It often happens to the foodie in us, that whenever we think about a country, our well-trained brain visualises the culinary products and dishes that country has given to the world. If Canada is on our minds, maple syrup, poutine, and the Christmassy Nanaimo bars line up in this very intimate gastronomical parade. Mediterranean countries such as Greece or Italy instantly bring to mind olive oil. But back to the Great White North, Canada has made a big name for itself since the 1970s in the cooking oils’ sector thanks to an oil known as canola oil. Let's find out more.
What is canola oil?
Canola is a variation of rapeseed plants. Although they look similar, rapeseed plants and canola plants are different. Despite the differences, however, rapeseed plant and canola plant belong to the botanical family of Brassicaceae, as do mustard, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower.
During the 1960s, scientists in Canada developed an edible version of the rapeseed plant, which contains different nutrients and whose seeds can be processed to produce oil that is safe for human consumption because it is very low in erucic acid. Erucic acid is a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid present in the oil-rich seeds of the Brassicaceae family. According to some experimental studies, consuming diets containing excessive erucic acid may cause adverse health effects. As a result of the potential safety concerns associated with high levels of erucic acid in rapeseed, efforts have been made to develop cultivars with low erucic acid levels. Canola oil is an answer to these concerns.
The term 'canola' was derived from 'Canadian oil, low acid'. In 1978, canola was registered as a trademark in Canada. Today, it is used internationally as a generic term to refer to varieties of rapeseed with less than 2% erucic acid.
Canola oil extraction process
Canola seeds are harvested and crushed to produce canola oil. During the processing of canola seeds, a slight heat is applied to the seeds before crushing. Most commercial canola oils are then extracted with hexane, which is recovered at the end of the process. Final refinement steps include removing gums and free fatty acids using water precipitation and organic acid, removing colour using filtering, and deodorising using steam distillation.
Canola oil nutrition
One tablespoon (14g) of canola oil contains:
Canola oil contains four grams of polyunsaturated fats. As essential fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids must be consumed from food, since the body cannot synthesise them. It also contains nine grams of monounsaturated fats, also essential fatty acids, so you must consume them in food.
Canola oil contains few micronutrients. The amount of vitamin K found in one tablespoon of canola oil is about 12 per cent of our daily requirements. It also has 2.4 mg of vitamin E, which is about 12 per cent of our daily needs.
Canola oil has a low level of saturated fats, which has led to its reputation as one of the healthiest oils. Here is the breakdown of canola's fatty acid composition:
Saturated fats: 7%
Monounsaturated fats: 64%
Polyunsaturated fats: 28%
Benefits and side effects
Canola is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. It is generally considered a healthy oil due to its low content of saturated fats (7%) and, like olive oil, its high content of monounsaturated fats (63%). Health experts recommend reducing the amount of saturated fats in our diets and replacing them with mono or polyunsaturated fats to boost heart health. Canola oil contains significant amounts of phytosterols that reduce cholesterol's absorption into the body. As with all oils, avoiding overheating and burning is crucial for optimal taste and to protect the healthy fatty acids they contain.
Canola oil is a rich source of omega-6 fats that could contribute to inflammation when consumed in excess. According to research, too many omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (the latter fats found in whole foods) can lead to inflammation, which increases our risk of certain diseases and conditions, such as Alzheimer's, obesity, and heart disease.
Some studies have evidenced conflicting information whether canola oil is a healthy choice or is better consumed in moderation or avoided altogether. While some analyses link it to improved health, many suggest it causes inflammation. Until more extensive studies are conducted, it may be best to choose oils with proven health benefits.
How to use it
Canola oil is a versatile cooking oil due to its mild taste and high smoke point (a high smoke point is considered 400°F / 204°C and higher, and oils with a high smoke point are best used for frying). It can be used in a variety of dishes and cooking methods, including sautéing, stir-frying, grilling, and baking. It’s a good choice for salad dressings, sauces, and marinades. Canola oil can also be used instead of margarine and butter in oven-baked recipes. It is often used in baked goods to add texture and richness. We present you with a selection of delightful ideas to cook with canola oil.
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Best substitutes for canola oil
As we mentioned earlier, more research is needed to better understand the health effects of canola oil. If you’re looking to avoid canola oil for health reasons, here are the best ways to substitute it for various cooking methods:
Olive oil. Olive oil is a rich source of anti-inflammatory compounds which are believed to prevent heart disease and cognitive decline. It is a healthy choice for dressings or sautéing.
Sunflower oil. A good source of polyunsaturated fats, sunflower oil is helpful in preventing type 2 diabetes and lowering cholesterol. A perfect substitute for baking, browning and pan-frying.
Flaxseed oil. According to studies, flaxseed oil reduces blood pressure and inflammation. It is high in Omega-3 fatty acids which have been associated with numerous health benefits.
Walnut oil. Walnut oil has a rich, nutty taste and has been shown to reduce high blood sugar and cholesterol levels. It has a nutty, delicate flavour and contains some beneficial nutrients and compounds found in walnuts. Unrefined walnut oil adds flavour and depth to both sweet and savoury dishes, while refined walnut oil can be used for baking and sautéing.
Almond oil. Almond oil is rich in vitamin E, vitamin B, monounsaturated and linoleic fatty acids, omega 6, omega 9 and zinc. This oil has a smooth, buttery texture and a slightly nutty taste.
Peanut oil. Peanut oil is quite potent as it leaves a strong peanut smell and flavour to whatever dish it is added to. Peanut oil is suitable to use as a frying substitute when tossing a stir-fry or cooking Asian inspired cuisine.
Hempseed oil. Hempseed oil is highly nutritious and has a nutty flavour that makes it the perfect dressing for salads.
Check out this practical infographic if you need more information on cooking oils, what they are best suited for, and how to store them.