Once a standard in every kitchen, canola oil has taken a lot of heat recently as droves of shoppers switched to olive oil. Here’s the real deal on this less-trendy cooking oil.
You may have heard that the only healthy fat to cook with is olive oil (or maybe, gasp, coconut oil), but it's not true. In fact, canola oil is a versatile, heart-healthy fat that has several advantages over its more popular cousin, and should be a regular part of your kitchen tool kit.
In fact, we utilize canola oil in the Cooking Light Test Kitchen. We do it for many reasons: For one, its high smoke point makes it good for sautéing. And for another, its neutral flavor and light body make it great as a partial sub for butter in baking.
So what is canola oil? This common vegetable oil is processed from the seed of the rapeseed plant, which belongs to the same family as cabbage, broccoli, and mustard seeds. When you break down the fat profile, canola oil has only 7% saturated fat per tablespoon. That's lower than any other common cooking oil. It contains zero cholesterol and also has 11% omega-3 fatty acid content, which is higher than most cooking oils—second only to flaxseed oil and walnut oil (both of which are much more expensive).
So canola oil is heart-healthy—but it’s also a top source for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). According to the Non-GMO Project, about 94% of the canola oil in the U.S. is genetically engineered. Other common vegetable oils that are likely to contain GMOs are corn oil, cottonseed oil, and soybean oil.
If you’re concerned about GMOs, you can easily choose non-GMO verified canola oil. Or you can just select the organic variety, since the USDA National Organic Standards prohibit the use of GMOs in USDA Certified Organic products. Additionally, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law, passed in 2016, calls for a mandatory standardized system of labeling for foods that contain GMOs. (Although the USDA has two years to fully implement it, so don’t expect changes quite yet).
Canola oil is also highly processed—but most cooking fats undergo at least minimal processing before finding their way into your kitchen. Butter doesn’t come straight from the cow; it has to be milked, strained, and churned. Coconuts, olives, almonds, peanuts—these all have to be pressed and extracted. Refined versions of these go through even more processing to remove impurities, making them more stable and suitable for high-heat cooking.
So are those other trendy fats less healthy? Of course not—and they deserve a place in your kitchen as well. Grass-fed butter, organic and unrefined oils are well worth keeping around for the full-bodied flavors that they impart—avocado oil, sesame oil, peanut oil, walnut oil, coconut oil, and olive oil are all delicious and worth using. But these fats are often expensive and not very heat stable. Instead of putting them in the pan for high-heat cooking, we recommend you save them for salad dressings, as a dip for breads or veggies, or drizzling atop finished dishes to add flavor and healthy fats.
However, if you love to cook as much as we do, then you likely know that high-heat cooking oils are a necessary staple in any kitchen. Whether you’re sautéing fresh veggies from the farmer's market or making a pan-seared strip steak, you need an oil that holds together when it hits a hot cast-iron pan. When you use an oil with a low smoke point for high-heat cooking you’re likely to end up with a kitchen full of smoke. Additionally, health-harming compounds in the oil can also start to form, says Cooking Light Nutrition Director Brierley Horton.
If you’re concerned about GMOs or want to avoid refined oils, don’t ditch canola oil. Instead, look for the non-GMO verified stamp, or buy organic.