Welcome back to my series, “Is It Vegan?”. When it comes to being vegan, not everything is straightforward. Some foods, especially processed foods, have simply too many ingredients to know, even for the most veteran of vegans. So I do the research for you! I break down the simple, the difficult, and everything in between so that you can be sure you are choosing foods that fit your ethics and ideals.
Is Canola Oil Vegan? Is it 100% vegan-friendly, or are there some things you should be looking out for when purchasing this product? Find out if canola oil is vegan by reading on.
We’ll dive into all things canola oil…what is it, is it healthy, and what are some great alternatives if you’d like to make a switch.
And we’ll definitely answer the question, is canola oil vegan?
What is Canola Oil?
Canola oil is a vegetable oil that comes from the seed of the canola plant. It was first developed in Canada in the late 1970s after being discovered in a plant that belongs to the mustard family known as the mustard rape (rape means turnip in Latin), or rapeseed.
In a stroke of genius, or absolute obviousness, marketers recognized that a product with the word “rape” in its title probably wasn’t going to be a big hit with consumers. So they came up with the name Canola, which literally means Canada oil, low acid. Today it is one of the most popular oils for vegan dishes, cooking sprays, and non-dairy margarine.
Scientists selectively bred the plant to contain fewer glucosinolates and erucic acid than rapeseed oil, resulting in a very neutral-tasing oil with many uses. By definition, canola oil must have less than 30 micromoles of glucosinolates and less than 2% of erucic acid. This is the ultimate difference between canola oil and rapeseed oil.
Please understand that selective breeding has nothing to do with GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms).
GMO vs Selective Breeding
GMOs are when scientists change the genetics of an organism for a specific purpose. One common purpose is to make a crop resistant to the effects of pesticides or herbicides.
For example, say you are growing crops and you don’t want a bunch of extra weeds competing for space and nutrients. You can kill the weeds, but you may also kill your crop. So you could genetically modify the crop to withstand the effects of the herbicide. Weeds die, but the crop prospers.
Selective breeding is when you select for a natural variation of a plant. I went to college at Washington State University, in the Palouse. Rolling wheat fields are about all there is to see. The problem with flat rolling hills is extreme wind. There would be times I’d come around the corner of a building and literally get stopped in my tracks by the wind.
Tall wheat can’t survive that. But short wheat can. And that’s what farmers grow there. At some point shorter, thicker wheat stalks were chosen and selected for pollination, until all of the offspring were short and thick. Same wheat, but it grows better in that area.
Back to what we were talking about…
Selective breeding also produced an oil that has low acidity, a very neutral taste, and a high level of monounsaturated fat, which is very good for you. It also has a low level of saturated fat, which you definitely do not want too much of!
Canola oil also has a high smoking point, making it an excellent choice for meals that will be heated to high temperatures. Think stir-fry, here. I love stir-fried vegetables, and canola oil is ideal for this application!
And for all my vegans out there, canola oil is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids. Every needs omega-3s, but these are essential for vegans!
Canola Oil Nutrition Facts
1 Tablespoon (14.7mL)
Total fat 14 grams
Monounsaturated fat 8.8 grams
Polyunsaturated fat 3.2 grams
Saturated fat 1.1 grams
Trans fat – 0.1g
Vitamin E – 27.34mg
Vitamin K – 71.3mg
Omega 3 fatty acids 840 milligrams
Omega 6 fatty acids 2.2 grams
Smoke point, unrefined 375 to 450F (190 to 232C)
Smoke point, refined 400F (204C)
Melt/freeze point 14F (-10C)
Is Canola Oil Vegan?
✅ Yep. 100%. Canola oil does not contain any animal-derived ingredients or byproducts. And, unlike some refined sugars, processing of the oil does not involve any animal-related products either.
Canola oil sprays and margarine are also completely vegan-friendly.
To many, this almost seems like a silly question. It’s from a plant! If plants aren’t vegan, what is?!! But oftentimes being vegan is about more than just not eating animal products. This is the difference between a vegan and someone who eats plant-based.
Vegans will take into consideration other aspects like the effects of a certain food on the environment or whether or not animals were harmed by any ingredient at any point during the processing of the food.
Most vegetable oils are entirely vegan, but some are avoided by stricter vegans for some of the reasons I just mentioned. Palm oil is responsible for vast rainforest deforestation and pushing some endangered rainforest animals like the Sumatran elephant and orangutan to the brink of extinction. Almond oil requires incredible amounts of water to produce. And in Thailand, the coconut industry exploits abused monkeys to pick coconuts. Yes, that’s actually a thing.
But canola oil passes all of these tests and is genuinely safe for all vegans.
How Is Canola Oil Processed?
Canola oil goes through three processing steps to reach its final form: pressing, extracting, and refining.
Seed conditioning: First, the seeds of the mustard plant are heated to roughly 95 degrees F (35C), and then “flaked” to rupture the seeds’ cell walls.
Seed cooking: Next, the seeds are cooked to a temperature of about 76 to 22 degrees (80 to 105C) for 15 to 20 minutes.
Pressing the seeds: The seeds are pressed into a canola meal. This removes impurities, improves quality, and extracts the oil all at the same time.
Extracting the oil: A solvent (a chemical used to dissolve) is added to extract the oil from the pressed seeds. The two primary solvents used are either chloroform and methanol or hexane.
Refining: Finally, the oil is refined to remove any unwanted taste, odor (deodorization), or color (decolorization). Part of the process also involves desolventizing, which strips away the hexane by heating it a third time to between 203 and 239 degrees F (95 to 115C)
All of this processing also raises the oil’s smoke point, which allows canola oil to be cooked at higher temperatures. Unfortunately, this also removes a lot of nutrients, making it less healthy than an unrefined version.
Sorry, you just can’t have your cake and eat it, too.
At this point, we should talk about the difference between refined oils and unrefined oils. I like to be thorough.
To get any oil we start with the seeds, fruit, or husk, depending on the plant or a characteristic we’re trying to maximize. There are multiple ways to extract the oil.
Unrefined oils use a technique called either expeller pressing or cold pressing. You’ve probably seen this on labels. These oils are expelled (hence the name “expeller”) by mechanical pressure. Basically, the oily part of the plant is squeezed and crushed until the cells break apart and oil drains out.
This method is termed “cold pressing” because the oil usually stays below 200 degrees (93C).
Expeller pressing extracts roughly 50 to 70% of the oil from the plant. So it’s not as efficient as solvent extractions that can extract almost 100% of the oil.
Because this process relies on pressing without added heat, antioxidants, polyphenols, tocopherols (vitamin E,) and other nutrients are released along with the oil. Which is great! Imagine using an oil that is also loaded with beneficial phytochemicals!
The major drawback is that many of these additional compounds are highly unstable.
These unstable compounds eventually oxidize. And when they do, you’ll notice! The oil becomes rancid and toxic, with an absolutely unmistakable smell. And this can happen in as little as a few months. This is why extra virgin olive oil, for example, is packaged in dark opaque glass bottles rather than transparent ones.
These unrefined oils also have much lower smoke points. This just means they’ll smoke and create toxic compounds at lower temperatures. This is why you don’t want to use extra virgin olive oil for sauteeing. It’s better used as a salad dressing.
Refined oils are designed specifically to be more shelf-stable and to withstand higher temperatures. So yes, canola oil is refined and is devoid of most nutrients, but its smoke point is high, making it a great option for pan or deep frying.
With solvent extraction, also known as hexane extraction, the plant matter is broken up, heated to about 300 degrees F (149C), and washed with a petroleum-based solvent such as hexane. This allows the oil to separate out. The solvent is then boiled off. Hexane is used because it is extremely efficient, allowing up to 100% of the oil to be extracted from the plant material.
Some hexane residues may not boil off, however, which raises a health concern. And then there are the environmental issues with hexane. The US Environmental Protection Agency has labeled hexane a “hazardous air pollutant”.
The FDA does not require hexane to be listed in the nutrient label because 100% of it is supposed to be burned off. Studies have shown, however, that some hexane residues persist in the final product, but at levels than those set for human consumption by the European Union. (1)
What’s Better, Refined Oils or Unrefined Oils?
Check out the health side of your favorite social media app and you’re going to hear how unhealthy refined oils are. But they are the best option for cooking if you’re going to use oil at all. If you cook with an unrefined oil at a high temperature, the toxins that may be created actually make the unrefined oil less healthy than the refined version.
If you’re going to cook at high temperatures, reach for refined oil.
If you’re preparing foods with little or no heat, unrefined is going to be the healthier choice (assuming it hasn’t gone rancid).
Canola Oil Fits the Bill for Optimal Baking
For general cooking, you want an oil that has the following characteristics:
Neutral flavor. You want to taste your food, not your oil. So you want an oil that allows the natural flavors you’re cooking with to stand out.
High heat tolerance. Unrefined oils have more healthy phytochemicals, but they are unstable. You never want your oil to smoke or develop odd flavors when exposed to high temperatures. These compounds can be toxic.
Healthy fat profile. You want an oil that is high in monounsaturated fat and low in polyunsaturated and saturated fats. And yes, I’m looking at you coconut oil! There just aren’t any unbiased studies showing any health benefits to coconut oil. None. And if you can find an oil that is high in ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) and omega-3s, even better!
Cost-effective. You don’t need to spend an arm and a leg on cooking oil.
Canola oil fits all of these criteria! Neutral taste, high smoke point, loaded with ALA (which converts to omega-3 fatty acids), and it costs next to nothing.
Is Canola Oil Healthy?
The answer is, it depends. Oil is pure fat and is very calorically dense, coming in at 120 calories per tablespoon! That can add up quickly, and make it difficult to maintain a healhty body weight. I’d rather eat than drink my calories. But it’s got some positive qualities as well. Let’s look at the pros and cons so you can make up your own mind.
Canola oil is high in monounsaturated fats and low in saturated fat. Saturated fats are known for raising your LDL (the bad one) cholesterol, and should be limited as much as possible according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Canola oil has phytosterols. Phytosterols help lower the absorption of cholesterol in the body. That’s a nice little bonus! (2)
Canola oil, even refined canola, contains vitamins like K and E. Vitamin E is an extremely potent antioxidant, even boosting the power of vitamin C! And vitamin K can be difficult to get on a vegan diet.
Finally, canola oil also has a good amount of omega-3 fatty acid. You’ve heard of fish oil? Omega-3s are what fish oil supplement manufacturers are selling. Omega-3s lower inflammation and reduce the risk of heart disease, age-related cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s, and dementia.
They’re also incredibly important for brain growth and development during the first few years of a child’s life. So, to all my vegan Mommys and Daddys out there, canola oil can be very healthy for your growing children. It provides ALA, omega-3s, and is calorically dense. And kids need a lot of calories to grow. (3, 4)
Find a good vegan pediatrician you trust, and get his or her take on raising vegan kids and their need for omega-3 fatty acids.
Additionally, canola oil has been shown to reduce total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, increased levels of vitamin E, and improved insulin sensitivity in comparison to other dietary fat sources, especially saturated fat. (5)
Canola oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids (oleic acid). Omega-6 fatty acids are essential, but they can be pro-inflammatory. You will hear some people say you want more omega-3 than omega-6, but that’s a virtual impossibility. Throughout much of human history, our ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 was 4:1. The good news here is that you’re well within that ratio.
And recent research and metanalyses are showing that omega-6 fatty acids aren’t as pro-inflammatory as we once thought.
Canola oil is highly processed. Well, not all canola oil, but the kind that most people are going to use for cooking is. Any refined, highly processed oil is going to be low in most nutrients, especially antioxidants and vitamins minerals, and other beneficial phytochemicals. What you’re left with is a highly concentrated, extremely calorically dense, fat bomb.
Canola oil is often processed using Hexane. Most of the Hexane is removed before the final product is completed, but trace amounts do remain. Some studies suggest that Hexane isn’t healthy, but most point to the amount left in Canola as being well under the acceptable intake.
Finally, most canola oil comes from crops that are genetically modified (GMO). Roughly 90% of canola oil is GMO! Mind you there is no research stating that GMOs are harmful, but there are also few long-term health studies in people. Personally, I avoid GMOs whenever possible. But I don’t let it stop me from eating something that I want if there’s no alternative. Still, you can always look for organic canola oil, which will also be non-GMO.
Canola Oil Alternatives
If you’re looking for an alternative to canola oil, I’d recommend avocado, rapeseed, rice-bran, or light olive oil. These are all good for high heat cooking, and have plenty of micronutrients!
Avocado oil is my favorite alternative! Yes, it’s pricier than canola. But if you can afford it, it’s worth it! Bake potatoes, but rub some avocado oil on the skins before you put them in the oven or air fryer. Amazing!
Avocado oil has a high smoke point, so you can cook with it in any way you want (pretty much). You can use it to sautee vegetables, as a salad dressing, or bake pretty much anything with it. It’s also high in vitamins E, D, K, and A. I use this Avocado Oil Spray a lot!