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Canola: Not Just a Pretty Flower

By: Barb Ziesman, Provincial Plant Disease Specialist, Crops and Irrigation Branch

October 2016

Saskatchewan farmers grow many crops, most of which have a place in a well-balanced and healthy diet.  However, of all the crops grown on the prairies one of the most easily identified and visually appealing is canola. Our province is the number one producer of canola in Canada and, as a result, the numerous fields showcasing the bright yellow flowers are hard to miss when driving through the countryside during July.  But, canola is more than just a pretty crop; it is a large contributor to the Canadian economy, offering many nutritional benefits to consumers and an innovative and truly Canadian story.

Canola, or Brassica napus, is a member of the Brassica family making it a close relative of other healthy food crops including cauliflower, cabbage and mustard.  When Brassica napus was first grown in Canada, it was known as rapeseed.  Rapeseed had anti-nutritional components (eurucic acid and glucosinolates) that made it unsuitable for human or animal consumption.  Canadian plant breeders worked with Brassica napus to remove anti-nutritional components using traditional breeding techniques to make a new crop known as canola.  The name canola comes from a contraction of Canada and ‘ola’ which means oil.  Since canola was developed in the 1970s, the acreages of canola in Canada have increased significantly and the health benefits of canola oil have been broadly recognized.

Canola is grown for its seed which is approximately 40 per cent oil.  Once harvested, the seed is often crushed to produce two products:  the meal (everything that is left when the oil is removed) and the oil.  The meal is high in protein, palatable and has an excellent amino acid profile, which is why it is one of the most widely used protein sources for animal feed in the world.  The oil is often used for human consumption as cooking oil or as a food ingredient.  There are many different types of vegetable oils available to consumers, making purchasing decisions difficult.  Due to the smoke point of the oil, some cooking oils have limited purposes.  Canola oil, on the other hand, is a versatile cooking oil that can be used for baking, stir-frying and even deep frying due its high smoke point.  The mild flavour of canola oil is not over-powering and allows the herbs and spices to be the focus of the dish; this makes the oil a good option for homemade vinaigrette salad dressings.

In addition to its versatility, canola oil also offers many nutritional benefits including being a good source of vitamin E and cholesterol free.  In terms of fatty acid composition, canola oil is high in what are referred to as “good fats” which include the polyunsaturated fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and linolenic acid (LA).  ALA is an essential omega-3 fatty acid that helps to lower bad cholesterol and, as a result, protect against heart attacks and strokes.  LA is an essential omega-6 fatty acid that is important for the brain and the growth and development of infants.  In addition to the polyunsaturated fatty acids, ALA and LA, canola oil also contains high levels of monounsaturated fatty acids which lower bad cholesterol and help to control blood glucose.  Compared to other oils on the market (including coconut oil and olive oil), canola oil has the lowest levels of “bad fats” which include saturated fats and trans fats.  Saturated fats raise the bad cholesterol levels in your body and have been linked to coronary heart disease.  Trans fats raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol.  Canola oil has the lowest levels of saturated fats of all vegetable oils and is defined by government regulatory authorities in North America as being zero trans fat.  However, hydrogenation of canola oil can increase the levels of trans fats.  Therefore, choosing to use canola oil and non-hydrogenated soft margarines are good options to reduce you intake of trans fats.

Personally, I love cooking with canola oil and find it an easy way to keep my food both healthy and delicious!

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