Canola oil: From Canada’s fields to the world’s kitchens

Part of a series about people, products and discoveries that changed the world.

Among the 25 ingredients in chef Jason Bangerter’s terroir salad are marigolds, wild berries and ground black almonds, all grown within a short walk of his kitchen.

Foraged flowers and herbs supply bursts of citrus and pepper, he says, while seeds lay a crunchy base.

But it’s the canola sorbet he spoons into the middle of the plate that ties it all together: a soft and buttery bearer of the sweet and savoury in a dish he serves at Langdon Hall, an inn and spa in Cambridge, Ont.

Mr. Bangerter makes the sorbet with canola oil, not olive oil, because it’s Ontario-made – the only ingredient in the dish that isn’t grown on the 75-acre estate – but also for its special taste.

“You have that fresh cold-pressed canola flavour as the igniting point,” he says. “You get a really big … almost like a toasted corn flavour. It’s just so unique and interesting.”

It wasn’t always that way. Before there was canola, there was rapeseed, canola’s smelly, bad-for-you cousin.

The small, dark seeds were crushed for their oil, which for centuries had been used for everything from cooking and lamp oil to lubricants in the steam engines and ships that powered the war effort.

Harvested canola seed from the Chorney farm in East Selkirk, Man.

But today what’s known as canola is grown on 8.2 million hectares of Canadian farmland and found in doughnut deep-fryers, chicken feed and fine kitchens such as Mr. Bangerter’s. By acreage, canola rivals wheat, comprising 25 per cent of farmers’ fields compared with wheat’s 27 per cent. (In 2000, there were twice as many acres of wheat as canola.)

That’s all due to the work of Richard K. Downey, a plant breeder and federal government scientist from Saskatoon.

In the 1960s, he transformed rapeseed into a healthful, edible crop by breeding out the nasty traits – the erucic acid (bad for the heart and other organs) and the glucosinolates (bad for the livestock that ate the crushed by-product known as meal.)

Canola oil is low in saturated fat, high in monounsaturated fat and smokes very little in a frying pan.

The processed kind – not the cold-pressed canola Mr. Bangerter uses – adds little taste to food.

Like most other vegetable oils, canola oil is processed using chemicals – hexane and bleach. This and the fact the Canadian crop is now genetically modified to resist drought and insects makes it unpopular in some countries, and in parts of the Internet.

Still, Canadian farmers in 2016 harvested canola worth about $8.6-billion, making it the most valuable field crop by revenue. Canola production has doubled in the past 10 years, to more than 18 million tonnes in 2016, as global demand has soared.

A field of ripe canola sits ready for harvest near Lethbridge, Alta.

“We’ve seen huge growth of canola over the last 20 years or so,” said Michael Burt, the Conference Board of Canada’s director for industrial economic trends.

Dr. Downey first came across rapeseed (as it was then known) while working in the fields of the federal Dominion Forage Crops Laboratory in Saskatoon as a 14-year-old during the Second World War. Canada and its allies had lost access to a valuable source of rapeseed lubricant from Asia, and Ottawa was asked to begin growing the crop in greater numbers. So Dr. Downey began his first of several summers in the plots, weeding around the plants and eventually cross-breeding different varieties to find a strain best suited to the short Prairie growing season.

“When the first [seeds] came it was not well-suited. It was very late [to ripen] and the yields were reasonably good but there was a lot of improvement to be made in the oil content and maturity,” Dr. Downey, 90, said by phone.

It turned out a Polish immigrant in the area had a garden full of the stuff, grown with seed he had brought from his homeland, where summers are also short and early maturing crops are favoured. This wound up being the variety much of the Prairies adopted.

Encouraged by a government-guaranteed six cents a pound, farmers had planted 80,000 acres of the yellow-flowered crop by 1948.

By the late 1950s, Canadian rapeseed oil was being used for more than machine lubrication. It was being eaten by people, especially in Ontario, at a time the country imported 95 per cent of its cooking oils. Ontarians were not alone – people had eaten and cooked with rapeseed oil in China, Japan and other countries for centuries.

However, the federal government responded to a study that questioned the safety of eating rapeseed oil by – temporarily – ordering it off the shelves of grocery stores. Rapeseed, it turned out, contained something not present in other vegetable oils: erucic acid, which caused lesions on the hearts and other organs of lab rats.

A cyclist passes between two canola fields on an afternoon trail ride near Cremona, Alta.

Ottawa’s ban did not last long. But Dr. Downey, who had built his career spreading rapeseed throughout Canada, soon found himself working with another scientist in Saskatoon, Baldur Stefansson, on a new task: making it safer to eat.

By 1968, Dr. Downey had developed a low-acid rapeseed. By the mid-1970s, the pair of researchers had come up with three more varieties, each one better yielding and with low acid and glucosinolate (the chemical found unhealthful for livestock).

“The oil and meal that the crushers extracted were sent to the nutritionist and the margarine industry, as well, to prove to our customers that it had it had all the advantages we said it did. They all said, this is great stuff,” Dr. Downey said.

But now that the stuff was palatable, it needed a name to match.

“The industry said, we don’t like phoning up our customers to say, ‘We’ve got some low erucic, low glucosinolate rapeseed for you.’ It was way too much,” Dr. Downey said.

The western Canadian oilseed companies got together in the early 1980s and settled on canola – can for Canada and ola because it sounded a bit like oil, he said. “So that was that.”

Richardson International Ltd., a Winnipeg-based agriculture and food company, is just one Canadian company that has ridden the rising wave of new global demand for canola as a cooking oil, animal feed and biodiesel.

Richardson Oilseed is one of Canada’s oldest and largest fully-integrated crushing, refining, processing and packaging operations of Canola and its products. A worker in the company’s test lab is shown checking a sample of canola oil.

“We’re handling eight times what we were in 2005,” said Aaron Anderson, Richardson’s assistant vice-president of grain merchandising.

China is now the biggest buyer of Richardson’s canola, accounting for more than Japan and Mexico combined in 2015.

Also driving Chinese demand for Canadian canola is the Asian country’s failure to grow enough of its own to become self-sufficient in the crop, said the Conference Board’s Mr. Burt. “It’s a niche where they do need to import a certain amount to meet their domestic needs, so we’ve been successful at exploiting that opportunity,” Mr. Burt said in an interview.

Rapeseed, the smelly, unhealthful oilseed, has all but vanished. But not the name. It’s still called rapeseed in most countries, a quirk Dr. Downey attributes to professional pettiness.

Growers and seed companies “have used our material to breed that but they don’t call it canola, officially, because they were jealous. They don’t like the ‘can’ in front. They don’t like to acknowledge that all this came from Canada,” he said.

Dr. Downey’s canola is grown worldwide. But neither he nor the federal government patented any of the varieties they developed. As he sees it, any inedible rapeseed would only limit the market for the good old Canadian type. And the more countries that grew it, the better.

“We did this for the common good and it’s really paid off for the whole country,” he said.

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