Coconut and Canola Oils: Healthy or Not?

Are coconut and canola oils healthy or not?

I don’t know about you, but I’m confused about the current focus on cooking with coconut oil, and the derision for canola oil.

The MIND diet (click here to read about it) recommends olive oil as your main cooking fat.  But, so many recipes today use coconut oil. And, for decades, we’ve been told that canola oil is a healthy choice.  What are the facts?

Is Coconut Oil Good for You?

According to the Harvard Health Letter, not enough is known about coconut oil to make a definitive claim about its health effects.

Coconut oil is 90% saturated fat, and saturated fat causes a rise in levels of LDL cholesterol.  That is the “bad” cholesterol.  Butter contains 64% saturated fat.

So, you might conclude that coconut oil is really bad for you.  However, it seems that the specific type of saturated fat in coconut oil is especially good at boosting HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol).  It’s like a built-in cholesterol counter-punch.

coconut-1771527_1280

Extra-virgin coconut oil that is minimally processed also contains phytochemicals and antioxidants.

As with most things, it seems that Mother Nature knows what she’s doing.  Coconut oil is not necessarily an unhealthy choice, but limiting saturated fats in your diet continues to be the current medical advice.

Oils that are unsaturated, like olive oil and soybean oil, boost HDL cholesterol and they also lower LDL cholesterol.  These oils continue to be the preferred choice for a healthy heart.

Canola Oil’s Interesting Origins

Canola oil has been marketed as a healthy oil.  It contains mono- and polyunsaturated fats and, like olive oil, boosts HDL cholesterol while lowering LDL cholesterol.  So, it’s all good, right?

Maybe.

90% of canola oil is made from genetically modified rapeseed.

Rapeseed oil was once used in mostly in industrial settings but not in food applications, because it contained possible heart toxins and had a bitter taste.

Canadian scientists developed a rapeseed plant that did not contain the toxins, and also improved the flavor of the oil.

field-of-rapeseed
A field of rapeseed plants

Monsanto then genetically modified this food-grade rapeseed plant so that it could survive fields treated with its RoundUp herbicide.

Whether you believe that GMOs are healthy or not, there is more about canola oil to consider before you decide to include it in your diet.

Processing Plant Oils with Chemicals

The chemical hexane is used to extract the oil from the rapeseed. (To learn more about hexane, click here.)  Most all heat-processed oils use hexane for extraction.

Some amount of hexane remains in the oil after processing.

The FDA’s position is that this small amount of hexane is safe for human consumption because there is no evidence to the contrary.  Europe has much stricter limits on the amount of hexane allowed in food.

Further, the high heat used to process canola oil causes some of the fat to be converted to trans-fats.  Trans-fats are dangerous to health, and linked to heart disease.

All heat-processed oils contain low levels of trans-fats, even olive oil.  But, canola oil has two to four times more of these trans-fats than olive oil.

Still, experts believe that canola oil is a healthy oil when consumed in moderation, because it contains the same mono and polyunsaturated fats that olive oil does.

What’s a Cook to Do?

Cold-pressed plant oils do not contain processed trans-fats, so that is one consideration when you are shopping.  Look for extra virgin oils that state they are cold-pressed.

However, cold-pressed canola oil may be difficult to find, and expensive.

As far as chemical residues, organic oils cannot contain any amount of hexane. So, if you can find organic coconut or canola oil, you may find that it is worth the extra cost.

The bottom line is that healthy alternatives exist for both coconut and canola oil, but neither outshines the health benefits of organic, cold-pressed olive oil.

The fact that coconut oil is solid at room temperature makes it a good substitute for butter or lard in cooking and baking.  That is the edge that coconut oil has over olive oil.

olive oil
Photo credit Mark Bonica

As far as canola oil goes, it has a less intense flavor than olive oil. This may be desirable in certain cooking applications.

Hopefully, you’ve now got the information you need to make good decisions about what oils to include in a healthy diet, and which to skip.

References:

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/canola-oil-good-or-bad

https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2017/12/11/canola-oil-may-be-a-bad-choice-for-brain-health-study-suggests/#61b971d910a2

https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/coconut-oil

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4 comments

  1. janesmudgeegarden says:

    We have access to excellent extra virgin olive oil, so we pretty much use that for everything, except a stir fry, when we use something called ‘vegetable oil’, which we hope is ok.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I always wondered what “canola” oil was! In the UK, they just call it rapeseed oil, but I guess that doesn’t have the same appeal. I never liked the smell of it, so I’ve only been using cold press olive oil exclusively for as long as I can remember.

    1. My pleasure!

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