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What is Canola and how is it produced?

Canola oil is the oil derived from the seed of the canola plant. Canola is a genetically different version of the rapeseed. It was developed using traditional plant breeding techniques by researchers in Canada.

Canola has lower levels of saturated fat and a better nutritional profile than rapeseed. In fact, a separate, regulated definition applies to canola to differentiate it from rapeseed. Canola must have less than 2 percent erucic acid and less than 30 micromoles of glucosinolates as compared to rapeseeds. Canola oil, unlike its progenitor rapeseed, is safely consumed by humans as well as livestock.

The Rapeseed Association of Canada came up with the name “canola” in the 1970s. It combines “Can” for Canada and “Ola” for oil, in order to present a more marketable name. They originally trademarked the name “canola” but the term is now used for a variety of edible rapeseed oil around the world. The name for canola also helps to highlight the fact that Canola oil is different from natural rapeseed oil, due to its lower erucic acid content.

Canola oil is the third most popular vegetable oil in the world, after soybean oil and palm oil. Nearly 13% of the world’s vegetable oil is in the form of canola. Canola oil is edible and popularly used for cooking. Its health benefits have been praised in recent years. Canola oil is popularly regarded as a healthy vegetable oil with low fats and high Vitamin E. A special variety of canola oil—high-oleic canola—have recently entered the market. These have a high burn point and are thus perfect for high-temperature frying. It is also less acidic in nature. Canola oil is used as a salad oil, cooking oil, and for margarine as well as in the manufacture of inks, biodegradable greases, pharmaceuticals, fuel, soap, and cosmetics.

Canola oil also serves many industrial uses, such as making biodiesel, candles and newspaper inks, adhesives, sealants and plastics. It is also useful as a biodiesel, specially in Europe. The majority of Europe’s cars use diesel, and the EU is trying to increase biodiesel production from canola.

The feed left behind after extracting oil from the canola seeds, is rich is proteins and is fed to cattle or poultry. With growing world populations and increasing demand for meat from emerging markets, the demand for canola feed is also growing.

Canola grows in dry weather and has a short growing season. The climate in Canada is especially suitable for canola plant growth. Today, over 13 million acres of Canadian soil are dedicated to canola production. Canola oil is Canada’s leading vegetable oil. However, canola is now grown not just in Canada, but even in the U.K. and Australia. In fact, it is the third biggest crop in Australia.

Canola ripens quickly and farmers have a short window within which they have to harvest the crop. Farmers cut the plant, and let the seeds dry in the field for around two weeks so that the moisture content drops. The seeds are then collected and stored or sent for crushing.

Canola plants bear yellow flowers which then produce pods. Inside each pod are small, round seeds of Canola. Around 40% of each Canola seed is made up of oil. The canola seed is crushed to obtain oil, and what is left behind is processed into feed and meal for livestock.

The seeds are are slightly heated and then crushed. Crushing bring out the majority of the oil, but some processers add a chemical solvent to extract the remaining oil from the seed. Crude Oil is refined with hexane first, and is further refined by using water precipitation and organic acid, clay and steam distillation. All these processed lend better color, flavor and shelf life to canola oil. About 50 pounds of rapeseed yield around 10 litres of canola oil.

Even though a substantial portion of canola is of the GM variety, all GM material is removed from canola during processing, so that there is no difference between canola oil from GM or non-GM plants 

Brief History of Canola oil
A variety of rapeseeds have been cultivated around the world since ancient times. They were found in India 4,000 years ago and in China around 2,000 years ago. Oil from these seeds was used in Northern Europe to light lamps in the 13th century.

Around the Second World War, it was discovered that rapeseed oil was a great lubricant that clung to water. It thus began to be used in steam engines in ships. With the European and Asian supply of rapeseed oil being disrupted due to the war, Canada began developing its own rapeseed production to meet the high demand during the war.

After the end of the Second World War, the market for rapeseed oil shrunk as steam ships were replaced by diesel engines and the demand for canola as a lubricant died down. Rapeseed farmers began to look for new uses for their crop.

Rapeseed oil began to be marketed as food products in the late 1950s, but it was not very popular due to its greenish color and unpalatable taste. More dangerously, it contained a high amount of erucic acid, which was harmful to the heart. In 1956, the FDA banned rapeseed for humans consumption. Even the feed meal from rapeseed plants was not popular among the livestock because it was bitter tasting.

It was in the 1970s that canola was bred from rapeseed, at the University of Manitoba in Canada. Canola was not only more palatable for humans, it also had an advantageous nutritional profile with considerably less erucic acid. In 1978, the Western Canadian Oilseed Crushers Association registered the name “canola” for these new varieties of rapeseed. In 1985, the FDA granted approval to canola oil as a safe grade of oil.

In 1998, a new variety of canola was developed, which is considered to be most resistant to drought and disease. Canola has been subjected to much genetic engineering; in fact, around 26% of all acres of canola grown in 2011 contained genetically modified canola.

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