Canola oil wears the golden crown

Its market dominance demonstrates growing consumer and processor confidence in this made-in-Canada oil

When executive chef Anthony McCarthy is preparing food at the Saskatoon Club, he uses a selection of ingredients that are fresh, flavourful and, when possible, grown in Canada. When he cooks those ingredients, he chooses another local product — canola oil.

“Canola oil is a very versatile cooking oil,” says McCarthy. “Its mildness carries the flavours of other ingredients nicely. I can use it in many different ways — from a marinade, to a vinaigrette, in the fryer and even in baking. It’s a great option for any cook to choose.”

This kind of confidence in canola oil has created secure markets for Canadian canola growers. According to a study by LMC International — an independent economic and business consultancy for agribusiness — canola contributes more than $19 billion to the Canadian economy annually, including more than 249,000 jobs. It accounts for a quarter of all farm crop receipts as reported by Statistics Canada, and this country alone produces more than three million tonnes of canola oil a year.

Canola oil began to gain prominence in the late 1990s when both consumers and the food industry were looking for healthier sources of dietary fat. Demand for the golden oil steadily increased as more people became aware of its healthy profile. Canola oil is free of trans fats, which have been linked to heart disease, contains only seven per cent saturated fat (the least amount found in any common edible oil), and is high in mono-unsaturated fat. No wonder it has become the fourth most-consumed vegetable oil in the world.

McCarthy says that from a culinary perspective, the high smoke point of canola oil makes it very useful in highheat cooking and it doesn’t solidify in the fridge or thicken when cooled — a mark of its low saturated fat content.

“In addition, canola oil contains 11 per cent alpha-linolenic acid, a plant-based Omega-3 fat,” says Shaunda Durance- Tod, a registered dietitian and the CanolaInfo Program manager with the Canola Council of Canada. “The human body does not make this fatty acid on its own, so we need to get it from the food we eat.”

She adds that some specialty canola oils are designed to be higher in oleic acid than regular canola oil, making them better for use in some applications such as food processing. “Their higher oleic acid content makes those specialty canola oils more stable for use in commercial frying and other food processing applications,” says Durance- Tod.

“This type of canola oil was developed to replace partially hydrogenated oil, which is high in trans fat. The canola industry has successfully developed an alternative, which is good for both food service and other food industry uses, and is also a good source of healthy fats.” The market for canola oil in Canada is expanding as its reputation continues to grow with big food companies like McDonald’s, which now uses canola oil as its primary frying oil. “As a company we switched to high oleic canola oil in 2008 as it was a healthier option for our customers,” says Sherry MacLauchlan, director of government relations and sustainability with McDonald’s.

She says consumers really drove the switch to canola oil. One of the key selling points for the change was that canola oil’s mild flavour produced the same taste and texture that people had come to expect from McDonald’s popular menu items like its fries.

McDonald’s sources its entire North American supply from Western Canada, and that’s great news for canola producers. “When we first started researching healthier oils in the early 2000s, there wasn’t enough trans-fat-free oil available in the whole world to meet » even our North American demand. But once we realized canola oil would be a good fit for our business, Canadian canola growers were soon able to meet our capacity needs,” says MacLauchlan.

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Of the $1 billion McDonald’s Canada spends on food inputs in this country, approximately 85 per cent are sourced from Canadian suppliers. There’s also a good sustainability story behind the company’s switch to Canadian canola oil, says MacLauchlan, explaining that spent oil used in McDonald’s restaurants is often recycled into products such as biofuel.

And things are changing on the local value added front. “While McDonald’s has been sourcing all of its canola from Canadian farmers for the past eight years, up until this year it all had to be sent to the U.S. for refining, then brought back to our Canadian locations,” she says.

“With both crush and refining capacity now available in Canada, we can now do everything here,” adds MacLauchlan. When you’re talking the kind of volume McDonald’s demands, that change means significant cost savings on transportation, and a reduction in harmful emissions, which both reduce pressure on the environment.

“We estimate that refining canola oil in Canada will reduce the diesel fuel used in McDonald’s Canada’s supply chain by approximately 33,600 gallons per year, which saves more than 766,000 pounds of C02 while positively contributing to the Canadian economy.”

MacLauchlan says that McDonald’s is always looking at improving the quality of its inputs, and the mandate to do so comes from its customers, as long as that doesn’t come at the expense of taste. She says that while the company is occasionally asked questions about the GM nature of its canola oil, most customer concerns are about the nutrition profile of the food.

Those questions about GM canola can reach back all the way to the grower, and can be difficult to answer given the amount of misinformation available to consumers. But Kate Hall, managing director of the Council for Biotechnology Information, says she thinks the agricultural industry, as a whole, has gotten much more effective at responding to those questions.

“I think as an industry we are doing a better job connecting with consumers over their concerns with GMOs than we did in the past,” says Hall. “And that comes right down to the farmer level. Farmers are a direct portal to the industry and so we want to make sure they realize they have support when preparing answers to questions they may be asked.” The Council for Biotechnology Information hosts gmoanswers.com, a website that offers consumers, growers and others in the industry a platform to ask questions about GM technology in food. The answers come from a host of food-industry volunteers. Hall says they don’t hide from emotional questions because they recognize that food is an emotional issue for many people. She says they find that when they are transparent in their answers, most people are simply interested in knowing their food is safe.

“The canola industry is so important and we find when farmers are open and honest and proud of what they grow, people respond in a positive way,” she says. “Canola growers have to be willing to engage and show people that they are astute business people who are taking part in an important industry that wouldn’t succeed if the food was unsafe.”

She says that today, more and more farmers are participating in conversations about GM products and that has shifted conversations from worry about the health and safety of GMOs to a discussion on consumers’ right to know what’s in their food. She understands the trepidation in engaging people on the topic, but says consumers in general are open to learning more about their food.

“I think the majority of people are much more open-minded on this issue than you might think,” she says. “I’d suggest not letting two bad conversations keep you from having eight good ones. People do have confidence in canola, and the high number of canola-based products in the market is a sign of that confidence.”

Canola oil is continually evolving to meet consumer and food industry demands. Sharing information that canola oil is a healthy choice, is good to cook with and is an in-demand product will help expand markets and opportunities into the future.