Setting Record Straight on Unique Canola Plant and its Healthy Oil

BEIJING, Aug. 26, 2014  /PRNewswire/ — Canola oil is widely regarded as heart-healthy and versatile by health professionals and chefs, but some consumers may not understand why – or know what canola is in the first place.

"Canola is often confused with rapeseed, but the two crops and their oils are distinctly different both compositionally and nutritionally," explains Bruce Jowett, vice president of market development at the Canola Council of Canada.

Canola oil comes from the crushed seeds of the canola plant, which is a member of the Brassica family that includes broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. It was developed in Canada through traditional plant breeding to remove two undesirable components (erucic acid and glucosinolates) found in rapeseed. To acknowledge these differences, the new plant earned a new name, canola – a contraction of "Canadian" and "ola" meaning "oil."

"By an internationally regulated standard, canola oil is very low in erucic acid (less than 2%) whereas rapeseed oil is high in it (about 40%) with a different taste and appearance," Jowett noted. "Most rapeseed oil sold in China is classified as grade four and much darker in color with a slightly pungent flavor, whereas canola oil is light in color, texture and flavor."

The oil extracted from canola plants is one of the healthiest in the world. Doctors and nutrition experts laud canola oil for both what it does contain and what it doesn’t. Of all common cooking oils, canola has the most plant-based omega-3 fat (11 percent) and the least saturated fat (7 percent) – half that of olive oil (15 percent). Canola oil is also rich in monounsaturated fat (61 percent) and free of trans fat.

"Since heart disease and diabetes are leading causes of death in China, it’s critical to lower intake of saturated fat and to consume a moderate amount of healthy fats instead," says Dr. Liu Na, senior nutrition expert in Beijing. "Canola oil is simply a smart choice as an everyday cooking oil."

In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized a qualified health claim on canola oil’s ability to reduce the risk of heart disease when used in place of saturated fat. Research has shown that the oil’s high unsaturated fat content (93 percent) helps lower "bad" LDL cholesterol, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease. Unsaturated fats are made up of mono- and polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3 and omega-6 fats.

"The types of omega-3 and -6 fats found in canola oil are considered ‘essential’ in the diet because the body can’t make them on its own," notes Liu. "Canola oil is higher in omega-3 fat than other common cooking oils so it’s an easy way to get some of this often underconsumed nutrient in the diet."

Moreover, chefs consider canola oil a kitchen essential, too. Its neutral flavor, light texture and high heat tolerance (smoke point of 242 °C / 468 °F) make it a match for almost any culinary application.

"I love cooking with canola oil because it’s very versatile and allows Chinese ingredients to shine," agrees Da Cai, cookbook author and well known food blogger. "I use it for sautéing, deep-frying, baking, vinaigrettes – you name it. The fact that it’s healthy as well makes my decision to use it for my family and readers easy."