(NaturalNews) Should you be consuming canola oil? The FDA seems to think so, allowing canola labels to claim it supports heart health and reduces the risk of coronary heart disease. Even Whole Foods Markets is on board with canola oil, and most foods on their hot bar are swimming in it. Proponents point out that canola is inexpensive, tastes good, and has the lowest saturated fat content of any common edible oil. Some health experts suggest a daily consumption of 1 1/2 tablespoons of canola oil. But evidence is mounting that canola oil actually promotes heart disease and is a hoax on the public rivaling the promotion of margarine. Leading experts on oils and fats see canola oil as a victory for a food processing industry that will not be happy until all traditional, real foods have been replaced by imitation foods.
Canola oil is a product of food technology
Peanut oil comes from peanuts, and soybean oil comes from soybeans, but there is no such thing a canola. Canola is a marketing name derived from Canadian-oil. Canola oil comes from the rapeseed plant (Brassica napus), and belongs to the mustard family whose famous members include turnips and broccoli. As we know it today, canola oil is the result of the hybridization and genetic modification of the rapeseed plant to breed out its undesirable taste and its hazards to health.
Oil from the rapeseed plant as nature created it has been used in China, Japan and India for thousands of years as the poor man's cooking oil. The oil contained a long-chain fatty acid called erucic acid which was irritating to mucous membranes, and glucosinolates which taste so bitter that animals will not eat feed containing it. Consumption of the original rapeseed oil was associated with high incidence of fibrotic heart lesions, known as Keshan's disease, as well as disorders of the central nervous system, lung and prostate cancer, anemia, and constipation. These were the characteristics that Canadian geneticists diligently tried to get rid of in their efforts to morph rapeseed oil into canola oil. Some health professionals believe there is still too much erucic acid present in the oil for safe use.
The food technology industry has a long history of manipulating consumers
The food technology business operates on the Hegelian Principle. First a problem is created and blown out of proportion, and then a solution is offered. When food technologists got going right after World War II, one of their first efforts was to turn people against butter so they could be sold a concoction known as margarine. Eventually people woke up to the ill effects of margarine, and the food industry promoted their latest creation, polyunsaturated oils, as the new "healthy" alternative. But it quickly became clear that polyunsaturated oils, especially corn and soybean oils, caused numerous health problems.
Since the food industry had so effectively turned everyone against saturated fats, their only solution was to embrace the use of monounsaturated oils, with olive oil becoming the new darling. It was an easy switch, because the benefits of olive oil were documented in research and were associated with the health and longevity of people who ate the Mediterranean diet. The problem was that olive oil simply pressed from olives required no technological intervention, and olive oil was too expensive to be used in processed foods. The result was the birth of canola oil, newly named for the country where the majority of rapeseed plants are grown.
The name was not the only thing new. Genetic modification has made the already hybridized new rapeseed into a plant tolerant of the herbicide Roundup. This modification reduces the amount of chemical needed for weed control in the fields where the hybridized plants are grown making rapeseed a cheap crop to produce. Because all proteins are removed from oil during processing, canola oil made from genetically modified rapeseed plants is claimed by its promoters to be the same as canola oil produced from conventionally grown rapeseed plants; however, some countries have banned the sale of oil made from genetically modified seeds.
Nutrient content of genetically modified canola oil is altered
Researchers have discovered that industry claims are not true. A team from Food Quality and Safety Research in Peoria, Illinois studied oil derived from 12 different lines of genetically modified rapeseed varieties and analyzed each for phospholipids, tocopherols (Vitamin E), and phytosterols by various chromatographic techniques. As they have previously observed in genetically modified soybeans, there was a decrease in the content and composition of phosphatidic acid in three of the modified canola oils derived from the lines investigated.
Further analysis revealed variations in the phospholipid content of the major classes, despite few differences in their composition. Other data indicated that the molecular species distribution of phosphatidylethanolamine was significantly altered by genetic modification when compared to phosphatidylcholine. The impact of oilseed modification on the tocopherols content was variable. Phytosterol composition was markedly affected by genetic modification. Brassicasterol, campesterol, and beta sitosterol levels were consistently lower in one of the genotypes, whereas increased brassicasterol content was observed in another variety.
These findings mean that changes in composition resulting from genetic modification have significantly altered the synergy and balance created by nature. When natural balance is altered, the integrity of the plant is lost and it is no longer a proper food source. But this was no matter to a food industry that was thrilled with the new rapeseeds because they were loaded with monounsaturated fats, and low in toxic erucic acids and bitter tasting glucosinolates. And even better, the new rapeseed also contained about 10 percent omega-3 fatty acids. Canola oil was ready for marketing to a population that was just beginning to embrace healthy eating.
Most canola oil comes from genetically modified plants
Since its introduction in the fields of Canada in 1995, acreage devoted to the new rapeseed has steadily grown. Today more than 80 percent of the crop comes from genetically modified seed, making it illegal in Europe and a target of activists worldwide. Contamination of conventional rapeseed crops from neighboring genetically engineered fields has been a serious problem for Canadian farmers. In March, 2008, Monsanto's Canadian unit settled out of court for clean-up costs of $660 for the contamination of one farmer's field in a heavily publicized case of the little guy battling the corporate giant.
Canola oil surmounts one marketing challenge after another
The next marketing challenge for the Canola Council of Canada was the fact that rapeseed was never given GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status by the USDA. Before canola oil could be marketed in the U.S., a change in regulation was required. Much rumor and speculation surrounds how this was achieved. When GRAS status was granted in 1985, word was that it cost the Canadian government $50 million to buy it, but this has never been proven.
Soon recipes began appearing in books sponsored by leading health gurus, such as Andrew Weil, and by diet books and newspaper columns promoting canola oil as the equivalent of olive oil. Today, sales of the oil have soared in many parts of the world. Canola oil is found in spreads, and used almost exclusively in processed and packaged foods. It is the oil of choice for most restaurants and is the primary cooking oil in many homes. Unfortunately, the science does not support the enthusiasm for canola oil.
Leading experts conclude canola oil is not safe
Even though canola oil has GRAS status, no long-term studies of its effects on humans have been done. Animal studies using oil from "improved" rapeseeds have challenged the health claims made for canola oil as well as undermined what has come to be traditional thinking on the link between types of fats eaten and heart disease.
Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, Ph.D. are North America's leading experts on the subject of fats and oils. They have written extensively on the subject and many of their works can be found at the Weston A. Price Foundation website. The following is a summary of the research findings they consider relevant to the use of canola oil:
A study published in 1978 in the Netherlands investigated whether oil from hybridized rapeseed plants caused heart lesions in test animals. The scientists noted that in earlier studies, animals fed the high erucic-acid rapeseed oil showed growth retardation and undesirable changes in various organs, especially the heart, spurring development of hybridized versions of the seed. The results were mixed. Rats genetically selected to be prone to heart lesions developed more lesions on the hybridized rapeseed oil and also on flax oil than they did on olive oil or sunflower oil. This led researchers to speculate that omega-3 acids, not eurcic acid might be the culprit. But rats genetically selected to be resistant to heart lesions showed no significant difference between the oils tested, and the hybridized rapeseed oil was not shown to cause heart problems in mice, in contrast to the old, high erucic oil which induced severe cardiac necrosis.
In 1982, researchers at the Canadian Institute for Food Science and Technology looked at the interaction of saturated fats with rapeseed oil and soybean oil. When saturated fats in the form of cocoa butter were added to the diets, the rats in both groups had better growth and a significant lowering of heart lesions than when fed rapeseed oil alone. The results supported the conclusion that heart lesions in male rats were related to the balance of dietary fatty acids, not to cardio-toxic contaminants in the oils.
In 1997, after the appearance of the genetically modified rapeseed, Canadian researchers found that piglets fed milk replacement containing canola oil showed signs of vitamin E deficiency, even though the milk replacement contained adequate amounts of vitamin E. Piglets fed soybean oil-based replacement fortified with the same amount of vitamin E did not show vitamin E deficiency. This may be the result of the effects of genetic modification on vitamin E as documented in the Peoria, Illinois study.
In 1998, the same research group reported that piglets fed canola oil suffered from a decrease in platelet count and an increase in platelet size. Bleeding time was longer in piglets fed both the hybridized rapeseed oil and the new hybridized and genetically modified canola oil. These changes were mitigated by the addition of saturated fatty acids from either coca butter or coconut oil to the piglets' diet. Another study a year later again found that canola oil suppressed the normal developmental increase in platelet count.
Studies at the Heath Research and Toxicology Research Divisions in Ottawa, Canada discovered that rats bred to have high blood pressure and proneness to stroke had shortened life-spans when fed canola oil as the only source of fat. The results of a later study suggested that the problem was the sterol compounds in the oil, which made cell membranes more rigid and contributed to the shortened life-span of the animals. Sterols were shown in the Peoria study to be markedly impacted by genetic modification of rapeseed.
Fallon and Enig conclude, "These studies all point in the same directions, that canola oil is definitely not healthy for the cardiovascular system. Like rapeseed oil, its predecessor, canola oil is associated with fibrotic lesions of the heart. It also causes vitamin E deficiency, undesirable changes in the blood platelets, and shortened life-span in stoke-prone rats when it was the only oil in the animals' diet. Furthermore, it seems to retard growth which is why the FDA does not allow the use of canola oil in infant formula. When saturated fats are added to the diet, the undesirable effects of canola oil are mitigated."
In his book Young Again: How to Reverse the Aging Process, health advisor John Thomas links rapeseed with the outbreak of mad cow disease that led to the wide scale destruction of animals in Great Britain in the early 1990s. According to Thomas, rapeseed oil was widely used in animal feeds from 1986 until the outbreak of the disease. Reports at the time blamed the bizarre behavior of livestock on the viral disease, scrapie. However, when rapeseed oil was removed from animal feed, the disease disappeared.
Thomas believes that glaucoma is the result of insufficient blood flow due to agglutination (clumping together) of red blood cells and waste buildup on the cells and intercellular fluids. He suggests that the ingestion of canola oil over time may cause the disease as well as other vision irregularities such as retinitis. He explains how the clumped red cells cannot squeeze through the tiny capillaries in the posterior of the eye, resulting in an inability of oxygen to be delivered to the mitochondria of cells in the retina.
Canola oil is an acetlycholinesterase inhibitor. Acetylcholine is critical to the transmission of signals from nerves to muscles. When the enzyme that catalyzes acetylcholine metabolism is compromised, nerve fibers cannot signal muscles to respond as desired, he says.
Processing of canola oil produces trans fat
Although the rapeseed has been a source for oil since ancient times due to its ease of extraction from the seed, modern processing adds a whole different dimension. Fallon and Enig have vividly described the procedure during which oil is removed by a combination of high temperature mechanical pressing and solvent extract, usually using hexane. Following considerable refining, traces of the solvent remain. And like all vegetable oils, canola oil goes through the process of caustic refining, bleaching and degumming, all of which involve high temperatures or the use of hazardous chemicals.
During this processing, the omega-3 content in the oil becomes rancid and smelly, and the oil must be deodorized. The foul omega-3 fatty acids are cleaned up by being largely turned into trans fatty acids. Although the Canadian government lists the trans fat content of canola oil at a minimal 0.2 percent, research at the University of Florida at Gainesville found trans fat levels as high as 4.6 in commercial liquid oil. In a time when almost everyone is aware of the tremendous health hazards posed by trans fats, people eating canola oil have no idea of the presence of trans fat in the oil they are consuming.
When canola oil is hardened through hydrogenation as it often is when used in food processing, the trans fat level can go as high as 40 percent. Because canola oil hydrogenates better than corn or soybean oils it is the first choice of processors. Higher levels of trans fat translates to longer self life for processed food, and greater profits for the food industry.
Common sense says stick with the tried and true
Food technologists and people claiming to be health experts have struck out twice already with their recommendation of margarine and polyunsaturated oil. It looks like strike three is canola oil. Given the complexity of plants, the total effect of a given plant derived food on human health is dependent upon its many chemical constituents and their interactions with the biochemical pathways in the body. The greater the alterations to the product as it was naturally created, the less that product maintains its integrity and the greater the chance for something to go very wrong.
At this point, common sense dictates the best alternative is to stick with fats and oils that have been in traditional use in various cultures for thousands of years and have not been known to cause disease.
Barbara is a school psychologist, a published author in the area of personal finance, a breast cancer survivor using "alternative" treatments, a born existentialist, and a student of nature and all things natural.