Is Canola Oil Healthy? Here's What Dietitians Have to Say
Just a decade or two ago, we would get our nutrition advice from a dietitian, or maybe a book or magazine. But today, there are millions of voices who can reach us daily through apps like TikTok, Instagram and Facebook to make any topic confusing.
Related: What Is the Best Oil for Cooking?
In short, even those without proper nutrition training can have a megaphone to shout their healthy-eating advice, and it can be confusing to know what to believe. So we tapped a crew of dietitians to clear up one controversy that's making waves this year. Is canola oil killing us—or are these diet influencers poisoning the conversation?
The Canola Oil Controversy
There are hundreds of videos from "health coaches" and other public figures touting that canola oil causes more chronic inflammation in the body than sugar and any other processed carbs. "They're very unstable fats that are rancid before you consume them, then if you cook with them, they get even more rancid as they oxidize and they gunk up their cells," one recent TikTok post claimed.
We know that chronic inflammation is linked to nearly all of the leading causes of death in America, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer, as well as autoimmune disorders and joint issues. And since Americans cook with canola oil fairly frequently, at the rate of 2.41 million metric tons per year—which is triple how much we used just two decades ago, according to March 2022 data—this could be a big deal. It could be, if it was actually true …
"Nutrition science is kind of boring, and with the rise of TikTok, it seems like everyone wants to be a wellness influencer," says Alex Caspero, RD, a St. Louis-based registered dietitian and the owner of Delish Knowledge. "Even if they have zero training or no medical or nutrition background, it's easier to make hyperbolic claims without any evidence; especially as these comments are shared on more and more accounts, it seems 'true.'"
This muddies the waters, Caspero says, because with the rise of social media, everyone can be considered an expert as long as they have a platform. The more controversial and shocking a claim might be, the more shareable it becomes. That's how the wave becomes a tsunami, and why Jenna A. Werner, RD, creator of Happy Strong Healthy in Middletown, New Jersey, felt compelled to take to social media to set the record straight on Instagram (@happystronghealthy.rd), noting that one food does not determine your health, and using fear-based messaging does not enhance anyone's health.
"'Gotcha' games around food ingredients are very trendy and easily shared, whether they are true or not," Caspero says.
Related: Is Olive Oil Healthy?
Before we dive into the specifics, Lauren Smith, RD, a Philadelphia-based lead dietitian at Happy Strong Healthy, wants to address one thing: "When it comes to analyzing a person's diet, no one ingredient is inherently harmful unless a person is allergic to it. Social media has unfortunately caused a lot of fear-mongering around foods, canola oil being one of them, and this is not helping anyone."
So, Is Canola Oil Dangerous?
As far as these canola oil claims go, Caspero says they're a lot like the claims about soy and its relationship to cancer risk. "People are confusing animal studies for human trials. Omega-6-rich seed oils have been shown to increase inflammation in rats, not humans. And soy causes issues in rats, as they metabolize estrogen differently, but that doesn't stack up to decades of human trials," Caspero says.
When it comes to canola oil specifically, one main claim is that seed oils, including canola oil, spike inflammation in the body based on a theory that omega-6 fatty acids (like the linoleic acid in canola oil) raise arachidonic acid levels in the body. Arachidonic acid is a precursor to a number of pro-inflammatory mediators, and if this was true, we should see higher levels of inflammation in someone who consumes high levels of linoleic acid.
"None of this is true based on the best evidence that we have today," Caspero says. A past analysis that included data from 36 human clinical intervention trials found that reducing linoleic acid consumption by up to 90% or increasing consumption by almost 550% did not change tissue levels of arachidonic acid. "Remember, based on the mechanisms proposed, consuming high levels of linoleic acid should increase arachidonic acid levels—which is simply not shown," Caspero continues.
Is Canola Oil Healthy or Harmful?
A variety of oils—soybean, peanut and rapeseed included—are being shamed for the same reason, says Elizabeth Shaw, M.S., RDN, CPT, a San Diego-based registered dietitian, owner of ShawSimpleSwaps.com and author of the Air Fryer Cookbook for Dummies. While none of these seems to offer quite the heart-health benefits of omega-3 fats, such as olive oil, they can all be part of a healthy diet.
"Every oil in food production has a purpose, with some purposes having higher nutritional value and more supportive health benefits than others," Shaw explains. "While some oils, like extra-virgin olive oil, have more supportive health qualities than others and should be included more abundantly in the diet, it does not mean canola, peanut, soybean or rapeseed oil do not have a place in a healthy, balanced diet for healthy individuals," she says.
Canola oil and other seed oils can be better cooking choices than options that are higher in saturated fats, like butter or coconut oil, especially if you're concerned about your blood cholesterol levels. Swapping out saturated fat and industrially created trans fats (the latter have been removed from the U.S. food supply since they've been found to be so detrimental to human health) in favor of polyunsaturated fat seed oils decreases both cholesterol and heart disease risk, Caspero adds.
"Funny enough, most of the people I've seen bashing seed oils are very pro-saturated fat," Caspero says. "Again, this is opposite of what the American Heart Association recommends for heart health and is a big red flag for not understanding the data."
Canola oil has a low saturated fat content. Instead, seed oils, including canola, have a mix of mono- and polyunsaturated fats that may help reduce the risk of heart disease. Plus they're very affordable, making them a good choice when you're watching your grocery budget.
"While these videos seem to shame on the refinement process, they neglect the health benefits that have been supported in the research and the affordability oils like this have to help those in various socioeconomic statuses receive healthy fats to improve heart health," Shaw says.
Canola Oil Nutrition
Per 1-tablespoon serving, canola oil has:
- 124 calories
- 14 g fat
- 1 g saturated fat
Compare that to 1 tablespoon of olive oil:
- 119 calories
- 14 g fat
- 2 g saturated fat
Or 1 tablespoon of butter:
- 102 calories
- 12 g fat
- 7 g saturated fat
'It is true that canola oil is higher in omega-6s than omega-3s, but before we call this a bad thing, we need to look at what a diet looks like as a whole and find places to add more omega-3s," Werner says.
The main reason canola oils might be correlated with negative health outcomes is the way they're utilized. Seed oils are pervasive in ultra-processed foods and are often used to fry foods, as well. It's less likely that it's the seed oil causing increased disease risk and more likely the lack of fiber, concentration of sugar and refined carbohydrates in the foods they're featured in that cause health challenges.
"If a client comes to me and is eating a large amount of canola oil or a super-high-fat diet in general, we would discuss alternative solutions and options for that person," Werner says. But all of the dietitians we spoke to agree that everything is A-OK in moderation.
"I would only recommend stopping use for someone who has a food allergy or sensitivity to the oil," Shaw says. "With that said, variety is key in a balanced, healthy diet, so be sure to diversify your intake of healthy fats for optimum benefits."
Focus on quality, diversity and cultural-inclusion of foods in a balanced and healthy diet, rather than restricting one specific food, to make your heart happy and your body healthy.
Lastly, about that rancidity detail, processing alone doesn't make oils rancid. Canola oil is shelf-stable for about one to two years, and like nearly all foods, it will eventually go bad, especially when exposed to high heat and light, Caspero explains. You will know canola oil has gone bad when it smells off or is tacky in texture.
The Bottom Line
"What I tell my followers and friends when they come to me confused about information like this is quite simple: 'Eat a variety-filled diet and you don't need to worry about any one food or ingredient making or breaking your health,'" Shaw concludes. "Before taking the advice of an influencer on TikTok, remember that there are credentialed health care professionals here to serve you and offer you sound, science-based advice."