Canola Oil: Benefits, Risks, and Nutrition

Canola Oil: Benefits, Risks, and Nutrition

Canola (Brassica napus L.), also known as rapeseed, is a flowering plant that produces seeds used to make canola oil.

Canola oil is one of the most widely consumed oils in the United States. It is popularly used in home and restaurant cooking as well as in industrial food production.

Though canola oil has been associated with some benefits, this highly refined oil has also been linked to health concerns.

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Canola oil is a type of vegetable oil that’s a common ingredient in diets worldwide. Vegetable oils, like canola oil, currently make up around 10% of calorie intake in the average United States diet.

Canadian scientists created canola oil using selective plant breeding techniques to produce a food-safe version of the rapeseed plant, which contains toxic compounds that make it unsafe for human consumption. This process created a new type of plant called canola that looks identical to the rapeseed plant but is free of toxic compounds called glucosinolates and erucic acid.

Canola oil is derived from the seeds of the canola plant. Most canola oil sold and used in the U.S. is highly refined, meaning it goes through a multi-step refining process that includes bleaching and deodorizing. This process uses heat and chemical solvents such as hexane, which has been shown to be neurotoxic to humans.

The refining process of canola oil improves certain characteristics, like taste, color, and shelf life. However, this process strips the oil of protective nutrients and compounds like vitamin E and polyphenols, making it less nutritious.

Canola oil has been linked to a few health benefits. However, many studies associating canola oil consumption with improved health outcomes have used unrefined or unheated canola oil, which differs from most canola oil consumed in the U.S.

Plus, the canola oil industry funded some of these studies, which could have influenced study results.

May Improve Certain Heart Disease Risk Factors

Canola is often advertised as a heart-healthy choice. While research on the effects of canola oil intake on heart health is mixed, some findings suggest that unheated and unrefined canola oil may help lower certain heart disease risk factors.

For example, a study that included 72 patients with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) found that participants who consumed 25 grams (g) of canola oil per day for 10 weeks experienced significant reductions in their triglyceride levels and their low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol to HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol ratio compared to women who consumed the same dose of olive oil and sunflower oil.

However, this study used unheated canola oil and refined olive oil, which could have affected the results. Unheated canola oil contains fewer harmful compounds than heated canola oil, and refined olive oil contains fewer beneficial substances than unrefined olive oil.

Another study found that refined olive oil was more effective than raw, unheated canola oil in lowering the inflammatory marker interleukin-6 (IL-6) in people with heart disease risk factors like hypertension, high cholesterol, or diabetes. This suggests refined olive oil may be a better choice than unheated, unrefined canola oil for improving certain aspects of health.

While some studies have shown that canola may reduce heart disease risk factors, such as high blood lipid levels, the type of canola oil ingested likely has a major effect on its health effects, including its ability to improve heart health.

Could Boost Vitamin E Intake

Like many plant oils, canola oil is a good source of vitamin E. Vitamin E performs several critical roles in health. It functions as a powerful antioxidant, neutralizing reactive compounds called free radicals and protecting cells against oxidative damage that may otherwise lead to disease.

Vitamin E is also required for immune function and helps support heart health by inhibiting blood clots and preventing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol plays a major role in atherosclerosis (plaque buildup on artery walls), which is a main cause of heart disease.  

Most people under-consume vitamin E. Study findings suggest that around 90% of men and 96% of women in the U.S. have insufficient vitamin E intake.

A one-tablespoon (tbsp) serving of canola oil provides 2.33 milligrams (mg) of vitamin E, which equates to 16% of the Daily Value (DV). Although all canola oil products provide vitamin E, unrefined canola oil is higher in this protective nutrient as the refining process significantly reduces levels of vitamin E and other protective plant compounds.

Other foods high in vitamin E include spinach, broccoli, and nuts and seeds—especially sunflower seeds, almonds, and hazelnuts.

Affordable and Appropriate for Certain Cooking Methods

One reason canola oil is so popular in the U.S. is because it’s an affordable cooking oil.

Compared to oils like olive oil and avocado oil, which are associated with several health benefits, canola oil is much less expensive and is available in bulk sizes.

In addition to its affordable price point, canola oil has a mild taste and a high smoke point of around 400 degrees Fahrenheit (204 degrees Celcius), meaning it’s stable at high temperatures.

This is why canola oil is commonly used in deep-fat frying and ultra-processed food production. While canola oil has a high smoke point, repeatedly heating it to high temperatures leads to the production of harmful compounds like free radicals and trans fats.

One tablespoon of refined canola oil delivers:

  • Calories: 120
  • Fat: 13.6 grams (g)
  • Saturated fat: 1 g
  • Monounsaturated fat: 8.45 g
  • Polyunsaturated fat: 3.48 g
  • Vitamin E: 2.44 milligrams (mg), or 16% of the Daily Value (DV)
  • Vitamin K: 16.6 mg, or 14% of the DV

Canola oil provides vitamin E and vitamin K. Vitamin K is required for skeletal health, blood clotting, and many other important body processes.

Canola oil is mostly composed of monounsaturated fats and is low in saturated fat. Swapping out saturated fats for mono- and polyunsaturated fats in your diet has been shown to help improve blood cholesterol.

Canola oil also contains alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega-3 fatty acid. The body uses ALA for energy, fatty acid synthesis, and conversion to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

DHA and EPA, which are concentrated in seafood, have powerful anti-inflammatory properties and are connected to many health benefits, including heart health. While the body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, this conversion rate is insufficient. Studies show the conversion rate of ALA to DHA and EPA is between 0.01–1% and 7.0–21%, respectively.

If you’d like to boost your intake of heart health-promoting omega-3 fats, it’s best to consume seafood or take an omega-3 supplement, such as fish or algal oil.

Though canola oil is often promoted as a healthy fat choice, it’s been linked to several health concerns.

Trans Fats

For example, repeatedly heating canola oil, a common practice in cooking methods like deep-frying, can lead to the formation of harmful compounds, including trans fats, which have been shown to negatively affect overall health and increase heart disease risk. One study showed that repeatedly heating canola oil increased trans fats in the oil by 233%.

Consuming foods made with repeatedly heated canola oil or canola oil exposed to extremely high temperatures for long periods can increase your consumption of harmful trans fats, which can increase your risk of developing heart disease.

Oils that are repeatedly heated, such as canola oil used in deep-fat frying, also contain harmful compounds like free radicals. These compounds damage cells and promote inflammation in the body, which can harm overall health.

Omega-3 to Omega-6 Ratio

Another concern linked to canola oil is that eating a canola oil-rich diet can disrupt your body’s omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. You need omega-6 and omega-3 fats for health, but omega-3 fats are naturally more anti-inflammatory while omega-6 fats tend to be more pro-inflammatory. 

There is no definitive agreement on an ideal omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, but scientists and health experts suggest it should lie somewhere between 1:1 and 4:1. The average American consumes too many omega-6-rich foods and too few omega-3-rich foods. Research suggests modern-day Western diets contain up to 20 times more omega-6s than omega-3s.

This imbalance is thought to promote a pro-inflammatory environment in the body, which can increase overall disease risk. Vegetable oils, like canola oil, are relatively high in omega-6s and low in omega-3s and can contribute to this unhealthy fatty acid balance.

Vegetable oils are considered a major source of dietary omega-6s, so cutting back on your intake of canola oil while increasing your intake of omega-3-rich foods, like seafood, fish oil supplements, and algal oil supplements, could be an effective way to protect health.

It’s not necessary to completely avoid canola oil. However, if it’s a main fat in your diet, you may want to reduce your intake and instead consume a variety of fat sources known to benefit health.  

Fats that are especially beneficial for health include:

  • Olive oil
  • Avocados
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Nut butters
  • Fatty fish

Choosing healthy fat sources as part of a nutritious, balanced diet is important for maintaining overall health. Diets rich in nutrient-dense foods and low in ultra-processed foods, fried foods, and added sugar have been shown to protect against common health conditions like heart disease and certain cancers.

Canola oil is a popular oil derived from the seeds of the canola plant.

Consuming canola oil has been linked with a few health benefits, such as reducing some heart disease risk factors. However, the oil also has some significant downsides. Other oils may be better for health.

Choose a variety of fat sources and prioritize fats that have been shown to significantly benefit health, like olive oil, nuts, and fatty fish.

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