Thursday, April 28, 2011

Canola Oil: Not As Healthy As You Think

I live in the heart of canola country - it's big business around here. In fact, it's big business for Canada. Canada is the largest exporter of canola, with over 52,000 farmers responsible for 20 percent of the world’s canola/rape seed (1). Talking about the environmental and health dangers of canola in my hometown seems almost sacrilegious.

For the longest time, I believed, like many others, that canola oil was heart healthy. It was marketed as being high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in saturated fats. When my family and I started following a vegetarian diet, we used organic unrefined canola oil almost exclusively. However, I started noticing that I would feel ill whenever I consumed it - almost a feeling of being inflamed from the inside out. It was a very distinct burning feeling. When I eliminated canola oil from my diet, the symptom disappeared too.

Why would I be feeling inflamed when omega-3 fatty acids are supposed to have anti-inflammatory properties? Well, it turns out that the process of oil extraction eliminates any omega-3 benefits:
"Like all modern vegetable oils, canola oil goes through the process of caustic refining, bleaching and degumming - all of which involve high temperatures or chemicals of questionable safety. And because canola oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which easily become rancid and foul-smelling when subjected to oxygen and high temperatures, it must be deodorized. The standard deodorization process removes a large portion of the omega-3 fatty acids by turning them into trans fatty acids." (2)
That's right, the processing of canola oil (see Figure 1) can turn it into a trans-fatty acid, which provokes an inflammatory response in our body. We now know trans fats cause serious health problems when consumed, such as increased risk of heart disease. But, we wouldn't know canola oil would contain trans fats because they are not listed on the label. In fact, they are marketed as being trans-fat free. Many fast food chains in Canada, such as KFC, McDonald's and Taco Bell, switched to canola and canola blends when making the transition away from trans fat (3)!

Figure 1: Oil Processing Flow Chart

What about cold pressed canola oil? I don't believe anyone should consume any oil that is not cold pressed. As the name implies, no heat is generated and generally no toxic solvents are used. However, even if you can find cold pressed canola oil, there are other reasons why you should not consume it.

Canola oil was originally rape seed. However, rape seed caused many health issues that made it unsuitable for human consumption. Rape is high in erucic acid, which have been shown to produce lesions of the heart (4) and tissue damage to organs in lab animals (5). So, rape seed was bred to contain less erucic acid and was renamed LEAR - Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed, which eventually became to be know as Canola - Canadian Oil.

With the erucic problem 'solved', it was assumed to be safe. But, studies are showing some disturbing results:
  • Even at low levels of erucic acid (2%), canola has been found to cause minor heart scarring (6)
  • Canola oil has been shown to injury kidneys, increase blood sodium levels, and cause abnormal changes in the hormone aldosterone, which regulates blood pressure (7)
  • Animals fed canola caused decreased litter size, behavioral changes and liver damage (8)
  • Since canola oil appears to retard growth, the FDA does not allow its use in infant formula (9)
  • Canola oil causes vitamin E deficiency, undesirable changes in blood platelets and shortened life-span in stroke-prone rats when it is the only oil in the animals' diet (10)
  • Canola has been found to be a potentially potent allergen in children and adults (11)
Not a very good recommendation for such a purportedly healthy oil, is it. But, let's back up a bit. Why would canola oil be a potent allergen in children and adults? I believe that we are seeing a rise in food allergies because we are consuming more and more genetically modified (GM) food unknowingly, and GM canola is no exception. "More than 80 percent of the canola oil produced in Canada is genetically modified." (12) Monsanto's Round-up Ready and Liberty's Link InVigor herbicide resistant canola are primarily what farmer's grow around here because the seed has been genetically modified to resist the spraying of herbicides.

Genetic tinkering often creates new proteins, that when introduced into our diet, encourage allergic reactions to that substance. I talk more about this topic here in regards to corn. GM canola was approved by the Canadian government because it was believed that no new proteins were being transferred to the end product, thus making it safe for human consumption.
"The transgenic gene inserted into the canola plant to produce Roundup Ready and Liberty Link InVigor herbicide resistance is a protein. All protein is removed from canola oil during processing, so canola oil contains no GM material and is identical to canola oil from a non-GM canola plant." (13)
The reality is that studies have shown that a sufficient amount of new protein and DNA transference are occurring during the processing of GM canola oil - sufficient enough to cause allergic reactions in children and adults (14). The remaining canola seed is processed into meal and is used as a high protein feed for livestock. So, even if it were true that we aren't consuming new proteins in GM canola oil directly, I think that it is safe to say we are getting it indirectly in the meat we consume. Eating contaminated meat is the number one source for unlabeled genetically modified organisms, and "consuming even minor constituents with high biological activity may have major effects on the gut and body's metabolism." (15)

Allowing foreign DNA into our bodies and our environment is opening up Pandora's Box. We don't know the long term consequences, nor is there any way to reverse any of the damage already done. Many people believe that foreign DNA caused by horizontal gene transfer - where genetic material is transferred from one organism to one that is not its offspring or a related species - will lead to new and never seen before bacteria, viruses and diseases, antibiotic resistance and super bugs, and the triggering of cancer in animals and humans (16).

Clearly, canola oil is not the panacea it's cracked up to be. Canola oil is used everywhere - in restaurants, processed food, even raisins are coated in it. Start reading your labels and you'll see what I mean. If the ingredient list specifies vegetable oil, it is a catch-all term that allows the manufacture flexibility in what oil they use depending on price and availability. Thus, there is no way to know for sure that the vegetable oil listed isn't canola oil. That's the bad news. The good news is that there are other healthier sources of fat for you to use in your cooking: clarified butter, coconut oil, organic, unrefined and cold pressed olive oil in limited quantities and - dare I say it - animal fat, such as rendered lard (gasp)! If you are concerned about meat contamination via livestock feed, source out grass fed, grass finished producers local to you. Even if they don't always grass finish, you could request it and maybe they'll make an exception, especially if you can get a few buyers together.

I have found only one resource for people with canola sensitivities. The site is a database that lists which food products and restaurants contain or use canola oil and those that don't. Currently, it only covers the US, but there are plans to expand it to Canada and the UK. Unfortunately, avoidance is only part of the solution. In order to protect our health and the health of our loved ones, we have to wean ourselves from our dependence on the supermarket and the convenience foods we've become accustomed. And that means taking on more responsibility for growing our own food and supporting local farmers that are producing quality food.

(5) The Paleo Diet, Dr. Loren Cordain, p22-23
(6) The Paleo Diet, Dr. Loren Cordain, p22-23
(7) The Paleo Diet, Dr. Loren Cordain, p23
(8) The Paleo Diet, Dr. Loren Cordain, p23
(11) The Paleo Diet, Dr. Loren Cordain, p23
(15) Genetically Modified Food: A Short Guide for the Confused, by Andy Rees, pg 19 

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