An ancient crop finds new life in the form of Canola oil

For thousands of years, rapeseed oil has been a popular cooking fat in many parts of the world. It’s been used in Japan and China for 2,000 years and in India for almost twice as long. It was unknown in most European and American kitchens until after World War II, although you can find it on grocery shelves everywhere today.

Rapeseed oil came into use in Europe in the 13th century as a lamp oil, and when the industrial revolution came, it was employed as a machine lubricant. It retained that primary use into the 1940s, when World War II overtook Asian rapeseed oil production. With shortages looming, Canada planted lots of rapeseed to keep Allied military equipment running.

Commercial rapeseed oil is made from one of three mustard plants — Brassica napus, B. rapa and B. juncea. The same plant family includes turnips, and the name rapeseed is derived from the Latin word for turnip — rapum. Seeds from the plants are harvested, lightly heated and crushed to extract the oil.

By the 1960s, Canada had a thriving rapeseed industry, but other lubricants were also available. There was a possible culinary market for the oil, but it has a distinctive flavor and odd green color. Worse, at high temperatures, erucic acid in the oil aerosolized. The acid caused heart lesions in lab animals and increased the risk of lung cancer. A traditional breeding program was set up to “fix” rapeseed oil for the North American market.

It takes some time using traditional selective breeding to change a plant. So for Baby Boomer kids like me, food oil was olive oil. More commonly found in American kitchens were lard for flaky pie crust, chicken fat saved to fry food and butter, although oleo, or “fake” butter, was beginning to make its way into homes then.

Selective breeding finally conquered the the damaging eurcic acid content of rapeseed oil, and the resulting product was finally trademarked in 1978. Canada Oil Low Acid was marketed under the acronym Canola. I was introduced to it not that many years ago when my husband developed a taste for foods from southern India.

Canola is now considered a healthy oil. The eurcic acid has almost been eliminated. It’s the lowest in saturated fat of any vegetable oil at 7%, half the amount found in olive oil. It’s also high in “good” monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. It provides some vitamin E as well, and has a high smoking point when used for cooking.

Much canola has also been genetically modified to resist pesticides. By 1995, “Round-Up Ready” plants were developed, and today as much as 80% of the canola on the market is genetically modified. 

 I find canola pretty flavorless. We’ve never purchased cold pressed canola, which is supposed to have a nutty flavor. It’s recommended for use in salad dressings, but in our house those contain olive oil.

Rapeseed oil from non-hybrid plants is called Colza oil. Both it and canola are used in a variety of lubricants, inks, candles, lipstick and biodiesel, and canola cake left after the oil is extracted is used as animal feed. Rapeseed is an old crop that’s found new life, new markets and a new name.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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