by Delaney Seiferling
A question for all Canadians: When you look at this beautiful yellow field, what do you see? If you said “just another canola crop,” you might like to learn that it is so much more than that.
You may already know that canola is the second-most commonly grown crop in Canada after wheat and that we export billions of dollars’ worth of it around the world each year.
You might also know that it’s heart healthy, and that many Canadians always keep a bottle of it in their kitchens because of its health benefits, versatility and affordability as a cooking oil and culinary ingredient. In fact, it is the number one cooking oil in Canada.
But what you probably don’t know is that canola is a purely Canadian ingredient and one that wouldn’t have been possible without decades worth of innovation, adaptability and world-leading science and research.
The story of Canadian canola is one of politics, creative farmers, tempura, collaboration and some science superheros. It is really one of the greatest stories of Canadian agriculture of all time.
Let’s start with some history…
It all started with the rapeseed plant. Although it is generally believed that the oil from rapeseed (the crop that led to canola oil) was used as far back as 2000 B.C. for cooking and lighting purposes, it wasn’t until the 1940s that it made its debut in Canada.
At that time, rapeseed oil was in high demand in Europe. That’s because it was a top choice as a lubricant for steam-powered trains and ships because it clings to water- and steam-washed surfaces better than other oils. However, supplies of the oil were low at the time because of the Second World War and Europe was cut off from its usual suppliers.
This was an opportunity for Canada.
With a couple of imported rapeseeds from Argentina and Poland, Western Canadian farmers started to experiment with growing the crop. They quickly learned that it grew quite well in the cool, fertile Canadian prairies.
Because of the high demand for rapeseed oil from Europe, the Canadian government created monetary incentives for Canadian farmers to grow it. And growth of the crop took off. But demand dried up not many years later when the war ended and engines transitioned to diesel fuel, leaving Canada with a lot of capacity to grow rapeseed but nowhere to sell it.
Here’s where the innovation part comes in…
Being able to grow great crops is only part of the story in the agriculture industry.
In Canada, we are also experts at marketing the crops, which means figuring out where in the world our products are needed, for what purposes (so we can adapt them to market specifications), and how to best get them there. And that’s just what we did after Europe no longer needed rapeseed oil after the war ended.
Canadian agriculture marketers learned that rapeseed oil was also in demand in Japan, where it was used to make a very popular dish that you may have heard of: tempura! Fried foods for the win!
This meant we were able to keep growing and exporting Canadian-grown rapeseed to Asia.
But we also knew this crop had more potential. During this time, Canada was importing 90% of the fats and oils used by food manufacturers and sold in grocery stores. There was a huge opportunity to grow our own and consume our own oilseed crop.
This is where the canola superheros come in…
You might not know that Canada is home to an amazing community of agriculture and food scientists and researchers. By this point in the story, this community had already long been studying rapeseed oil to learn more about what it could be used for.
Some of that research identified concerns about the high level of erucic acid in rapeseed oil which may cause heart issues. The researchers decided to see if they could adapt the composition of the plant to take out the erucic acid that caused negative effects.
They found rapeseed plants from other parts of the world that had the nutritional properties that lowered erucic acid and saturated fat and increased good fats such as omega-3s and high monounsaturated fats. They used these to breed new, healthier varieties for human consumption (these were called low erucic varieties). Canadian farmers started growing the new varieties and soon after, agriculture industries in other countries followed our lead.
Did You Know: Rapeseed and Canola plants are part of the Brassicaceae family. Cabbages, broccoli, mustard and cauliflower are also part of this same botanical family.
Research continued on these new varieties to prove that canola was a superior choice for human consumption and by 1985, they received international safety status.
But what to do with the leftovers?
While researchers were working on improving the nutritional profile of the canola, oil they also looked at how to use the meal that is leftover after the oil is extracted from the seed.
As with other oilseed crops such as soybeans and cottonseed, the meal is often used as animal feed. The meal produced by these new low-erucic varieties was a good choice for animal feed because it was high in protein, which helps animals gain weight and energy. However, it also contained glucosinolates, sulphur compounds which gave the meal a sharp flavour and odour and was also not desirable nutritionally for animal feed.
Once again, our scientific community got to work to figure out how to adapt these new low-erucic varieties to have low levels of glucosinolate. And of course, they did!
Once they achieved that, they did even more tests to prove, yet again, that the meal produced from these new varieties was safe and healthy for animals. In fact, research shows that canola meal fed to dairy cows increases milk production by one litre per cow per day!
Now, there was just one thing missing …
Now that we had successfully created new and improved varieties of rapeseed oil, it was time to give this new crop a name. And one that reflected its heritage.
“Canola” was chosen. It is an abbreviation of “Canadian” and “oil, low acid” to reflect the changes in the new varieties.
Because of all these decades of work, these new, Canadian-invented varieties of canola became a major crop for Canadian farmers, and one grown and in demand all over the world.
Two particular scientists have been recognized as leading much of this amazing work: Dr. Baldur Stefansson from Manitoba (who passed away in 2002) and Dr. Keith Downey from Saskatchewan (now 94). Both of these men received numerous awards for their service to Canadian agriculture and have been recognized in the Canadian Agriculture Hall of Fame.
Speaking of accolades…
In October 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized a qualified health claim for canola oil based on its content of unsaturated fats. The claim states:
Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about one and a half tablespoons (19 grams) of canola oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the unsaturated fat content in canola oil. To achieve this possible benefit, canola oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.
So, there you have it
The next time you are lucky enough to see a field of canola in full bloom, take a moment to enjoy not only the bright yellow flowers, but to also reflect on the innovative efforts of our world-leading Canadian agriculture industry in developing this truly Canadian crop.