DEAR DR. BLONZ: I need a bit more info about an ongoing internet campaign against canola oil. There is a claim that this oil was developed as a name-change alternative to rapeseed oil, after that oil was found to cause health problems. A place where I buy some of my food (and whose advice I sometimes follow) rails about its use in prepared foods. The claim is that it is toxic, especially when used in cooking, and that it is produced from genetically modified grain -- stealthily imported from Canada behind the back of the Food and Drug Administration.
I am hoping for your assessment as to whether there is anything scientifically valid here, or if this just ongoing nonsense. -- T.S., Topeka, Kansas
DEAR T.S.: This is an issue that seems to emerge periodically, with its lease on life recycled through the communicative and archive powers of the internet and social media. One difficulty is that many people who maintain sites with dubious information don’t take down the inaccuracies when confronted with solid evidence to the contrary. Conspiracies do make for compelling postings, but this one is already a bit rancid. I wish that people would give it up, because it is confusing well-meaning, health-conscious consumers.
Perhaps we can all do a little community service and have some facts at the ready to put this nonsense to rest. Rapeseed (Brassica napus) is a member of the mustard family. It is known for its oil-rich seeds that are used in animal and human food.
Traditional rapeseed contains a toxic fatty acid compound known as erucic acid. This was used in animal feed, but did not appear to be associated with any problems with animals who have multichambered stomachs. The fermentation vat in such digestive systems, known as the rumen, appears to be able to detoxify erucic acid. For animals with a one-chambered stomach, like us, traditional rapeseed oil -- with its elevated content of erucic acid -- is to be avoided.
In the 1970s, using traditional plant-breeding techniques -- not genetic engineering -- rapeseed was successfully bred to reduce its erucic acid content. The erucic acid was replaced during breeding with oleic acid, the healthful fatty acid found in olives and other plants.
The name “canola” was originally a trademark standing for “CANada Oil, Low Acid,” which was deemed a more palatable name than “low-erucic acid rapeseed oil.” (The low-acid plant was bred in Canada.) The canola plant is now a different variety of rapeseed; think of it as a distant, younger cousin to traditional rapeseed. Organically grown canola, available in the marketplace, is a testimony that this type of oil can have a non-GMO pedigree.
Similar to any cooking oil, as long as canola oil is not overheated or otherwise abused, it will not become toxic when used in cooking. The smoke point for canola oil is over 400 degrees F, which is high enough for most types of cooking.
Bottom line: Be wary of advice from sites that continue to spread misinformation.
Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.