extract many different types of vegetable oils. You may find expeller-pressed canola oil, but this is still a high-pressure extraction method, resulting in high heat which damages the inherent fatty acids in the seeds. You can occasionally find cold-pressed canola, but it tends to be rare and quite expensive…and still isn’t healthy!
After extraction, the oil must be thinned and filtered, due to the high levels of solids that settle during the extraction process. This typically involves the addition of certain acids and/or heat application. From there, since rapeseed is known for its unpleasant smell, the oil is deodorized and bleached.
For reference, here is a standard production flow chart for food-grade vegetable oils, taken from this amazing article here:
The result of this laborious process is a cooking oil that is high in polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), and somehow (can you say Big Food lobbying?) got included in literally millions of consumer food products. Furthermore, oils that are high in PUFAs, and Omega-3s tend to be unstable, and go rancid very easily- thus, stabilizers and partial hydrogenation are often used to increase shelf life. Even so, much of the canola oil on the market today is rapidly oxidizing, and is likely rancid by the time it reaches your kitchen.
Why is this a problem?
“In your body oxidized means damage to your cells and tissues, especially to the areas rich in fat like your brain. You know what happens when an apple is exposed to air? Oxidation is the process that turns it brown and makes it go bad. If you eat vegetable oils that are already oxidized from heat and light in processing, you are exposing your own healthy tissues to a volatile substance which will damage them…. Oxidation, or rancidity, is not only a major contributor to most degenerative diseases, it also causes inflammation. Excess inflammation in the body can cause anything from arthritis to more serious diseases such as Parkinson’s, bipolar moods, schizophrenia, and obsessive compulsive disorders.” - Julia Ross, in the book The Mood Cure
Since it was originally developed in Canada, they (supposedly) named the new oil canola, combining “Canada” and “ola,” the word for oil. After all, while it has great industrial applications for candles, soaps, inks, biofuels, and machinery lubricant, they had to name it something appealing, in order to break into the consumer food market. And "rapeseed oil" and/or LEAR wasn't gonna cut it.
Once it hit the store shelves, it was touted as a health-promoting product, and bottles of the oil were labeled as “high in Omega-3s” and “low in saturated fat!” And it’s still around. In fact, it’s freaking everywhere. As a fun experiment, just go to your pantry or refrigerator right now, and pick out a dozen items. I’ll bet that at least half of them have “canola” or “vegetable” oil in them. Even in well-known health food brands, canola makes an appearance. I can’t tell you how many awesome-sounding, gluten-free, dairy-free products I have had to put back on the shelf because I spotted vegetable oils in the ingredients. Sigh…
One of the most glaring problems with canola is that over 90% of rapeseed is genetically-modified. And believe what you’d like about GMOs, but studies have linked GMO consumption to liver and kidney problems, immuno-suppression, allergic reactions, neuro-toxicity, and more. Secondly, canola oil has been shown to be caustic to the vascular system, creating micro-inflammation and calcification in the linings of our blood vessels. As you can imagine, this can result in serious and even life-threatening issues like coronary heart disease and strokes.
Honestly, I could go on and on and make this into a huge article with hundreds of links to various studies and such, but I want to keep it as brief and readable as possible! If you want more detailed, scientific information, I recommend checking out this article by Dr. Axe, and this one by the Weston A. Price Foundation. Also, if you’re anything like me, you may want another opinion, preferably from someone outside of the primal/paleo paradigm, and trust me, there are more and more of those popping up. Thankfully, people from all backgrounds and nutritional philosophies are waking up to the scary realities of vegetable oils.
Many people are familiar with Anthony William, aka the Medical Medium. He doesn’t necessarily advocate for a paleo diet, but he still understands the dangers of canola. Here’s what he had to say about it:
“Canola oil is mostly GMO at this point in time. And regardless, canola oil creates a great deal of inflammation. It’s especially damaging to your digestive system, potentially scarring the linings of both your small and large intestines, and is a major cause of irritable bowel syndrome. Canola oil can feed viruses, bacteria, fungus, and mold. Beyond that, canola oil has an effect similar to battery acid on the inside of your arteries, creating significant vascular damage.
Canola oil is used in many restaurants and in thousands of products, often as a low-cost alternative to olive oil. Even reputable health food chains and restaurants use canola oil to keep prices down, sometimes advertising canola oil as a health food. Unfortunately, if canola oil is even a tiny part of an otherwise perfectly healthy dish of organic and all-natural ingredients, you should probably avoid that dish because of how destructive canola oil is.
If you’re dealing with a mystery illness or a health condition, try to avoid canola oil at all costs.”
So, since we’re learning that canola oil is definitely a no-go, what are some healthy alternatives?
As I mentioned earlier, grass-fed butter is a great choice, especially in your morning coffee. Organic, unrefined coconut oil is another of my favorites, and I personally use it to cook all my veggies and meats, as well as add it to my smoothies. Animal fats like lard and tallow, from natural and reputable sources are great too. Olive oil is another that is nice to use, but beware that many olive oils on the market have been adulterated with other oils, so do your thorough research before buying, and try not to use olive oil at high cooking temperatures. For cold applications, like drizzling on salads and such, nut oils like macadamia and walnut are tasty, just be sure to use them up quickly, as these go bad quickly. Lastly, avocado oil is another that is healthy and gaining popularity for use in cooking, as well as making salad dressings.
I invite you, sometime in the next day or two, to check out your pantry, freezer, and refrigerator, and look at all the foods you have that include canola, soy, or other vegetable oils. While it may not be feasible to simply throw everything away (hello, some of us are on a budget!), it's definitely worth making the transition to favor brands that don’t include these caustic oils. And if you want to brush up on your food label reading skills, you can check out my two-part series on the subject here:
Have you already cut out canola oil? Tell me your experience in the comments! What are some of your favorite natural, healthy fat sources?
As always, my friends, cheers to your health, and…
~ Hoping you feel as well as possible ~