What The Heck Is Rapeseed Oil & Should You Be Cooking With It?
If you're into cooking, you've undoubtedly heard the term "rapeseed oil" tossed around, especially if you ever use recipes from bloggers or cookbook authors based in the U.K. and other countries. But, if you live in the U.S., there's a good chance you've never actually seen anything labeled "rapeseed oil" in stores. Why is that? It all comes down to the name.
Rapeseed oil probably is in your grocery store—it's just labeled "canola oil."
Here, we explain this weird naming discrepancy, the differences (if any) between rapeseed and canola oil, and the potential benefits and risks of using rapeseed oil in your cooking.
Rapeseed oil vs. canola oil: What's the difference?
Rapeseed oil is the name given to oil produced from the seeds of the rape plant—a yellow flowering plant that's a member of the Brassica (or cruciferous) family, which also includes broccoli and cabbage.
There are two main types of rapeseed oil: Industrial rapeseed oil is used in the machine and chemical industries to make things like engine lubricant and biodiesel while culinary rapeseed oil is used in all sorts of cooking. But—and this is an important distinction—these two varieties of rapeseed oil come from different varieties of the rape plant.
The rapeseeds that are used to produce oil for industrial uses tend to be high in erucic acid (between 30 and 60 percent). This compound may be dangerous to humans when consumed in high enough concentrations, and research links it to heart problems in animals. This type of high-erucic acid rapeseed oil is valued for industrial use because it is incredibly heat-stable.
Now, onto culinary rapeseed oil. In the 1970s, scientists developed a rapeseed plant that had much lower levels of erucic acid and higher levels of oleic acid, a type of monounsaturated fat. They did this through crossbreeding (not to be confused with genetic modification). This newly developed plant contained less than 2 percent erucic acid and was renamed canola (a variation on "Canadian oil," in honor of the country where much of it is grown) to distance itself from the word "rape." Probably a good move.
TLDR: Canola oil is simply the culinary version of rapeseed oil, which contains less than 2 percent of the potentially harmful compound erucic acid. While people (and food companies) in other countries often use the term "rapeseed oil" to describe culinary rapeseed oil, pretty much everyone in the U.S. and Canada calls it and labels it "canola oil."
Are there any benefits or risks of using rapeseed oil?
While culinary rapeseed or canola oil is often praised by chefs for its high smoke point, it certainly isn't without controversy. While the plant was initially developed through cross-breeding, many modern canola plants have been genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides, says Jess Cording, R.D., registered dietitian and mbg Collective member. And when crops are resistant to herbicides, more of those herbicides are used, which means more harm to the environment. When we consume the foods, we’re also ingesting those strong herbicides. For this reason, many people choose to avoid canola or rapeseed oil.
The way canola seeds are processed into oil is another point of contention. The vast majority of conventional canola or rapeseed oil is extracted with high heat and/or chemical solvents, then "cleaned" with more chemicals to produce a flavorless oil with a high smoke point. The big downside: Heating the oil in this manner is thought to damage the essential fatty acids and reduce the number of antioxidants and vitamins in the end product.
But you don't need to fear all rapeseed and canola oil. Although much less prevalent in grocery stores than conventional varieties, "cold-pressed, extra-virgin rapeseed oils are available (often online) as a less processed choice," says Cording. Producing these oils involves using a press to squeeze out oil from the seeds, which retains more of the oil's natural flavor and nutrients. "Additionally, an organic product will not have gone through the genetic modifications."
But, even if you do pick a cold-pressed organic variety, are there any notable health benefits of rapeseed or canola oil? "Like other oils, a tablespoon provides about 120 calories and 14 grams of fat, with monounsaturated behind the primary type of fat," says Cording. "You'll also get about 1,280 mg of omega-3 fatty acids and 12 percent of your vitamin E and vitamin K needs." Which is good news, considering these nutrients are important for brain, heart, skin, and bone health.
However, Cording notes, a tablespoon also packs a hefty dose (2,610 mg) of omega-6 fatty acids, which you want to keep in check, as too much of this fatty acid in your diet can promote inflammation. So, if you already consume a lot of omega-6 fats (found in many processed foods containing vegetable and seed oils), this may not be the right oil for you. For perspective, a tablespoon of olive oil contains 1,320 mg of omega-6 fats.
On the other hand, if you consume a mostly whole-foods-based diet rich in fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and omega-3-rich fish, there's nothing wrong with using a high-quality, cold-pressed culinary rapeseed or canola oil in your cooking. In fact, even the occasional consumption of highly processed canola oil probably won't hurt you. "If you're having dinner at someone's home and you notice they made your meal with conventional rapeseed oil or canola oil, you don't need to panic," says Cording.
Bottom line: Should you cook with rapeseed oil?
Even though canola or rapeseed oil does possess some beneficial nutrients, many nutrition experts wouldn't consider it their top pick. "If it's going to be your primary cooking oil, I would spring for the option with fewer concerns attached to it," says Cording. "There are so many other great options to try that are more readily available in organic and non-GMO varieties. Avocado oil gets my top pick for a neutral oil with a high smoke point."
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