By Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, PhD
Canola oil is
"widely recognized as the healthiest salad and cooking oil
available to consumers." It was developed through
hybridization of rape seed.
Rape seed oil is
toxic because it contains significant amounts of a poisonous
substance called erucic acid.
contains only trace amounts of erucic acid and its unique
fatty acid profile, rich in oleic acid and low in saturated
fats, makes it particularly beneficial for the prevention of
heart disease. It also contains significant amounts of omega-3
fatty acids, also shown to have health benefits. This is what
the food industry says about canola oil.
Canola oil is a
poisonous substance, an industrial oil that does not belong in
the body. It contains "the infamous chemical warfare agent
mustard gas," hemagglutinins and toxic cyanide-containing
glycocides; it causes mad cow disease, blindness, nervous
disorders, clumping of blood cells and depression of the
immune system. This is what detractors say about canola
How is the
consumer to sort out the conflicting claims about canola oil?
Is canola oil a dream come true or a deadly poison? And why
has canola captured so large a share of the oils used in
Let’s start with
some history. The time period is the mid-1980s and the food
industry has a problem. In collusion with the American Heart
Association, numerous government agencies and departments of
nutrition at major universities, the industry had been
promoting polyunsaturated oils as a heart-healthy alternative
to "artery-clogging" saturated fats.
had become increasingly clear that polyunsaturated oils,
particularly corn oil and soybean oil, cause numerous health
problems, including and especially cancer.1
The industry was
in a bind. It could not continue using large amounts of liquid
polyunsaturated oils and make health claims about them in the
face of mounting evidence of their dangers. Nor could
manufacturers return to using traditional healthy saturates --
butter, lard, tallow, palm oil and coconut oil -- without
causing an uproar. Besides, these fats cost too much for the
cut-throat profit margins in the industry.
The solution was
to embrace the use of monounsaturated oils, such as olive oil.
Studies had shown that olive oil has a "better" effect than
polyunsaturated oils on cholesterol levels and other blood
parameters. Besides, Ancel Keys and other promoters of the
diet-heart idea had popularized the notion that the
Mediterranean diet -- rich in olive oil and conjuring up
images of a carefree existence on sun-drenched islands --
protected against heart disease and ensured a long and healthy
Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) sponsored the First
Colloquium on Monounsaturates in Philadelphia. The meeting was
chaired by Scott Grundy, a prolific writer and apologist for
the notion that cholesterol and animal fats cause heart
disease. Representatives from the edible oil industry,
including Unilever, were in attendance.
Colloquium on Monounsaturates took place in Bethesda,
Maryland, early in 1987. Dr. Grundy was joined by Claude
Lenfant, head of the NHLBI, and speakers included Fred
Mattson, who had spent many years at Proctor and Gamble, and
the Dutch scientist Martign Katan, who would later publish
research on the problems with trans fatty acids. It was at
this time that articles extolling the virtues of olive oil
began to appear in the popular press.
olive oil, which had a long history of use, seemed more
scientifically sound to the health-conscious consumer than the
promotion of corn and soy oil, which could only be extracted
with modern stainless steel presses. The problem for the
industry was that there was not enough olive oil in the world
to meet its needs. And, like butter and other traditional
fats, olive oil was too expensive to use in most processed
foods. The industry needed a less expensive monounsaturated
Rapeseed oil was
a monounsaturated oil that had been used extensively in many
parts of the world, notably in China, Japan and India. It
contains almost 60 percent monounsaturated fatty acids
(compared to about 70 percent in olive oil). Unfortunately,
about two-thirds of the mono-unsaturated fatty acids in
rapeseed oil are erucic acid, a 22-carbon monounsaturated
fatty acid that had been associated with Keshan’s disease,
characterized by fibrotic lesions of the heart.
In the late
1970s, using a technique of genetic manipulation involving
seed splitting,2 Canadian plant breeders came up with a
variety of rapeseed that produced a monounsaturated oil low in
22-carbon erucic acid and high in 18-carbon oleic acid.
The new oil
referred to as LEAR oil, for Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed, was
slow to catch on in the US. In 1986, Cargill announced the
sale of LEAR oil seed to US farmers and provided LEAR oil
processing at its Riverside, North Dakota plant but prices
dropped and farmers took a hit.3
Before LEAR oil
could be promoted as a healthy alternative to polyunsaturated
oils, it needed a new name. Neither "rape" nor "lear" could be
expected to invoke a healthy image for the new "Cinderella"
crop. In 1978, the industry settled on "canola," for "Canadian
oil," since most of the new rapeseed at that time was grown in
sounded like "can do" and "payola," both positive phrases in
marketing lingo. However, the new name did not come into
widespread use until the early 1990s.
challenge for the Canola Council of Canada was the fact that
rapeseed was never given GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe)
status by the US Food and Drug Administration. A change in
regulation would be necessary before canola could be marketed
in the US.4 Just how this was done has not been revealed, but
GRAS status was granted in 1985, for which, it is rumored; the
Canadian government spent $50 million to obtain.
Since canola was
aimed at the growing numbers of health-conscious consumers,
rather than the junk food market, it required more subtle
marketing techniques than television advertising. The industry
had managed to manipulate the science to make a perfect match
with canola oil -- very low in saturated fat and rich in
canola oil contains about 10 percent omega-3 fatty acids, the
most recent discovery of establishment nutritionists. Most
Americans are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, which had been
shown to be beneficial to the heart and immune system. The
challenge was to market this dream-come-true fatty acid
profile in a way that would appeal to educated consumers.
Canola oil began
to appear in the recipes of cutting edge health books, such as
those by Andrew Weil and Barry Sears. The technique was to
extol the virtues of the Mediterranean diet and olive oil in
the text, and then call for "olive oil or canola oil" in the
recipes. One informant in the publishing industry told us that
since the mid 1990s, major publishers would not accept
cookbooks unless they included canola in the
In 1997, Harper
Collins engaged Dr. Artemis Simopoulos to write a cookbook
featuring the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.5 Dr.
Simopoulos was a pediatrician who had served for nine years as
chair of the Nutritional Coordinating Committee of the
National Institutes of Health before becoming president of the
Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health.
She had published
several papers on omega-3 fatty acids, calling attention to
their disappearance from the food supply due to the
industrialization of agriculture. Her most famous paper,
published in 1992 in the American Journal of Clinical
Nutrition, compared omega-3 levels in supermarket eggs from
hens raised on corn with eggs from hens allowed to roam and
eat a more varied diet.6 The more natural eggs contained
twenty times more omega-3 than supermarket eggs.
Omega Plan came out in 1998 and was reissued as The Omega Diet
in 1999. The book discusses the virtues of monounsaturated and
omega-3 fatty acids in the Mediterranean diet.7 Since
unprocessed canola oil contains not only lots of
acids, but also a significant amount of omega-3, it shows up
in most of the book’s recipes. Simopoulos claims that the
Mediterranean diet is low in saturated fat and recommends lean
meat and lowfat yogurt and milk as part of her
industry’s approach -- scientific conferences, promotion to
upscale consumers through books like The Omega Dietand
articles in the health section of newspapers and magazines --
was successful. By the late 1990s, canola use had soared, and
not just in the US.
Japan, Europe, Mexico, Bangladesh and Pakistan all buy
significant amounts. Canola does well in arid environments
such as Australia and the Canadian plains, where it has become
a major cash crop. It is the oil of choice in gourmet and
health food markets like Fresh Fields (Whole Foods) markets,
and shows up in many supermarket items as well.
It is a commonly
used oil in sterol-containing margarines and spreads
recommended for cholesterol lowering. Use of hydrogenated
canola oil for frying is increasing, especially in
Reports on the
dangers of rapeseed oil are rampant on the internet, mostly
stemming from an article, "Blindness, Mad Cow Disease and
Canola Oil," by John Thomas, which appeared in Perceptions
magazine, March/April 1996. Some of the claims are ludicrous.
Although rape is a member of the brassica or mustard family,
it is not the source of mustard gas used in chemical
glycosinolates (compounds that produce sugars on hydrolysis)
are found in most members of the brassica family, including
broccoli, kale, cabbage and mustard greens. They contain
sulfur (not arsenic), which is what gives mustard and
cruciferous vegetables their pungent flavor.
are goitrogenic and must be neutralized by cooking or
fermentation. As rapeseed meal was high in glycosides, it
could not be used in large amounts for animal feeding.
However, plant breeders have been able to breed out the
glycosides as well as the erucic acid from canola oil.8 The
result is a low-glycoside meal that can be used as an animal
feed. In fact, canola meal for animal feed is an important
substances that promote blood clotting and depress growth, are
found in the protein portion of the seed, although traces may
show up in the oil. And canola oil was not the cause of the
mad cow epidemic in Britain9, although feeding of canola oil
may make cattle more susceptible to certain diseases.
Like all fats and
oils, rapeseed oil has industrial uses. It can be used as an
insecticide, a lubricant, a fuel and in soap, synthetic rubber
and ink. Like flax oil and walnut oil, it can be used to make
varnish. Traditional fats like coconut oil, olive oil and
tallow also have industrial uses, but that does not make them
dangerous for human consumption.
We have had
reports of allergies to canola, and internet articles describe
a variety of symptoms -- tremors, shaking, palsy, lack of
coordination, slurred speech, memory problems, blurred vision,
problems with urination, numbness and tingling in the
extremities, and heart arrhythmias -- that cleared up on
discontinuance of canola. None of this has been reported in
the medical journals, however.
Writing for the
Washington Post, Professor Robert L Wolke (http://www.professorscience.com/) chastises
the publishers of these reports as spreading "hysterical urban
legends about bizarre diseases."10 The industry actually
profits from such wild claims, because they are wrong and
consumers do have reason to be cautious about the
establishment’s favorite oil, now showing up in an increasing
number of products.
The Great Con-ola was published in Nexus
Magazine, Aug/September 2002 as well as in Wise Traditions,
the quarterly publication for the Weston A. Price
Foundation. To receive a free 12-page brochure
containing Myths and Truths about Nutrition and concise
Dietary Guidelines, contact the Foundation at (202) 333-HEAL
Sally Fallon is President of the Weston A. Price
Foundation and author of Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that
Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet
Dictocrats, NewTrends Publishing, 2000 (877-707-1776, newtrendspublishing.com)
Mary G. Enig, PhD, FACN, is Vice President of the
Weston A. Price Foundation, President of the Maryland
Nutritionists Association and author of Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for
Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils and
Cholesterol, Bethesda Press, 2000 (301-680-8600, bethesdapress.com)
1. MG Enig and SW Fallon. The Oiling of America.
2. RK Downey. Genetic Control of Fatty Acid
Biosnythesis in Rapeseed. Journal of the American Oil
Chemists Society, 1964;41:475-478.
3. Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society,
4. Canola - a new oilseed from Canada. Journal of the
American Oil Chemists'Society, September
5. The amount of the advance was $350,000. Personal
email communication, Jo Robinson, co-author of The Omega
6. AP Simopoulos and N Salem, Jr. Egg yolk as a
source of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in infant
feeding. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,
7. AP Simopoulos and J Robinson. The Omega Plan.
Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY, 1998.
8. Canola - a new oilseed fromCanada. Journal of the
American Oil Chemists'Society, September
9. M Purdey. Educating Rita. Wise Traditions, Spring
10. When we contacted Dr. Wolke to provide him with
evidence of canola dangers, he was
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