Benefits of Canola Oil

man pouring salad oil on lettuce leaf
The benefits of canola oil are numerous and valuable. Click here to learn all about the benefits of canola oil. See more food pyramid pictures.

People don't usually associate the words "fat" and "oil" with anything healthy. But, in fact, not all fats are bad for you. It makes a lot of sense to learn the difference between good and bad fats, since the fat in a person's diet affects his or her cholesterol levels, which in turn can affect heart health.

In the United States alone, cardiovascular disease killed more than 830,000 people in 2006, accounting for 34.3 percent of all deaths in the country [source: American Heart Association]. Fortunately, one of the simplest ways to help prevent heart disease is by making smart choices when it comes to diet, particularly in terms of the fats consumed.


Cutting fat out of a diet completely is not the answer. Fats should actually account for 20 to 35 percent of a balanced diet [source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]. The trick is to make sure that this percentage consists of the right kinds of fat, which means steering clear of saturated and trans fats. One of the best and healthiest alternatives to these heart-hostile fats is canola oil, a vegetable oil made possible by a plant that didn't even exist a half-century ago.

The name "canola" is actually a contraction of "Canadian oil, low acid", which is a fairly accurate description of this versatile oil. In the 1960s, a group of Canadian scientists used traditional plant breeding methods to derive the canola plant from rapeseed, which was already being used to produce non-edible oils. The breeding techniques allowed them to eliminate erucic acid and glucosinolates, both of which are found in rapeseed and can be toxic to humans. The result was canola, a yellow flowering plant classified in the Brassica family -- the same vegetable family as cauliflower and cabbages. Pressing the flower's tiny seeds yields canola oil.

With its neutral taste and high heat tolerance, canola oil works well in salad dressings, sauces and marinades, and it also provides a good base for sautéing, grilling or stir-frying meat and vegetables. For bakers, canola fulfills dual purposes, as both a substitute for solid fats, such as butter, and as an effective non-stick agent for pans. Best of all, canola does all this while still maintaining its status as a good-for-you oil. In order to understand what makes canola oil "good," we have to look at what it is actually made of.



Canola Oil Fat Composition

The key quality that sets canola oil apart as a healthy oil is its low level of saturated fat -- in fact, it's the lowest level of any oil derived from plants. Saturated fats are the cholesterol-raising, artery-clogging, heart-disease-inducing kinds of fats to avoid. Foods like cream, butter, cheese, lard and fatty meats have high percentages of saturated fat. Imagine bacon cooked in butter -- that would be a saturated fat fest! In comparison, canola oil with its 7 percent saturated fat content is much easier on the arteries and, by extension, the heart [source: CanolaInfo].

But canola oil's healthy fat composition isn't just about what canola doesn't contain. It's also about what it does have. While saturated fat is definitely an undesired ingredient, unsaturated fat (excluding trans fat) is an important part of a healthy diet. Canola oil contains a high percentage (61 percent) of monounsaturated fat, which can help reduce cholesterol and moderate amounts of polyunsaturated fat (32 percent) [source: CanolaInfo]. Polyunsaturated fat includes essential omega-3 fatty acids, such as alpha-linolenic acid, and omega-6 fatty acids, such as linoleic acid.


This combination of low levels of bad saturated fat combined with relatively high levels of good unsaturated fat makes canola oil a formidable competitor in the healthiest oil category. Its low level of saturated fat beats out other vegetable oils, such as safflower oil (8 percent), sunflower oil (12 percent), corn oil (13 percent) or olive oil (15 percent). All of these oils put fats like butter (68 percent saturated fat) or coconut oil (a whopping 91 percent saturated fat) to shame, but canola takes the prize for the lowest level [source: CanolaInfo].

Some of these other vegetable oils can edge out canola oil when it comes to their content of healthy unsaturated fat. For example, flaxseed oil contains 73 percent polyunsaturated fat and sunflower oil contains 72 percent [source: CanolaInfo]. But canola oil still lays claim to relatively high amounts of these healthy fats, particularly monounsaturated fat.

But how exactly does this combination of low saturated fat and high unsaturated fat translate into good health for people who use canola oil in their cooking? Read on to find out.


Canola Oil and Heart Health

By now, you know that unhealthy saturated fat can lead to higher cholesterol, clogged arteries and a whole host of serious heart problems. So the simplest and most basic way that canola oil contributes to good heart health is by offering people a heart-healthy alternative. By using canola oil as a substitute in recipes that call for cholesterol-raising fats, such as butter in a cake or the fat used to sauté fish or mushrooms, people can reduce their saturated fat intake. This, in turn, can help to keep cholesterol at a healthy level and reduce the risk of heart disease.

But canola oil can also be a proactively good ingredient for your heart, not simply a replacement for unhealthier ingredients. In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued what is called a "qualified health claim," which states that the unsaturated fat in canola oil may help reduce heart disease by lowering both LDL (bad) cholesterol and total cholesterol. This claim recommends that people include 1.5 tablespoons of canola oil in their daily food intake [Source: FDA].


Furthermore, some studies have shown that the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found in canola oil also has health benefits for the heart. It may protect against abnormal heartbeats and help with inflammation and blood clots.

Although canola oil may only be a handful of decades of old, it has carved out a significant place in American cuisine. McDonald's, America's most well-known and widespread fast food chain, switched to a canola oil blend in recent years, citing its lack of trans fat and other health benefits as a major cause for the change. Food Network celebrity and registered dietician Ellie Krieger, who focuses on healthy cooking, uses canola oil in many of her recipes and promotes its healthful qualities. The magazine "Cooking Light" also recommends its readers use canola oil and other healthy vegetable oils.

With canola oil's heart-healthy fat composition and neutral taste, which make it a versatile ingredient, it's easy to see why canola oil now has a place on the kitchen shelves of many American restaurants and households.

To learn more about the benefits of canola oil and related heart-healthy topics, see the links on the following page.


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More Great Links

  • American Diabetes Association. "Fat and Diabetes." 1995-2010. (June 2, 2010)
  • American Heart Association. "Heart Disease & Stroke Statistics." 2010. (June 2, 2010)
  • CanolaInfo. "Comparison of Dietary Fats." 2007. (May 24, 2010)
  • CanolaInfo. "Canola Oil Health Claim." 2007. (May 24, 2010)
  • CanolaInfo. "Canola Oil is Healthy." 2007. (May 24, 2010)
  • McDonalds. "Canola Blend Cooking Oil." (June 3, 2010)
  • U.S. Canola Association. "Biodiesel." (May 24, 2010)
  • U.S. Canola Association. "Canola Oil and Health." (May 24, 2010)
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005. 2005. (June 2, 2010)
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Summary of Qualified Health Claims Subject to Enforcement Discretion." 2006. (May 24, 2010)