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Rapeseed oil = canola

had written this article about rapeseed oil, thinking it was about the "original canola oil" - the one that had has long been used as a cooking oil in China, Japan, India and Europe during the Roman empire.

Rapeseed or "original canola" oil contains substantial amounts of erucic acid, which is believed to be toxic. And this was what interested me because from what I read, it seemed that erucic acid might not be toxic after all but might even be medicinal.

That was why some bottles of rapeseed oil caught my attention at the supermarket recently. I had never seen this old sold before. When I went back to check it out, I saw yet another brand. I wondered about the renewed interest in rapeseed as a cooking oil.

The first was from Bioplanete, a German producer of high quality cold-pressed vegetable oils that I used to sell in the 1990s when I owned the organic foods store, Brown Rice Paradise. The second was from Farrington, a British company that grows the rapeseed plant as well as produces the oil.

I almost bought a bottle to try, but I hesitated because of three words of advice on the bottle of the Bioplanete oil: DO NOT HEAT.

This puzzled me. The label tells me that the oil contains high levels of monounsaturated fats - about 60 percent. And from what I understand, monounsaturated fats are highly stable and very high smoke points, which make them ideal for high heat cooking.

Olive oil, the best known of monounsaturated fats, may tolerate only medium heat. But other monounsaturated fats, including sesame, peanut and rice bran oil, have extremely high smoke points. So why did that bottle of Bioplanete rapeseed oil say "Do not heat" while the Farrington oil says it is a very versatile oil for all forms of cooking.

I decided to find out more and I wrote to the manufacturers. I was informed by Bioplanete that their rapeseed oil is equivalent to canola oil - the new version that does not contain erucic acid. Most people will find this reassuring, for it means the oil is "not toxic".

New oil, old name

I was dismayed. I thought these oil producers had discovered something about both the value and the safety of genuine, original rapeseed oil. I was hoping to find out more from them. I found out instead that they were producing basically the same new canola oil, just using its old name.

But why?

I suspect this has to do with the bad name that canola oil had been getting over the years. At the same time, I believe the European rapeseed oils do have some differences from the American / Canadian canola oils. The background is this:

According to the history of canola and rapeseed oil, rapeseed was genetically modified by two Canadian researchers in order to reduce its content erucic acid. This genetic modification led to the creation of low erucic acid rapeseed oil or LEAR oil, which contained as little as 2 percent erucic acid. For marketing purposes, this oil was eventually renamed canola oil.

The original "genetic modification" could have been quite natural, closer to hybridization. But subsequently, canola went through further genetic modification to make it resistant to the pesticide, Roundup. So canola oil is basically a GMO (genetically modified organism). And the Europeans are, unlike the Americans, quite against such tinkerings with nature.

So European rapeseed oil is not genetically modified. Farrington explains on its website that it does not say "non-GMO" on its label because there is no such thing as GMO rapeseed in the UK to begin with. Bioplanete, being a certified organic oil, would again be non-GMO as GMO products would not pass organic certification.

Another major difference is this - the two brands of European rapeseed oil are cold-pressed, versus American canola oil which is produced the usual way for mass-market oils, using heat and chemical solvents to extract the oil.

Do not heat

This brings us to Bioplanete's advice: "Do not heat". The company explains that rapeseed oil contains quite large amounts of Omega 3 fatty acids, with an Omega 3 : Omega 6 ratio of about 1 : 1.6. This is considered a very healthy ratio. The modern diet tends to have far too much Omega 6 fatty acids, with the ratio sometimes going as high as 1 : 20!

Unfortunately, Omega 3 fatty acids are very heat sensitive. Heating the oil destroys these benefial Omega 3 fats. In the case of regular American canola oil, the oil had already been heated during the extraction process and the beneficial Omega 3s would already have been destroyed.

Heating would also have made canola oil rancid and harmful to health, like the rest of regular non-cold pressed polyunsaturated oils like corn, safflower, sunflower, etc. It would also have generated moderate amounts of harmful trans fats, which is yet another problem associated with canola oil.

These issues related to heating would not be present in the European cold-pressed rapeseed oil. But it means also that rapeseed oil is best left unheated, making it more suitable as a salad oil than a COOKING oil.

The original rapeseed oil

What about the original rapeseed oil, the one that contains erucic acid?

Well, it had been used as a cooking oil in parts of China, Japan, India and Europe for thousands of years. If it is indeed toxic, wouldn't these populations have died out long ago?

The oil of the rape plant has been used in Japanese cuisine for centuries; traditional cold-pressing and triple filtering produce an extremely high-quality, mild-flavored oil. When produced with less exacting standards, however, rapeseed oil is high in erucic acid, which makes it quite bitter.

- Mayumi Nishimura, Mayumi's Kitchen

What I learned from my research is that while erucic acid may possibly cause some problems, the situation is not that straightforward. Erucic acid has been associated with Keshan's disease, a condition afflicting women and children, which causes the heart to function abnormally. However, Keshan's disease is said to be caused primarily by a lack of selenium in the diet and not due to erucic acid.

Traditional societies in China and India that used this oil for cooking did not have problems with Keshan's disease until they stopped using saturated fats along with rapeseed cooking oil.

This is interesting because animal studies on rapeseed / LEAR / canola oils also produced similar findings. When these oils were taken exclusively, they caused problems such as heart lesions,or damaged heart tissues, But when saturated fats were added to the diet, these problems went away.

Erucic acid has also been linked to other health problems, such as the build-up of fat deposits around the heart. But these problems were mainly found in animal studies and there have been no confirmed cases of erucic acid being toxic to humans.

Lorenzo's oil

Now comes an even more interesting discovery... and it has to do with a movie.

Lorenzo's oil is a movie based on the true story about a couple's search for a remedy to cure their son, Lorenzo, who suffered from adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) - a rare disorder that leads to progressive brain damage. Although I did not watch the movie, it was well known enough and I roughly knew that it was about some special oil, called Lorenzo's oil in the movie, that produced a miraculous cure.

What is Lorenzo's oil? It is a 4:1 mixture of erucic acid and oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that is abundant in olive oil. So it seems that the "special miraculous oil" is not all that special after all, made by mixing two ingredients found in two traditional cooking oils - rapeseed and olive oi.

The oil of rapeseed, and the erucic acid it contains, may not be as harmful as it is believed to be. It could well have medicinal value.

But... oh well, I don't think this original rapeseed oil can be bought anyway.

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Healthy cooking oils
Monounsaturated fats
Polyunsaturated fats - the dangers
Saturated fats - why they are not harmful
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Saturated fats and heart disease I
Saturated fats and heart disease II
What is canola oil
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Rapeseed = canola
Rice bran oil
Cooking with raw / toasted sesame oil
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