Canola oil has been adopted by many cooks across the world for its neutral flavour, healthy fat content and high smoke point which makes it a versatile choice in your kitchen. A real pantry staple that is great for everything from vinaigrettes and marinades to baking, grilling and frying.
Are Canola and Rapeseed the Same Plant?
What we know today as canola started its journey to Canada in the 1940s as rapeseed, a member of the brassica family like mustard and kale. Rapeseed oil was primarily used as an industrial grease for steam powered engines on trains and ships and was produced in the ideal growing conditions of the Canadian prairies. When the modern diesel engine took over from steam, the need for this industrial product decreased. However, new opportunities were identified in the edible oil market fueled by Japan’s love for tempura cuisines. Scientists at the Universities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba developed canola using traditional plant breeding by removing erucic acid and glucosinolates (responsible for a pungent flavour) that were found in rapeseed. The result was a neutral tasting oil with a very healthy fat profile – low in saturated (bad) fats, high in omega-3s and a rich source of monounsaturated (good) fats. Our modern-day canola varieties, while they might look the same on the outside, are a very different crop than rapeseed.
Is Canola oil Genetically Modified?
A truly Canadian crop, the name ‘canola’ was taken from the words ‘Canada’, where it was developed, and ‘ola’ meaning oil low acid. Today, Canada’s 43,000 canola growers are concentrated in the prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and produce 20 million metric tonnes each year. Many modern canola varieties are products of plant science and biotechnology, like genetic modification (GM) or genetic engineering (GE). This sector is carefully regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). It takes up to 15 years for a new biotech crop like GM canola to come to market. Researchers spend 5 – 7 years lab testing and holding greenhouse trials to determine if a plant is ready to move on to field trials. Then, with oversite from the CFIA, researchers grow the seed in small plots and collect safety information and crop statistics for another 2 – 3 years. Then the data is submitted to Health Canada and the CFIA to be evaluated for food and environmental safety over the next 1 – 3 years. If all data shows that there is no change to the way the crop will grow, its safety, or the safety of food harvested from it, it is deemed safe for commercial growth.
Genetically modified canola varieties weren’t introduced until the 1990s with the introduction of herbicide tolerant plants. This means farmers can reduce their carbon footprint and increase the amount of crop they can grow on the same amount of land by spraying one chemical over his entire field to kill the competing weeds but not the canola plants. In the past, farmers would have to spray two to three times to get the same level of weed control. Today, 95% of canola grown in Canada is herbicide tolerant, resulting in higher yields and lower prices for the consumer. It also helps farmers manage the land more sustainably by letting them employ conservation tillage methods which increase organic matter and reduce soil erosion.
How is Canola oil Made?
Canada is home to 14 canola crushing and refining facilities that process up to 10 million tonnes of canola seed each year. A canola seed is 45% oil, which is twice the oil content of a soybean. First the seeds are cleaned to remove weed seeds, pods, and other materials before being heated and pressed into flakes. The flakes are then cooked in large drums to reach the optimal temperature for oil extraction before being pressed through a series of screw presses which separate the oil from the remaining seed casing. This dry, cake-like material is called meal and is washed down with a solvent approved for oil extraction called hexane to extract any remaining oils. The hexane is then removed from the oil and solids, reused, and recycled. The resulting crude canola oil is filtered and distilled to lighten the colour and remove odours and remaining meal particles before being packaged and sold as cooking oil. Expeller press and cold pressed canola oils are processed without the use of heat or hexane and usually have a stronger colour, taste and odour.
Glucosinolates are responsible for the pungent flavour of mustards, horseradish, cabbage and other crucifers. The low glucosinolate content of the new canola varieties results in a mild flavoured meal which is fed to livestock, fish and poultry as a high protein food source. This leaves very little waste in the canola production chain as the whole seed is consumed. Dairy cows that are fed canola meal are proven to be more productive. Decades of research show that their milk production is increased by as much as one litre per cow per day compared to cows fed other protein sources.
Is Canola oil Healthy?
Canola oil has less saturated fat than any other common cooking oil and is free of trans fatty acids and cholesterol, making it a healthy option in the kitchen. It is high in omega-3 fat, which is an anti-inflammatory that can reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes, as well as omega-6 fat that is essential for human growth and development. It is also a rich source of monunsaturated fats known to reduce the risk of heart disease and decrease inflammation. Its versatile nature lends well to margarines, dressings and marinades as well as frying, sauteing and deep frying. It is also a key ingredient in many other foods and baked goods.
What else can you Make with Canola oil?
Canola oil is also used in the production of toothpaste, inks and cosmetics as well as paints, sealants, lubricants, and plastics. Another use for canola is in the production of liquid biofuels – a renewable energy source derived from plant materials or animal waste. Biodiesel is made from primarily oily plants, like soybeans and canola, and is blended with petroleum diesel at various percentages. Canada has 11 biodiesel plants that use vegetable oils and fats as their base. Biodiesel blends work in both regular and heavy-duty vehicles and can benefit both the average consumer as well as the transportation and mining industries by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If we increased our biofuel additives from 2% to 5% in all Canadian diesel, we would be able to reduce carbon emissions by the equivalent of removing 1 million cars from the road each year.
Canola: Canada’s Crop
Canola will continue to be an important crop for all Canadians. It allows farmers to employ more sustainable farming methods through the use of modern technologies, plant science and precision farming practices. It is an important part of the Canadian economy, contributing $26.7 billion and 250,000 jobs each year. As an affordable and versatile tool in the kitchen, canola oil is the number one choice for Canadian consumers.