Canola Oil vs. Vegetable Oil: Which is Healthier?
Confused about the difference between canola and vegetable oil? You’re not alone.
Canola vs. vegetable oil
Whether you’re shopping or sautéing, how do you choose the healthiest cooking oil? For example, canola oil and vegetable oil are often used for the same kinds of cooking and the taste can be similar. But which is healthier?
We talked with top registered dietitians and chefs about the similarities and differences between vegetable and canola oil, as well as their health benefits and nutrition profile.
What is canola oil?
“Canola oil is a single-origin oil whose parent plant, rapeseed, links botanically to vegetables like cabbage and cauliflower in the mustard family,” says Michele Redmond, a chef and registered dietitian in Scottsdale, Arizona. “In the 1960s, Canadian plant breeders used traditional breeding methods to reduce erucic acid and glucosinolates in the rapeseed plant to safe, edible levels.” (Erucic acid was linked to fatty deposits in the hearts of lab animals. Glucosinolates in rapeseed meal fed to animals were thought to contribute to liver disease and interfere with their growth and weight gain.) This new plant was named canola, after the acronym “Canadian oil, low acid.”
Today, most canola oil—more than 90 percent of the canola in the U.S.—stems from genetically modified seeds. “This genetic engineering has been used to provide the plants with a tolerance to specific herbicides,” says Julie Harrington, a registered dietitian and co-author of The Healing Soup Cookbook.
Pros and cons of canola oil
Canola oil has a high smoke point of 468 degrees Fahrenheit, which means it can be used for high-heat cooking without compromising its nutrition or taste. It has a subtle, more neutral taste—allowing the other ingredients of a dish to be the stars, notes Erin Macdonald, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Orange County, California.
Many chefs embrace canola oil because it can be substituted for butter in baking as a flavourless fat. It can be used instead of more flavourful oils, such as olive oil, if you want other ingredients to shine. Olive oil also has a lower smoke point at 410 degrees Fahrenheit, so canola oil is a better choice for high-heat cooking.
Because of its high smoke point, canola oil can be used in many types of cooking—including sauteing, grilling, baking, and stir-frying. The oil contains only 1 gram of saturated fat. It boasts 9 grams of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and 4 grams of polyunsaturated fat. Canola oil is high in heart-healthy omega-3s.
(Related: 9 Pro Tips for Healthier Grilling)
“Further, this oil contains a high amount of phytosterols, which help to reduce cholesterol absorption into the body,” says Macdonald. The monounsaturated fat content is comparable to the amount found in olive oil.
As for the cons of canola oil, some people might consider the fact that it’s largely genetically modified a drawback. (This is truly a personal decision.) What’s more, “it’s typically more expensive than other vegetable oils,” says Redmond.
What is vegetable oil?
Vegetable oil can be made from many types of oils. Primary oil sources include legumes like peanuts or soybeans—or edible oil seeds like those of sunflowers, grapes, safflowers, or corn. Vegetable oil also can contain cottonseed or palm oil.
“Some refined and expeller-pressed vegetable oils are sold as single-ingredient oils, such as safflower,” says Redmond. “But most vegetable oils used in food production, restaurants, and home kitchens are soy oil or a blend of oil seeds.”
Vegetable oil tends to be viewed as an all-purpose oil. “This oil is put to good use in everyday cooking and baking, as well as for greasing pans,” says Macdonald. “It can also be found in some processed foods.”
Because blends of vegetable oil are so variable, so are smoke points. Soybean oil, for example, has a smoke point of 495 degrees Fahrenheit, while corn oil has a smoke point of 450 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Institute of Food Technology. “Due to the different vegetable oil blends, it may not do well in high heat—but generally it does,” says Macdonald.
Pros and cons of vegetable oil
“Vegetable oils are generally low in saturated fat and high in polyunsaturated fat,” says Macdonald. A typical vegetable oil contains about 2 grams saturated fat and 6 grams each of mono- and polyunsaturated-fat.
Just as with canola oil, vegetable oil has a neutral flavour. “Vegetable oils are a kitchen workhorse for high-heat cooking—and as neutral oils, they don’t compete with other flavours,” says Redmond.
One of the major pluses of vegetable oil is its price point. “Every kitchen should have an all-purpose, low-cost vegetable oil for flexibility, consistency, convenience, and a long shelf life,” says Redmond.
One drawback: you don’t always know what you’re getting. “Unless an ingredient list states the sources of the oil, you won’t know the mix of oils,” notes Redmond. “This means you won’t know the mix of saturated, polyunsaturated, or monounsaturated fats, either.”
And if you’re concerned about GMOs, read the label to look for non-GMO products. Many vegetable oils contain genetically modified ingredients—as soybean and corn oils are largely genetically modified.
How to take care of oils
Store oils in a cabinet away from the oven or stove for the longest possible shelf life. “It may look charming to have oils displayed in your kitchen,” says Redmond. “But just like spices, oils love dark, cool spaces and low exposure to the air.” (Related: Tips for Buying and Storing Spices)
You also want to tightly cap the oils. This limits how fast they will degrade. Continued exposure to air or light results in oxidation and development of free radicals, says Redmond.
If a bottle is clear, Macdonald suggests wrapping it in aluminum foil to shield it from light. “Free radicals cause oxidative damage in the body,” she says. “These are not only harmful to health when consumed, they also disrupt a food’s flavour profile.”
Alternative oils to try
Which oil is better? It’s really a toss-up between canola oil vs. vegetable oil, as they both have their own pros and cons. And depending on what you’re cooking and your taste preference, you may choose an altogether different oil beyond canola or vegetable oil.
Avocado oil works well in high-heat cooking such as pan-sautéing fruits or vegetables. Extra virgin olive oil has a distinct taste and is delicious in a homemade salad dressing. Even more fragile oils, such as flaxseed oil, work best in a smoothie recipe or as a finishing oil.