In another article about oils, I suggested that canola oil was a "healthful fat" for use in foods that would not be heated (e.g., salad dressings). However, a number of readers disagreed with this advice because canola oil is derived from a plant that is not known for its healthful properties. It must be processed to be safe.
Since I have both medical and naturopathic physicians reviewing all material in addition to the experts I interview, I was feeling quite confident of our information. However, I am not so arrogant as to think that I always know best, so I thought it appropriate to get the definitive answer once and for all from Udo Erasmus, PhD, research scientist specializing in the effects of fats and oils, and author of Fats that Heal Fats that Kill (Alive).
Canola oil is produced in Canada. It is made from seeds of the unfortunately named rape plant, hence marketing experts renamed it "canola oil" as in "CANadian OIL." The rape plant belongs to the mustard family -- as do turnips, cabbage, watercress and radishes. Rapeseed originally had a substantial amount of something called erucic acid, which had been shown in lab tests to have an association with heart lesions in rats. To address this problem, the Canadian-seed oil industry developed a low erucic acid rapeseed (LEAR) oil and, having obtained GRAS status (generally regarded as safe) from the Food and Drug Administration, introduced it to the American market in the 1980s. The marketing stressed the oil's high level of monounsaturated fat and its considerable amount of health-enhancing omega-3 fatty acids.
But in the 1990s, canola oil's reputation took a hit with the publication of an article in a small magazine that said rapeseed was the source of mustard gas used in chemical warfare and the cause of a number of serious illnesses and problems. Although the accusations were bizarre and unfounded, as often happens in the aftermath of urban legends, word got around that maybe canola oil wasn't good for us after all.
Good, Bad -- or In Between?
"No," says Dr. Erasmus. Not because of the plant from which it comes, but because it is treated through a multi-step process that involves washing, bleaching and excessive heat that damages the oil's chemical composition and removes antioxidants. This process also turns the omega-3s in canola oil into toxic molecules called lipid peroxides. These can create inflammation in the body, which can in turn lead to assorted health problems, including cancers, cardiovascular disease and possibly autoimmune disorders.
To be clear, Dr. Erasmus is averse to any processed or refined cooking oil because he says that processing damages all of them. He likes only extra virgin olive oil or unrefined oils available in health-food stores that are sold in dark glass bottles to further protect them from damage. And -- he cautions that you should never cook with oil because high heat quickly damages it. If you must fry, he advises using butter or lard, both of which can stand up chemically to heat. According to Dr. Erasmus, the most healthful style of cooking is to steam, poach or pressure cook and add healthful oils after cooking.
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