Canola oil is a popular oil for cooking and baking and is present in many packaged foods. If you follow a vegan diet, you may be wondering whether this common ingredient is vegan-friendly and if it is a healthy oil to use.
Not all foods that appear vegan actually are, so it’s always a good idea to double check.
In this post we’ll discuss how canola oil is made, whether it’s vegan or not, whether there are any health risks associated with canola oil, its health benefits, and how it compares to other plant-based oils.
What is canola oil?
Canola oil is an edible oil made from the canola plant, which was produced by selective breeding of the similar-looking rapeseed plant. Both canola and rapeseed have bright yellow flowers and are in the Brassicaceae family, related to many cruciferous vegetables like mustard greens, cabbage, and broccoli.
Rapeseed is naturally high in erucic acid, a compound that was found in the 1970s to be toxic in high amounts. Therefore, rapeseed was cross-bred to produce a plant (the canola plant) that was much lower (<2%) in erucic acid (1).
Most canola oil has a light color and neutral flavor, making it a popular choice for cooking and baking.
How is canola oil made?
Canola oil is usually made in one of three ways: traditional processing, expeller press, or cold press (2).
In traditional processing, canola seeds are washed, heated, flaked, rolled, and cooked so that the oil can be extracted more efficiently. They are then pressed by machines, which extract most of the oil.
After pressing, the seeds are treated with a chemical solvent called hexane. Hexane carries away the small amount of oil still present in the seeds after pressing. The oil is then filtered to remove the remaining hexane. Any undesirable colors or odors still present in the canola oil may be removed through a steam distillation (deodorization) process.
Canola oil produced using this method is called “refined” canola oil.
The steps for producing expeller-pressed canola oil are the same as traditional processing, with the exception that the seeds are pressed a second time and no chemical solvent is used. Canola oil produced this way is labeled “expeller-pressed canola oil”. It may or may not be deodorized, depending on the manufacturer.
To produce cold-pressed canola oil, no heating or cooking of the canola seeds take place. The goal with this process is to prevent any heat production, so the machines used for pressing are set to a slow speed. As with expeller-pressed canola oil, the cold-pressing process does not use solvents to extract the oil.
The only method of extracting the oil used is mechanically pressing the seeds. The resulting oil is higher in antioxidants, which are mostly destroyed by traditional processing methods. Cold-pressed canola oil is never deodorized.
Is canola oil vegan?
Yes, canola oil is vegan since it is made from a plant-based source (the canola plant) and does not require the use of any animal products in the processing of refined, expeller-pressed, or cold-pressed varieties.
Is canola oil healthy?
Concerns about the safety of ingesting canola oil often stem from the use of hexane in traditional processing methods, the fact that canola oil is often genetically engineered, and its potential for rancidity.
A common misconception about canola oil is that it is toxic due to its contact with hexane during traditional processing. These concerns are understandable, given that long-term exposure to hexane via inhalation has been linked to neuropathy in humans (3).
However, residual hexane is present in such minuscule amounts in canola oil that it most likely doesn’t pose any threat to health. According to Health Canada, refined vegetable oils like canola only contain about 0.8 parts per million and hexane residues in food sources do not contribute significantly to a person’s total exposure to hexane.
Interestingly, Health Canada even states that this level of hexane residues in vegetable oils is likely an overestimate.
Additionally, a study assessing hexane residue levels in a variety of vegetable oils, including canola, found that all of the oils tested contained residues at levels much lower than the maximum residue limit set by the European Union (4).
However, if you prefer to avoid canola oil that has been processed with hexane, choose expeller-pressed or cold–pressed canola oil instead.
Genetically engineered canola oil
Another concern about canola oil is that it is made from canola plants that have been genetically modified. Keep in mind that there’s a difference between genetic modification and genetic engineering.
Genetic modification can be as simple as traditionally cross-breeding plants to develop desired characteristics, as humans have done for centuries. On the other hand, genetic engineering is what people are usually more concerned with. This is when a gene from one species is inserted into the genetic makeup of another species to give it a particular trait.
Most canola plants are genetically engineered so they can survive being sprayed with herbicides. 90% of the land used for growing canola plants is used for genetically engineered canola (5).
While genetically engineered foods are tested for safety before being released into the food supply, long-term studies on health have not been conducted. For this reason, some people prefer to avoid genetically engineered canola oil by purchasing organic varieties instead. The USDA organic certification does not allow foods to be genetically engineered.
Oils do have the potential to go rancid, but some turn rancid more easily than others. Unrefined, cold-pressed oils typically have lower smoke points, which is the temperature at which the oil starts to go rancid, so typically they are not used for cooking at higher temperatures.
However, oils that are very high in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, such as expeller- or cold-pressed canola oil, actually hold up the best to cooking at higher temperatures despite their lower smoke points (6). The monounsaturated fats and antioxidants protect the oils from degrading at these temperatures.
The traditional processing method, which involves high heat during deodorization, significantly reduces the antioxidant content of canola oil. The deodorization process also creates a small amount of trans fats in refined oils, which can lower good (HDL) cholesterol and raise bad (LDL) cholesterol. However, the amounts are so low that they likely don’t pose much of a risk, especially when canola oil is consumed as part of a heart-healthy plant-based eating pattern.
If you’re concerned about canola oil turning rancid during storage or cooking, choose expeller- or cold-pressed canola oil instead of refined.
Health benefits of canola oil
Canola oil is naturally low in saturated fat and rich in monounsaturated fats. This makes it a heart-healthy choice, as canola oil has been shown to reduce cardiovascular disease risk factors such as LDL (bad) cholesterol, LDL:HDL (good cholesterol) ratio, apolipoprotein B, and Apo B/Apo A-1 ratio (7).
When used to replace saturated fats in the diet (commonly found in meat, dairy, and coconut oil, and palm oil), canola oil has consistently been found to lower total cholesterol levels in people with or without high cholesterol and to improve glucose and insulin levels in the blood (8).
Another benefit of canola oil is that it contains 1.3 grams of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in plant-based foods, per tablespoon. The human body can’t produce ALA on its own, so we must get it from food or supplements.
One important thing to note about any oil is its ratio of omega-6/omega-3 fats. These fats compete with each other for the same enzyme in metabolic processes that control inflammation in the body. Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory, so an omega-6 content that is excessively greater than omega-3 can promote inflammation.
Canola oil has an excellent omega-6/omega-3 ratio of 2:1, and therefore fits well into an anti-inflammatory plant-based eating pattern.
How does canola oil compare to other oils?
Extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil (or “EVOO”) is an unrefined oil similar to cold-pressed canola oil in that neither are produced using heat or chemical solvents to extract the oil.
These unrefined oils are high in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, meaning they hold up well to higher temperatures and are less likely to turn rancid when used in cooking.
EVOO has a stronger flavor and color than canola oil, so it is not usually used to bake with. It also does not contain a significant amount of omega-3 fats. Olives are not genetically engineered, so you don’t have to buy organic EVOO if you are looking to avoid GMOs.
Avocado oil is another oil high in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, especially when unrefined. It’s a great choice for cooking. The omega-6/omega-3 ratio is a little higher than EVOO or canola oil, but avocado oil is low enough in omega-6 and omega-3 in the first place that it likely doesn’t pose too much of a concern regarding inflammation.
Safflower oil and Sunflower oil
Safflower and sunflower oils are very similar in nutrient content, so they are combined together here. Their neutral flavors make them versatile enough to be used in a variety of recipes.
Compared to EVOO, canola oil, and avocado oil, safflower and sunflower oils tend to have a higher omega-6/omega-3 ratio, which can promote inflammation in the body as mentioned above when used in excess.
However, high-oleic versions of these oils are available which have a higher percentage of fat as monounsaturated fats, reducing the overall amount of omega-6 present in the oil.
If you also include other fats in your diet with high levels of omega-3, like walnuts and flaxseed, this can help improve the omega-6/omega-3 ratio of your overall diet when using high-oleic safflower and sunflower oils.
Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, meaning that it is solid at room temperature. It is frequently used in baking as an alternative to butter. However, because it is so high in saturated fat, I recommend using it less frequently and choosing a healthier oil to use as your everyday cooking oil, such as EVOO or expeller/cold-pressed canola oil.
To read more about choosing healthy oils, check out my blog post entitled Your Guide to Vegan Fats (And Which Are The Healthiest).
Canola oil is a vegan-friendly cooking oil since no animal products are used in its production.
Canola oil is a heart-healthy choice for cooking and baking since it is high in monounsaturated and omega-3 fats. It also fits well into an anti-inflammatory eating pattern thanks to its healthy omega-6/omega-3 ratio. For the most antioxidants in your oil, you may wish to use expeller- or cold-pressed canola oil.
While concerns exist about toxicity of hexane used in traditional processing, these concerns are not currently supported by evidence. If you choose, you can avoid both hexane and GMO canola by purchasing organic expeller-pressed or cold-pressed canola oil.