An Oily Urban Legend

Related articles

"Canola oil," Rodney W. Flynn apparently said in a message that recently circulated on the Internet, "is a health hazard to use as a cooking oil or salad oil. It is not the healthy oil we thought it was. It is not fit for human consumption, do not eat canola oil, it can hurt you. Polyunsaturated or not, this is a bad oil." Yet in an email response to a question from me, Flynn said of this message: "I am no authority on the subject. As a matter of fact, I did no research. I did not write any of what you read, I only copied it from a web site."* The sources of Flynn's message (formerly at oil.htm) are many, but they trace ultimately to a 1994 book of health-related nonsense: Young Again: How to Reverse the Aging Process, by John Thomas.

The claim that canola oil is dangerous was picked up in 1996 by Tom Valentine, whose "Radio Free America" program purportedly "fearlessly investigate[s] every aspect of life in these United States to bring listeners the REAL truth." Valentine's show offers a diet of conspiracy theories and malcontents asserting, for example, that individuals are not legally obligated to pay income tax, that HIV does not cause AIDS, that the agent of the infamous 1995 Oklahoma City blast was a neutron bomb, and that the Establishment is corrupt and systematically suppresses astounding discoveries including cures for cancer and various means of providing energy at negligible expense.

The Rape of Canola

The tall tale of canola has become a mainstream urban legend, with anything even remotely related to canola ripe for involvement in an increasingly ridiculous tale of deadly danger and intrigue. Below are excerpts from Flynn's message.

Canola is not the name of a natural plant but a made-up word, from the words "Canada" and "oil." Canola is a genetically engineered plant developed in Canada from the Rapeseed Plant, which is part of the mustard family of plants. . . .

Rapeseed oil is poisonous to living things and is an excellent insect repellent. I have been using it (in very diluted form, as per instructions) to kill the aphids on my roses for the last two years. It works very well; it suffocates them. . . . It is an industrial oil. It is not a food. Rape oil, it seems, causes emphysema, respiratory distress, anemia, constipation, irritability, and blindness in animals and humans.

Rape oil was widely used in animal feeds in England and Europe between 1986 and 1991, when it was thrown out. . . . "Mad Cow disease" . . . [began when cattle were] being fed on a mixture containing material from dead sheep, and sheep suffer from a disease called "scrapie." . . . What is interesting is that when rape oil was removed from animal feed, "scrapie" disappeared.

We also haven't seen any further reports of "Mad Cow" since rape oil was removed from the feed. . . .

[R]ape oil was the source of the chemical warfare agent mustard gas . . . .

The Canadian government and industry paid our Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) $50 million dollars to have canola oil placed on the (GRAS) List, "Generally Recognized As Safe." . . . Rats developed fatty degeneration of heart, kidney, adrenals, and thyroid gland. When canola oil was withdrawn from their diets, the deposits dissolved but scar tissue remained on all vital organs. . . .

Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) is a rare fatal degenerative disease caused by a build up [of] long-chain fatty acids (c22 to c28) which destroys the myelin (protective sheath) of the nerves. Canola oil is a very long chain fatty acid oil (c22). . . .

My cholesterol level was 150. After a year using Canola oil I tested 260. I switched back to pure olive oil and it has taken 5 years to get it down to 160. . . .

Rape seed oil is a penetrating oil, to be used in light industry, not for human consumption. It contains a toxic substance. Even after the processing to reduce the erucic acid content, it is still a penetrating oil. We have found that it turns rancid very fast. Also it leaves a residual rancid odor on clothing.

Below are statements of some relevant facts about canola oil.

* The word "canola" is an acronym for "Canada oil low acid." The canola plant was developed in Canada, from Brassica rapa, of the mustard genus. It is distinguished partly by very low concentrations of erucic acid an unusual, un-palatable long-chain fatty acid in its seed. Its development did not involve genetic engineering.
* Insects can be suffocated with any oil.
* Many members of the mustard genus (Brassica) are common foodstuffs. No mustard, incidentally, relates to the chemical warfare agent dichlorodiethyl sulfide (yellow cross, or yperite), called "mustard gas" and "sulfur mustard" because of its odorousness its only similarity to mustards.
* Vegetable oils of many kinds are used both as foods and non-nutritionally. Lubricants, soaps, plastics, and many other products are made from edible oils. Highly unsaturated oils such as linseed oil, from flax (Linum usitatissimum) are used in the manufacture of varnishes and other paints. Indeed, the name for linoleum, which contains linseed oil, derives from "linseed" and "oleum" (synonymous with "oil"). And linseed (flaxseed) sells as a dietary supplement.
* There is no sound evidence whatsoever that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was, as Flynn has suggested, paid off to have canola oil categorized as GRAS.
* Erucic acid constitutes 40-50 percent of the fatty-acid content of rapeseed. It is cardiotoxic in animals that consume it as a major part of their diet. (From some studies, it appears that erucic acid may inhibit mitochondrial oxidation of fatty acids.) In 1981, rapeseed oil adulterated with aniline (a toxic derivative of benzene) was implicated in a Spanish outbreak of toxic oil syndrome; high erucic acid concentrations may have contributed to the pathologic effects observed.
* Erucic acid has been used, reportedly somewhat successfully, in the treatment of adrenoleukodystrophy a rare hereditary disorder characterized by adrenal insufficiency and myelin loss from whitish neural tissue in the brain. Erucic acid and oleic acid compose Lorenzo's Oil made fa-mous in the 1993 theatrical re-lease of the same name.
* Long-standing concern over dietary erucic acid and the mechanical properties of erucic acid led to the development of HEAR (High Erucic Acid Rapeseed) and LEAR (Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed) varieties. The latter varieties became known as canola. Erucic acid constitutes less than one percent of canola oil. Compared to the fats that occur in lard and egg yolk, canola oil has proved preservative of the myocardial cells of rats.
* As the sole dietary fat, canola oil appears unhealthful to rats, especially to those with high blood pressure. This may well hold for any oil that is high in unsaturated fatty acids. But most residents of developed countries overconsume not unsaturated fats, but saturated fats (particularly animal fats).
* It is not the oil of canola, but canola cake which consists of what remains of the seed after the oil has been expressed that is conventionally used in animal feed. Furthermore, canola cake evidently has never been "thrown out" from such use.
* It is generally held in the scientific community that prions proteins of abnormal shape that can identically misshape normal proteins of the brain are responsible for bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE, or mad cow disease) and scrapie. Neither canola oil nor canola cake is at all related to any of the transmissible spongiform encephalop-athies (prion diseases).
* At least until the mid-1980s, it was widely held in the nutrition community that polyunsaturated fats were, in terms of heart disease, the least risky oils. In recent years, such has been widely claimed, soundly, for monounsaturated fats. Canola oil is rich in monunsaturated fatty acids.
* Unrefined rapeseed oil has been used for centuries in cooking, primarily in Asia, where often food is cooked at temperatures higher than those at which food is cooked in the West. Inhalation of smoke of any kind is likely to cause at least an ephemeral respiratory problem. But there is no sound evidence that canola oil is responsible for any health problem whatsoever.
* All species of Brassica contain glucosinolates sulfur compounds that at high levels can adversely affect thyroid function and at low levels may contribute to cancer prevention. But because the taste of these compounds is unpleasant, preparation of canola oil for human consumption conventionally involves removing them.
* The development of highly edible products from marginal foods or nonfoods is by no means un-heard-of. The development of cottonseed oil is a case in point. If the fiber of Gossypium hirsutum (cotton) had not proved commercially important, commercial production of cottonseed oil probably would not have become economic. Unrefined cottonseed oil contains toxic bitters such as gossypol which not long ago researchers considered promising as a male contraceptive. Chemist David Wesson (b. 1861) developed a process involving sodium hydroxide (lye), fuller's earth (basically, a type of clay), and steam that could remove much of the gossypol in cottonseed oil. The result of this process became the first mass-market cottonseed oil in 1900, as Wesson Oil. The introduction of Wesson Oil a variation of an oil inedible to humans, from a plant that is not otherwise a source of human food marked the genesis of the modern vegetable oil industry.

The introduction of Wesson Oil a variation of an oil inedible to humans, from a plant that is not otherwise a source of human food marked the genesis of the modern vegetable oil industry.

Losing One's Marbles

The most outrageous part of Flynn's canola story follows.

A friend, who worked for only 9 mo. as a quality control taster at an apple-chip factory where Canola oil was used exclusively for frying, developed numerous health problems . . . . loose teeth & gum disease; numb hands and feet; swollen arms and legs . . . extreme joint pain especially in hands, cloudy vision, constipation with stools like black marbles, hearing loss; skin tears from being bumped; lack of energy; hair loss and heart pains. . . .

A fellow worker, about 30 years old, who ate very little product, had a routine check up and found that his blood vessels were like those of an 80 year old man. Two employees fed the waste product to baby calves and their hair fell out. After removing the fried apple chips from the diet their hair grew back in.

My daughter and her girls were telling jokes. Stephanie hit her mom's arm with the back of a butter knife in a gesture, "Oh mom" not hard enough to hurt. My daughter's arm split open like it was rotten. She called me to ask what could have caused it. I said, "I'll bet anything that you are using Canola oil." Sure enough, there was a big gallon jug in the pantry.

Canola oil's having such effects yet long remaining on the market in the U.S. would be enormously extraordinary. A case in point concerns the weight-control drug dexfenfluramine hydrochloride (Redux®). American Home Products Corporation/Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories spent tens of millions of dollars on testing and developing this appetite suppressant for FDA approval. An FDA advisory committee recommended such approval in 1995, and Redux became available by prescription in April 1996. Subsequently, clinical reports were published suggesting that Redux increased the risk of developing valvular heart disease and pulmonary hypertension. The August 28, 1997, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine included such a report. On the basis of this inconclusive evidence, Wyeth-Ayerst voluntarily withdrew Redux from the market the next month less than a year and a half after its introduction as a prescription drug.

The basis for this action centered on subtle heart problems among some of the millions of patients who had been taking Redux. Yet Flynn evidently would have us believe that canola oil sells despite its causing conspicuous physical problems. No such reports have been published in any legitimate medical journal.

The Bottom Line

Canola oil is no less healthful than comparable products, including corn, safflower, sesame, and sunflower oils. Implying that canola oil is in essence rapeseed oil and therefore unwholesome is analogous to saying that dogs are basically wolves and thus are dangerous as pets.

Timothy N. Gorsky, M.D., is an Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Obstetrics/ Gynecology of the University of North Texas.

* An alleged compilation ascribed to Darleen Bradley is equivalent to Flynn's message. Bradley's message is followed by a rebuttal at

(From Priorities, Vol. 13, No.2)