There is a lot of misinformation about canola oil out there. Part of the problem is the concerns that people have with canola only apply with some of the canola oil in existence — and their same concerns also apply to lots of other oils that people don’t talk as much about. To understand the full story you have to know when the claims about canola oil are true and when they are false.
Let's tackle some myths and truths about organic canola oil and how they relate to their conventional GMO vs. organic counterparts.
Myth: Canola oil can't be organic, because organic foods can't be grown using genetic modification, and it is made from a plant that was genetically modified to begin with.
Fact: This is one of the key common misunderstandings and is not true. Organic canola oil is made from canola seeds which were produced using traditional breeding methods before canola was ever genetically modified.
The history of the canola plant is important: the above is a common misunderstanding and can be easily understood when looking at the history of canola oil and the timeline of events.
The canola plant is a "cousin" of the rapeseed plant. The rapeseed plant was originally grown to make a meal for cows in the latter half of the 20th century. Rapeseed plants naturally had mid to high levels of erucic acid which is a component of each fat molecule. A ruminant cow can easily digest this erucic acid in its 4 stomachs, but the human digestion can't take much of it.
Do you find yourself thinking of erucic acid as a bad thing because of the word "acid"? All oils come with many different kinds of fatty acids. Oleic acid, for example, is another term for healthy monounsaturated fats that are found in olive oil and avocados.
History lesson time! In the '70s, scientists and farmers worked to produce a similar plant that had much lower levels of erucic acid for people to use and eat. This new low-erucic acid plant was renamed canola oil. The new name came from the acronym CANadian Oil Low Acid. Hence the name: CAN-O-L-A.
Quick fact before I give more history. Did you know canola is mostly grown in Canada and this new variety was low in erucic acid?
Ok, let's get back into some more history. This new canola plant was developed using a traditional breeding method (think Gregor Mendel's pea plant experiment). Another way to look at it is by looking at other traditional breeding methods, like the way animals and humans pass traits through generations. In this example, if you breed a brown chicken with a white one, you can create a speckled white and brown chick. Then you breed the speckled brown and white chicken, once grown, to a white chicken to create an even more white speckled chicken. AKA it is selective breeding, but it’s done naturally.
A key point: it’s important to note that genetic modification wasn't extensively used yet at this point back in the 70s! So these seeds remained naturally non-GMO at this point.
For the next few decades, the use of canola oil and meal grew throughout the US and Canada. Then in 1990s genetic modification became a very popular new thing. Farmers wanted higher yields and took these seeds and genetically modified them to make them resistant to RoundUp. Soon almost all the canola in the US was genetically modified (up to 96%).
However, there were still those original seeds floating around that were produced through traditional breeding back in the 70’s that never were touched by genetic modification. These seeds became the main ones used for organic canola oil production today. Organic and Non-GMO Canola Oils both use the original seeds from the 70’s, while conventional canola uses the newer genetically modified versions.
Myth: All canola oil is produced using a chemical solvent called hexane.
Fact: Conventional canola oil is usually produced using hexane but organic canola oil is expeller pressed.
Conventional canola oil is for sure the most common type of canola oil. It's what is used for frying in restaurants, universities, and hotels around the country.
The reality is that any type of canola seeds (GMO or non-GMO) could technically be solvent expelled and any could be expeller pressed. The type of seeds used doesn't have anything to do with how the oil is removed from the seeds. However, in reality, almost all conventional canola oil still uses solvent expelling because it’s the cheapest option.
Organic canola oil, on the other hand, is produced using expeller pressing. To be certified organic the oil can NOT use a solvent extraction process, as it doesn’t meet the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards.
This means that any organic canola oil that you are getting doesn't use a chemical like hexane to extract the oil and that it is physically squeezed out.
Myth: All canola is bad.
Fact: Organic Canola is very different than conventional GMO canola oil, and much healthier since it is grown organically and is expeller-pressed instead of being solvent expelled.