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What is rapeseed oil?

Rapeseed oil is oil derived from the rapeseed plant, the vibrant yellow vegetable crop which brings colour to the countryside during the summer months.

It is promoted as a healthier cooking oil (more on this later and why we avoid rapeseed oil) and its light colour, neutral flavour and high smoke point make it a very versatile ingredient in the kitchen.

Why they get mixed up: the evolution of canola oil

If rapeseed oil and canola oil both come from rapeseed, what's the difference? To answer this question we need to look back into the history of each. Rapeseed oil originally fuelled machines, not humans

Rapeseed oil was initially classed as "industrial grade" and used in the automotive industry as biofuel. During the Industrial Revolution, rapeseed oil was used as engine lubricant for steam trains.

Although it had been used as an animal feed for centuries, it was very rarely eaten by humans. Whilst the crop proved to be incredibly drought and disease resistant, it was far too high in a compound named erucic acid - making it unsafe as a food product and acutely toxic to us humans.

How the food industry changed rapeseed oil

The low cost and high yield of rapeseed was appealing to the food industry, but research found that it contained around 50% toxic erucic acid and therefore it was not fit for human consumption.

So, in the 1970s scientists in Canada came up with a solution for this by using traditional plant cross-breeding to genetically modify rapeseed. It was bred to contain lower amounts of erucic acid as well as glucosinolates, which gave the oil a bitter taste.

The result was a plant which contained just 2% erucic acid and tasted much more palatable, therefore could be safely consumed by us humans.

Are rapeseed oil and canola oil the same?

This new variation of rapeseed was originally named Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed (LEAR). Understandably, the name didn't have a gravitational pull for consumers! It was later renamed "Canola" - a combination of "Canadian" and "Ola" (meaning oil).

Simply put, the canola plant is a genetically modified version of the rapeseed plant. So, canola oil is essentially the same as rapeseed oil.

In fact, the vast majority of cooking oils named "rapeseed" are in fact "canola". Whilst the food industry in the USA and Canada accurately differentiate between the two, here in the UK rapeseed and canola can be used interchangeably (as long as the erucic acid content is 2% or less).

Furthermore, most vaguely names "vegetable oils" comprise mainly of rapeseed or canola oil.

Is canola oil healthy?

Rapeseed/Canola is conventionally regarded as a healthier choice when it comes to cooking oils.

But like most veg and seed oils, the trouble is the inflammatory nature and how they are processed.

Written by Jeff Webster

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