Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What is a Canola?

This question was one of the first that prompted me to start this long journey of education and food discovery. The answers were shocking enough to me that it motivated me to start blogging, so that I can share my answers with anyone willing to click towards my page. Oil and it's process to the table will consume much of my postings this week. So if you like what you read today-stay tuned.

I have been cooking with vegetable oil and canola oil for years. In fact I can't remember having olive oil in the house until I was at least in high school. As an adult I use olive oil for about 80% of the cooking I do in my house. But there are certain applications that require something flavorless. I like veg oil for baking muffins, stir frying homemade Chinese food and our babysitter frys french toast in it (among other things). I also use a lot of butter. I really really love butter, and compared to my fellow Americans, I am not afraid of it in the least. But this post is about vegetable oil, not butter

At the beginning of this project I got to asking myself, as I had before without actually looking for the answer, "What is a Canola?" And for that matter, "If vegetables are fat free, how are they producing all this oil?"

You ready?

Vegetable oil comes from seeds. Kind of like nuts which we easily understand have a lot of oil. Vegetable oil is a generic industry term for any kind of oil derived from plant seeds, like corn, soybeans, cottonseeds or rapeseeds. What are rapeseeds? Yeah, more on that later.

Soybean oil is probably the most common veg oil. It's the one you never see labeled on it's own in the grocery store. And there are a heck of a lot of soybeans grown in this country. Check the ingredients on a bottle of veg oil and it will probably say 'soybean oil'. But in some processed foods veg oil could be a general term for any oil that fits the bill, corn, soybeans, cottenseed, etc. All these oils are essentially flavorless and are interchangeable, so manufacturers look for the cheapest. It may be any of these depending on the season.

So what are rapeseeds? Rapeseed is a type of oil seed producing plant that is especially productive at producing oil. But the big issue is that naturally evolving rapeseeds produce an oil that tastes really gross. It has high levels of erucic acid. I am not sure if it's toxic, but it tastes gross. Hundreds of years ago, rapeseed oil was used for oil lamps in Asia and Europe. In the Second World War it was used in manufactering.
Well, as manufacturers usually do, a few scientists in the 60s and 70s in Canada got together and said, hey, we have an opportunity to really have a cheap plentiful supply of cooking oil that is low in saturated fat (the evil fat of it's day). But we have to work on this plant to produce edible oil. Through selective breeding they produced a rapeseed plant that produced edible oil. And the FDA pronounced it safe for consumption in the early 80s.
Now the problem is what do we call it? 'Rapeseed oil' doesn't sound like a best seller. So the scientists said, it's edible because we got rid of the erucic acid so let's call it CANada Oil, Low Acid. And canola as we know it was born.
Since the birth of Canola, scientists have tinkered with it even further. Now 80% of the canola oil on the market comes from genetically modified canola plants.

Tomorrow we'll discuss how they get the oil out of all those soybeans, corn kernels and rapeseeds. Then maybe you'll be willing to join in the land of peanuts. (Or palm, or coconuts....)
Canola. Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. wikipedia.org. 11 May, 2010
Vegetable Oil. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. wikipedia.org. 11 May, 2010

1 comment:

  1. Here it is just called rapeseed oil!