19 May 2010

Canola Oil: Heart-healthy Hero, or Malignant Miscreant?

I think I was a really annoying kid. I always liked to ask questions, sometimes the kind that parents aren't ready to answer yet, like "Hey Dad... Santa's not real, is he?" As I got older, and was finally on my own, I started asking questions about my food. These are usually harder to answer, because most often, regardless of what the powers-that-be say, the true answer is "Well, we really just don't know."

When I start out on any post, I usually have an idea of what my stance on a topic will be, but in an effort to be non-biased I try to find not only information to support my ideas, but also to refute it. The human race as a whole goes through this cycle every time we come up with a new idea: a new food, a new process, new anything. And we are naturally suspiscious of anything new, especially in this day and age, where my generation was raised on "This is bad for you... this is good for you," only to find out in the last 10 years or so that many of those "bad" and "good" foods are really the opposite.

Questioning Authority

My favorite example, a classic food item: eggs. "Don't eat them, or you'll get high cholesterol and die of a heart attack... Wait, never mind, it's good cholesterol! Wait, maybe it IS bad..." It's like when I was 8, and finally asked my dad about Santa. Once I found out Santa was made-up, I immediately turned traitor against the tooth-fairy, Easter Bunny, and all those other myths I had been raised to believe. (Thanks Dad, your admission made me a life-long skeptic, a questioner of authority!)

So What About Canola?

Which leads me to today's topic: Canola Oil. We've been told for about 30 years now that it's all the good things you want in a fat: high in mono-unsaturates, low in saturated fat, and supposedly heart healthy: truly, the first perfect fat. As with any food product (especially the over-processed, cash-crop moneymakers) there is a lot of controversy. Flash back to a year ago: I really knew nothing about the controversy, and used this neutral, inexpensive oil pretty much exclusively. However, then I learned something that (yet again) made me start questioning. My nutritionist friend mentioned briefly the process of making canola (And other seed oils). 

How It's Done

Basically, with food oils, there are 2 processes: pressing (which is how you get really lovely high-quality olive oils, fragrant and delicious, but fragile and perishable), or chemical extraction (which doesn't even sound good).

Canola can be done either way. Although you can find cold-pressed canola oil in specialty stores, the canola/vegetable oil you're probably used to seeing is almost exclusively created through Hexane extraction. Essentially, they squeeze what they can out of the seeds first (resulting in cold-pressed oil), then take the remaining solids (in a "cake" form) and process them with a solvent (usually Hexane, a highly-volatile petroleum product that is made by pretty much every petroleum factory on earth). It creates a very efficient extract (so efficient in fact that it extracts all usable nutrition from the seeds and then some; the resulting oil requires post-processing to get the undesirable - read toxic - compounds out of it).

This resulting oil is refined, and processed through several steps, including "deodorization." You see, when oil is highly processed, many of the desirable nutritious compounds break down, leaving behind ketones, aldehydes, and free fatty acids, which smell and taste horrible. This leaves you with a odorless, tasteless, and therefore point-less, fat. Oh, and with slight traces of petroleum in it, yum. (Click here for the canola oil industries official answers to some FAQ's, including the production process.) Side note here, the solids left over - you know, the ones with zero nutrition left - big source of commercial animal feed... think about it.

A Rose by Any Other Name...

Fun Fact: Canola is actually a made-up term - comes from "Canada Oil".  The original plant is actually called rapeseed. In Europe, keep an eye out for LEAR oil (Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed). The presence of erucic acid is actually a main argument in the Canola debate. It causes all kinds of nasty side effects, and is toxic to humans, especially when the oil is heated to a high temperature; the oil breaks down, and causes toxic smoke which has been linked to lung cancer.

Genetic Engineering

Another aspect to the canola oil debate is the use of gentically modified crops. Now, on the aforementioned Canola website, there is a section called Truths and Myths About Canola Oil where they touch base on the idea of genetic manipulation:
Canola was developed by traditional plant breeding.
Unwanted traits in rapeseed were bred out through traditional cross-breeding to produce canola in the late 1950s and 1960s. In fact, modern crop biotechnology wasn't even invented at that time. Today, different varieties of canola help to produce crops that are resistant to drought, pests, disease and other challenges that farmers face. Plant breeders are constantly making breakthroughs to aid growers in getting the most out of their crop.
What they cleverly fail to mention, however, is that once the plant was developed, Monsanto began creating GM strains, which, by their own admission, now make up 90% of the canola crop in Canada. In fact, Monsanto actually sued a Canadian farmer whose Canola crop was contaminated by pollen from the Monsanto GM Canola being grown nearby. The farmer had no affiliation with Monsanto or the neighboring farm, nor did he have anything to do with the contamination, yet he was still successfully sued. They claimed that due to the contamination of his field, he was now growing a patented crop without having paid the applicable fees, and therefore was infringing on their rights. Luckily, since he had no real financial benefit from his crops, his conviction did not lead to any financial penalty.

Europe has actually banned the import of most Canola oil, since GM foods are widely distrusted (and I think illegal).

The Good, The Bad, The...?

But what about canola itself? Isn't it poisonous/toxic/etc.? I'll be honest, when it comes to the health benefits, the jury is out - except the FDA (apparently, it's recognized on the GRAS - Generally Regarded As Safe - list, but is banned from baby formula. Funny, when you consider many baby formulas include coconut oil..).

Regardless, I couldn't really find any scientific article that convinced me one way or another. There are a lot of opinions out there. I came across a few studies that showed piglets being fed exclusively on canola oil and no other fat did have health problems; Vitamin E deficiency was noted, and it apparently effected platelet count and size, but most of these problems were negated in the group being fed saturated fats with the canola. Like everything it's about balance.

The Verdict

You may have come to this post expecting a harsh "Canola is bad, evil, lock it in a rocket and ship it out to space!!" (which is kind of what I expected to write initially). Maybe you expected me to defend it against nay-sayers who are all just hippies and consiracy theorists. But in all honesty, if you asked me whether I think it's good or bad, I can only honestly answer "Well, I really just don't know."All I know is that I won't be using it (or any other seed/"vegetable" oil) when there are more nutritious options out there.

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