Canola oil is often heralded as one of the healthier and more stable oils to cook with due to its high smoke point and low levels of saturated fats, but how does it compare to the well-researched extra virgin olive oil? Read on to find out the differences between these two oils, and which one is really superior for health and cooking.
Canola oil and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) are produced using two very different methods. Canola oil is derived from the seeds of the canola plant (which is a type of rapeseed) and is refined. In order to extract oil from canola seeds, the seeds are heated, and a solvent called hexane is generally used1. After extraction, the oil is then further refined via methods such as bleaching, deodorizing, and degumming1. In contrast, EVOO is unrefined, and is produced by mechanical methods. This means the olive fruit is pressed using no chemicals or extreme heat2. This mechanical pressing and lack of refinement means the natural antioxidants and polyphenols are preserved in the oil, creating a healthy and natural product.
Fatty acid profile
Both canola oil and extra virgin olive oil are full of healthy unsaturated fats, however they differ in the fatty acid profile. Canola oil has a higher percentage of polyunsaturated fats (26% vs EVOOs 8%) and EVOO has a higher percentage of monounsaturated fats (65% vs canola oils 55%)3. Canola oil is also lower in saturated fat (7% vs EVOOs 15%)3. This low percentage of saturated fat is often the main reason why canola oil is considered one of the healthier oils. While both oils contain a healthy fat profile, which can contribute to the prevention of chronic diseases such as heart disease4, it’s also important to look beyond the fatty acid profile when deciding which oil is superior in terms of health benefits.
While the fatty acid profile of oils is important, in order to really judge the health benefits of an edible oil it is vital to consider the other health promoting components such as polyphenols, antioxidants and phytosterols5. Canola oil and EVOO have significantly different quantities of polyphenols and antioxidants, due to the different ways in which they are made, as well as the nutritional composition of the canola seed vs the olive fruit.
The refining process of canola oil can lead to the destruction of some of the antioxidants naturally found in the canola seed, however the degree to which this occurs does depend on the refining method6. One of the main antioxidants found in canola oil is tocopherol/vitamin E, however it also contains phytosterols, which have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels and have antioxidant activity7.
Since EVOO is unrefined, most of the antioxidants and minor compounds are retained in the final product. In particular, EVOO has high levels of polyphenols, which are powerful and unique antioxidants that have been associated with anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular health benefits8. EVOO also contains additional antioxidants in the forms of tocopherols/vitamin E and squalene9. Overall, EVOO contains much higher levels of antioxidants than canola oil.
A recent paper published in Nutrients journal set out to create a system to rank edible oils based on their nutritional quality10. This paper created a scoring system based on the fatty acid profile of the oils, but also looked at the minor components such as phytosterols and antioxidants. Using this scoring system, the paper concluded that virgin olive oil ranked first of the 32 oils judged, indicating it is of the highest nutritional quality. Canola oil, on the other hand, ranked 17th. This paper is one of the first to create a scoring system for edible oils looking beyond the fatty acid profile.
Canola oil is often recommended as a suitable oil for high heat cooking due to its high smoke point – however there is evidence to suggest that smoke point is not actually a good indicator of an oil’s stability when heated11.
Studies have shown that polyunsaturated fats are more prone to oxidation, while monounsaturated fats are more resistant to breaking down at high temperatures. Cooking oils with higher levels of antioxidants have also been shown to be more stable at higher temperatures, as the antioxidants protect the oil from breaking down. With this in mind, EVOO, with its high levels of monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, is in fact one of the most stable oils to cook with11.
When choosing an oil for culinary uses, the flavour profile is an important consideration. Canola oil has a ‘neutral’ taste and no smell and is therefore frequently used in recipes calling for a ‘neutral’ oil. On the other hand, people often mistakenly believe all extra virgin olive oils have a strong flavour, making it unsuitable for some forms of cooking. However, this is not the case. Extra virgin olive oil actually has a variety of taste profiles, ranging from delicate/mild through to robust. This makes EVOO an extremely versatile oil, as the mild versions are suitable for recipes calling for a ‘neutral’ oil, while robust varieties can be used for salad dressings, marinades and rich dishes where the bold flavour compliments the other ingredients.
While both canola oil and extra virgin olive oil contain predominately unsaturated fats, recent research has shown that it is important to look beyond the fatty acid profile when judging edible oils. With its high quantities of antioxidants and polyphenols, and strong evidence base, extra virgin olive oil is the superior oil for health, as well as being more stable at high temperatures and more versatile in the kitchen.
View article references
- Canola Council of Canada. Canola Council of Canada – About Canola Processing [Internet]. [cited 27 Jun 2023]. Available from: https://www.canolacouncil.org/about-canola/processing/
- Australia S. Australian Standards: Olive oils and olive pomace oils. AS 5264- 2011.; 2011.
- Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Australian Food Composition Database - Release 2.0. Canberra ACT, Food Standards Australia New Zealand; 2022
- National Heart Foundation of Australia. Dietary Fat and Heart Healthy Eating. 2019. Retrieved from https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/Bundles/For-Professionals/Nutrition-Position-Statements
- Teasdale SB et al. How should we judge edible oils and fats? An umbrella review of the health effects of nutrient and bioactive components found in edible oils and fats. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2022;62(19):5167-5182.
- Ghazani, S.; Marangoni, A. Minor components in canola oil and effects of refining on these constituents: A review. Am. Oil Chem. Soc.2013, 90, 923–932
- U.S. Canola Association. U.S. Canola Association – Nutrition & Cooking [Internet]. [cited 27 Jun 2023]. Available from: https://www.uscanola.com/nutrition-cooking/
- Santangelo, C et al. Anti-inflammatory Activity of Extra Virgin Olive Oil Polyphenols: Which Role in the Prevention and Treatment of Immune-Mediated Inflammatory Diseases? Endocr.Metab. Immune Disord. Drug Targets 2018, 18, 36–50
- Waterman E, Lockwood B. Active components and clinical applications of olive oil. Alt Med Rev. 2007;12(4):331–41
- García-González A, Quintero-Flórez A, Ruiz-Méndez MV, Perona JS. Virgin Olive Oil Ranks First in a New Nutritional Quality Score Due to Its Compositional Profile. Nutrients. 2023 Apr 28;15(9):2127. doi: 10.3390/nu15092127. PMCID: PMC10180740
- De Alzaa F, et al. Evaluation of Chemical and Physical Changes in Different Commercial Oils during Heating. ACTA Scientific Nutritional Health. 2018;2(6):2-11