In the wellness world, olive oil is thought of as liquid gold; it has a definite health halo. Canola oil on the other hand, which is less expensive and used in more foods (at least here in the States), isn’t typically given the same praise. Canola oil and olive oil are the most commonly used oils in the kitchen—is the latter really all that superior?
Here to break down the canola oil vs olive oil debate is registered dietitian Isabel Smith, RD. Smith unpacks the health benefits of each oil, the optimal ways to use them both, and the verdict on which one takes the crown in terms of being the most nutrient-rich. Nutrition school is in.
Canola oil vs olive oil: Which one is the healthiest? Keep reading to find out.
The healthy pros and cons of canola oil
Let’s tackle canola oil first, which tends to be the more misunderstood of the two. “Canola oil is made from the canola plant,” Smith says, which is derived from the rapeseed plant (and in the same family as mustard). The canola plant is a bright yellow flowering plant and its seeds are 35 percent oil—super high for a plant.
According to Smith, the verdict on if canola oil is healthy or not is complicated. Here, she details the healthy pros and cons.
1. Canola oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids.
“Canola oil has been considered ‘healthy’ in the past because it was an alternative to saturated fat,” Smith says. One reason for this is that it’s low in erucic acid. “The canola plant was developed from rapeseed in order to use it to produce a food-grade oil with lower erucic acid levels. Erucic acid is a compound present in mustard and rape seeds, which is known to be damaging to our health, specifically our hearts,” Smith explains.
Canola oil is also high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are good for heart health. But Smith says canola oil has a bit too much of the nutrient. “The problem with canola oil is that it is extremely high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (PUFA). A diet high in these omega-6 fats will cause systemic inflammation in the body, which is an underlying commonality with all modern chronic diseases, including heart disease and diabetes,” she says. The key is to consume more omega-3 fatty acids than omega-6 fatty acids, so consuming too much canola oil can actually work against you, in terms of heart health.
2. Most canola oil is genetically modified.
“A very high percentage of canola oils are genetically modified, and highly processed with industrial solvents,” Smith says. To her point, approximately 93 percent of the canola grown in the U.S. is from genetically modified seeds. The discussion about whether genetically modified food is bad for you is a heated debate in the wellness world. While the majority of scientific studies have not found a clear link between consuming genetically modified food or crops and poor health outcomes, many healthy eaters still choose to steer clear of them. Whatever side of the debate you fall on, it’s worth knowing that, more likely than not, the canola oil you’re consuming is genetically modified.
3. Consuming canola oil could help lower cholesterol.
Canola oil is high in phytosterols, which helps absorb cholesterol in the body, therefore reducing overall cholesterol levels. An older study published in European Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that participants who consumed 75 grams of canola oil a day for three days had lower cholesterol at the end of the trial than participants who consumed 75 grams of olive oil. However, this study only looked at nine human participants and was for a very short period of time, so it’s unclear if those effects are true for a larger population and if they are long-lasting effects.
4. High consumption of canola oil may negatively impact memory.
Researchers have found that when mice with symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease consumed canola oil per day over a six month period, it negatively impacted their memory and learning abilities. It’s important to keep in mind that this is just one study, and it was performed on mice and not humans, but the implication could be a red flag of how consuming canola oil every day for a long period of time affects the brain.
What is canola oil used for?
The reason why canola oil is used so widely in cooking, baking, and food production is because it has a mild, relatively neutral flavor and can withstand a high smoke point (meaning you can cook it at super high heat without it smoking or burning). It’s also relatively inexpensive. It can be used for sautéing, grilling, and stir-frying. It’s also widely used in baking as a fat for moisture and texture.
Now that you have all the facts on canola oil, let’s continue the canola oil vs olive oil debate by running down the pros and cons of olive oil.
The nutritional pros and cons of olive oil
1. Olive oil is linked to lowering inflammation.
“Olive oil is an anti-inflammatory oil, while canola oil is known to be pro-inflammatory,” Smith says. This is because, she explains, olive oil is high in antioxidants, which fights off free radicals in the body. “Olive oil contains strong antioxidants, mainly oleocanthal and oleic acid, which can help reduce inflammatory markers in the body like CRP (C-reactive protein),” she says.
2. It’s good for your heart.
Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fats, which support heart health, and because its polyunsaturated fat content is quite low, it’s less controversial of a heart healthy oil than canola. In fact, one study of 7,216 men and women at high cardiovascular risk found that consuming olive oil on a regular basis lowered the participants’ risk for cardiovascular disease by a whopping 48 percent.
3. Olive oil could help improve memory.
Researchers compared the effects of giving butter, extra-virgin olive oil, and coconut oil to mice with accelerated brain aging for six weeks. The researchers found that olive oil consumption was linked to improved memory (the opposite of the above-mentioned canola oil memory study). This is likely because of those powerful antioxidants, which benefit the whole body (not just the heart), brain included. The fatty acids in olive oil are also linked to improving brain health, another reason why it could be good for memory. Again, this is just a short-term mouse study, so it’s unclear how its findings translate to humans—but still very promising.
4. It may help lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Olive oil consumption could help protect against type 2 diabetes. One report, which took into account 15,784 people from four different studies, found that regular olive oil consumption was linked to reducing the risk by up to 16 percent, although the benefits differed depending on the health of the group studied. (More dramatic results were found in people with type 2 diabetes than in the control group.)
Watch this video to learn more about olive oil:
What is olive oil used for?
While there aren’t any nutritional downsides to olive oil, it does have some cons in terms of versatility. Unlike canola oil, olive oil has a low smoke point, which means it’s not typically a good oil to use for sautéing, stir-frying, or grilling at super high heats. (You still can use it, of course, just keep an eye out for burning and smoking.) Instead, it’s better used to top off food that’s already been cooked, like pasta, chicken, and grilled veggies. It also makes a great base for a salad dressing; simply blend it with whatever herbs you love. (Try David Bouley’s turmeric-infused olive oil for one that’s high in anti-inflammatory benefits.)
Canola oil vs. olive oil: which one is healthier?
Because they’re used in different ways, you’ll likely want to stock both canola oil and olive oil in your pantry. In both cases, Smith recommends buying an organic oil, if your budget allows, which will cut down on the amount of chemicals (including pesticides) the canola or olive plants have been sprayed with.
Considering the nutritional profiles of each oil, you can probably guess which one Smith is more in favor of: Yep, olive oil. “I would advise choosing olive oil almost every time,” she says. “Canola oil has a high smoke point, which is why it’s often used when frying or cooking foods at high heat, but there are much better options, like avocado oil. Canola oil is also always the cheaper option, but spending the little bit of extra money on something like olive oil is always a recommendation of mine.”
Still, if you’re using tablespoon or two of canola oil in your cooking, don’t sweat it. It bears repeating that it still has heart-healthy benefits when consumed, as with many things, in moderation.