You try to cook healthy – and mostly plant-based – but when it comes time to choose which oil to add to the pan, which is better: Canola, vegetable, or another oil altogether? These oils look the same, act the same, and are often used interchangeably but they have very different nutritional profiles. Here's how to make the right decision.

Plant oils contain a differing range of fats, some good and some not-so-good for your heart. There are some that are higher in saturated fat, which can raise LDL or so-called “bad” cholesterol that leads to heart disease, while others have high polyunsaturated fatty acids (which can actually lower LDL) or monounsaturated fatty acids (found in foods that are known to raise HDL or so-called “good” cholesterol).

There are dozens of healthy-sounding oils available to choose from, but we're going to break down the difference between canola and vegetable oil and determine if they are good options to keep in your kitchen. When choosing any oil, first, know what it is made of, then if you are planning to cook with it (as opposed to making a dressing or sauce) check the smoke points.

What’s the difference between canola and vegetable oil?

While these oils may look the same and are often used interchangeably, there is a difference in how they are made and their nutrient profile.

Canola oil

The canola plant was derived from a variety of rapeseed plants, and was created through crossbreeding in order to remove components of the orignal plant to make it heartier and healthier. Although they are both in the mustard or cabbage family, the canola plant doesn’t have glucosinolates and erucic acid like the rapeseed plant. While glucosinolates are compounds that can bring along health benefits, erucic acid is believed to cause adverse health effects according to the Centre for Food Safety.

The name canola comes from the combination of “Canada” and “ola” (which means oil). Nowadays, most of the canola plants are genetically modified (GMO) in order to increase quality and tolerance to herbicides. If you aim to avoid GMOs, then canola oil may not be right for you.

The nutrient breakdown of 1 tablespoon of canola oil is:

  • Calories: 124 calories
  • Total fat: 14 grams
  • Saturated fat: 1.03 grams
  • Monounsaturated fatty acids: 8.86 grams
  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids: 3.93 grams

The polyunsaturated fatty acid content of canola oil also contains 21 percent of linoleic acid (also known as omega-6 fatty acids) and 11 percent alpha-linolenic acid (also called ALA, which is an omega-3 fatty acid) according to an Oxford Academic nutrition review. Both of these fats are important for overall health and play a role in the healthy functioning of the body.

An imbalance of the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio can lead to adverse health effects. While the omega-6 content of canola oil isn’t much higher than the omega-3 (at a ratio of 2:1), most modern diets are higher in omega-6 fatty acids, since it’s found in a lot of refined foods.

High consumption of omega-6 fatty acids leads to:

  • Low-grade inflammation
  • Oxidative stress
  • Endothelial dysfunction (of the blood vessel lining)
  • Atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in artery walls)

The high amount of monounsaturated fatty acids does come with a plus side. The American Heart Association states that it can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke by reducing bad cholesterol levels. It’s also mentioned that oils higher in monounsaturated fatty acids are higher in vitamin E, which is a fat-soluble vitamin that provides antioxidant activity.

Vegetable oil

Most vegetable oils are made from soybeans, but can sometimes be made from corn, sunflower, or even canola.

The nutrient breakdown of 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil is:

  • Calories: 120 calories
  • Total fat: 13.6 grams
  • Saturated fat: 2.08 grams
  • Monounsaturated fatty acids: 3.09 grams
  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids: 7.79 grams

Vegetable oil from soybeans has a similar calorie and total fat profile compared to canola oil, but their monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acid content is the opposite from one another. Similar to canola oil, vegetable oil also contains more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids and therefore could lead to the same adverse effects.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids have a different chemical structure from monounsaturated fatty acids (multiple double bonds vs. one), but it provides similar benefits. Consuming oils higher in polyunsaturated fatty acids also helps to reduce bad cholesterol levels and lower heart disease risk according to the American Heart Association.

Consider the cooking stability of oils

All plant oils have various cooking stabilities, meaning some can be cooked at higher temperatures without breaking apart, losing nutrients, and creating smoke. This is important because you want the beneficial compounds of the fats you cook with, but also avoid the cooking fumes. A 2020 article states that consistent exposure to cooking oil fumes could lead to lung cancer.

According to Harvard Health, both canola and vegetable (from soybean) oils are sturdy and are able to be used for sautéeing, stir-frying, or roasting foods since they can withstand the higher temperatures. Other oils, such as extra-virgin olive oil, flaxseed oil, and sesame oil, are better off being used in salad dressings or drizzled on top of foods after cooking. That way its structure isn’t lost and you still receive the nutrients and flavor.

There is another measure of the health benefits of oils, and that is the smoke point of each.

Smoke points of oil determine how healthy they are to cook with

First, a point about smoke points: The temperature at which an oil begins to smoke is relevant to its health benefits since when an oil releases smoke it means that it starts to lose its nutritional benefits and can release free radicals that may become carcinogenic, according to scientific studies.

Both canola and vegetable oil share a similar smoke point of about 400° Fahrenheit, with canola slightly higher at 428°, so in that sense, they are equally healthy. As a point of comparison, extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point of 374 - 405°, while avocado oil has the highest smoke point of 520° and safflower oil smokes at 510° these two would be the best choices for searing or the hottest cooking methods.

Oils that have the highest smoke points – meaning 400° F and higher – include avocado oil, 520°, almond oil 450°, corn oil 450° canola oil, 428°, grapeseed oil 421°, peanut oil 450°, safflower oil 510°, sesame oil 410°, flaxseed oil 450° and sunflower oil 450°. These oils are better suited for cooking at higher temperatures since nutrients and phytochemicals found in unrefined oils are destroyed when oil gets overheated.

Olive oil has protective antioxidants that stabilize it as it heats up

One thing to consider when choosing an oil is that smoke point is only one factor, and while some people avoid using extra virgin olive oil for cooking because of its smoke point, there are also protective antioxidants that can stabilize the compounds in olive oil, even at higher temperatures. Research published in the journal ACTA Scientific Nutritional Health found that extra virgin olive oil contains "natural antioxidant content allowed the oil to remain stable when heated."
Olive oil's smoke point goes up to 410°F which is similar to, or better than other vegetable oils (regular or light tasting olive oil has an even higher smoke point range of 390 - 468°F).
It's important to note, however, that most normal cooking does not reach this heat level, and you would need to be deep-fat frying to achieve these temperatures (which most people don't do as part of their everyday cooking).

Bottom Line: Canola oil, olive, and vegetable oils are all healthy oils to cook with

Canola oil, olive oil and vegetable oil made from soybeans are healthy options. Choosing an oil that is higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids is ideal over those higher in saturated fatty acids. When cooking, make sure you are getting all the benefits by avoiding overheating oils.

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