Canola Oil: What is it and Where Does it Come From?

by on March 9th, 2015
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In a typical American grocery store, canola oil can be found abundantly throughout the aisles, alone, as an additive or just a hidden ingredient on a mile long list of ingredients. Canola oil is common, and used in a wide variety of things; for cooking, or as an additive to butter to make it more “spreadable.” Canola, despite it’s vague and unknown origins, is commonplace among grocery stores, kitchens and pantries across the globe.

What is canola?
For most oils, it isn’t difficult to ascertain where the oil originated. Sunflower oil comes from sunflowers. Olive oil comes from olives. Corn oil comes from corn oil. But when most people begin to question where canola oil came from, they can’t exactly be sure. After all, what is canola?

Canola oil was developed in the 1970’s from oils extracted from the rapeseed plant after some genetic modification and engineering. Canola oil, although often assumed to be the same as rapeseed oil, is not the same and should not be confused with rapeseed oil. The flowering plant that is used in the production of canola oil is a genetically modified version of the rapeseed plant and although the two are related and genetically similar in some ways, the two are not one in the same.

If rapeseed oil is dangerous, isn’t canola oil dangerous too?
The rape plant belongs to the same family as the mustard plant used to produce toxic mustard gas. Due to this association, many people are under the impression that canola could be dangerous. It is important to recognize that simply being part of the mustard family is not reason for a plant to be considered dangerous. After all, many other common plants, even edible plants are from within the mustard family, such as cabbage, watercress, turnip, radish and horseradish.

In previous years, unrefined rapeseed had been used in cooking. However, we now know that the use of unrefined rape seed at high temperatures was dangerous and may have contributed to lung cancer and other illnesses. Rapeseed oil contained high amounts of erucic acid, which is believed to have been the culprit behind some of the dangers of rapeseed oil. Through a specific method of cross-breeding, scientists were able to replace a large amount of the erucic acid in rapeseed oil with a safer, oleic acid. Now, all canola oil contains less than 2% of erucic acid.

Where did the name “canola” come from?
Canola oil was introduced to American markets in the 1980’s and was given the name canola (a derivitave of “Canadian oil”) in an attempt to eliminate the negative associations that the general public had with the word “rape,” or the previously used rapeseed oil, which had been shown to have negative affects on human health.

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