Avocado oil is made from avocados. Olive oil is made from olives. Canola oil is made from…canolas??? Well, not exactly.
Canola did not even exist on the planet until about 40 years ago. Oil from the rapeseed plant was used long before that as an industrial lubricant and was in huge demand during World War II, resulting in a major shortage. When the war was over, demand for rapeseed oil plummeted, and Canada had compensated for the shortage by planting a ton of it. So they were left with a whole lot of rapeseed and they needed to get rid of it to avoid losing money. In the 50s Canada started marketing rapeseed oil as a food product which proved to be quite dangerous. Oil derived directly from rapeseeds contains high levels of erucic acid, which was found to cause cancer and heart lesions after people had been using it already for 10+ years.
Health agencies found themselves in a pickle, to say the least, because they had been telling everyone it was healthy after denouncing the nutritional value of saturated fats. Now what were people supposed to fry their Spam* in? (*ironic) Olive oil had the nutrition profile they wanted to promote, but there wasn’t enough of a profit margin. They needed something cheap and easy to grow. An answer was presented when a Canadian scientist genetically modified the rapeseed plant to produce seeds with lower levels of the harmful acid. Scientists referred to it as LEAR – low erucic acid rapeseed. Marketing the product as a health food was going to be difficult with a name like LEAR or if the name contained the word “rape,” thus canola was born. “Canola” = “Canada” + “oil.” Since this was literally a scientifically invented food, the FDA had to go through a process of labeling it GRAS, which stands for generally regarded as safe. It’s rumored that Canada paid the FDA $50 million to approve it and get it out to market.
Since then, canola oil has been said to be heart healthy due to its low content of saturated and trans fats. We know saturated fats don’t actually clog arteries and cause heart disease. Trans fats, however, really are toxic. Widely accepted is the fact that canola oil has less than 1% trans fat, but it has been measured up to 40% due to hydrogenation from the high heats used in processing (see the video I’ll link at the bottom). Hydrogenated vegetable oil is what we commonly know as margarine or Crisco. Read the ingredients on a jar of Jif creamy peanut butter. You will see “fully hydrogenated rapeseed/soybean oil.” That’s why it isn’t oily – it’s hardened into trans fat margarine before they churn it into your favorite breakfast addition! How the label can claim 0g trans fat is beyond me.
Production of canola oil involves churning the seeds for an hour with hexane, a chemical component of gasoline known to cause nerve damage and paralysis at high levels. The oil is further refined with sodium hydroxide, a pure base chemical that causes immediate burns to human skin. What isn’t extracted as oil from the canola seed is separated into several industrial byproducts. Leftover protein goes to feed livestock that should be grazing grass. Extracted wax is used by the factory to make margarine (at least equally as nasty). Impurities from refining are sold to companies that make soap. All low quality oils go through a similar process; including soybean, corn, and sunflower/safflower oil.
The problem with vegetable oils is they are extremely fragile. Each time they are heated (during and after manufacturing), the praised mono-unsaturated fats are turned into trans fats. Canola oil is widely used now in restaurant deep-fryers, for which the same batch is sometimes continuously heated for a week or more. At this point, many of the fats listed on the nutrition label are void and newly present as trans. I remind you that trans fats are associated with heart disease and diabetes, but also even mood disorders and infertility. One study found that each 2% increase in trans fat consumption for women was associated with a 73% increase in risk of infertility.
Now that you know a bit about canola oil, I advise you to start looking for it. Unfortunately, you’ll find it everywhere: in granola bars, cereal, bread, pasta sauce, soup, mayonnaise, salad dressing, baked goods, frozen meals, every kind of potato chip, nut butter, crackers, ice cream, dips, etc. The list literally never ends. I have seen so many people share that Facebook article that describes margarine is one molecule away from plastic, not realizing that the Wesson they fry their fish in is virtually the same thing. The “heart-healthy” claim on the bottle is terribly misleading.
If you’re not ready to abandon the saturated fat fear and dive into butter and coconut oil, then avocado oil and olive oil are great, clean alternatives that contain high levels of mono-unsaturated fat. Olive oil is best for cold preparations like salad dressing because it smokes at a relatively low temperature. Avocado oil, on the other hand, is very heat-stable and can be used at temperatures up to 450 degrees, making it great for roasting, frying, and pan-searing.
Check out the video below where the TV show How It’s Made is invited into a manufacturing plant to see how canola oil is processed.