The Canola Story

There are three articles on this page that tell the story of canola. You can scroll down to read them all or use these handy links to go directly to the story you want to read.

Canola becomes a crop

Authored by Dr. Keith Downey

The story of canola began in 1942, the middle of World War II. At that time all trains and ships were steam powered and to keep them running smoothly, oil from the rapeseed species Brassica napus and B. rapa were essential. This was because rapeseed oil clings to metal surfaces, when washed with steam or water, better than any other lubricant. When the war cut off supplies from Asia and Europe, Canada was asked if it could grow the crop. Experimental plantings confirmed that with minor adjustments to seeding and harvest equipment the crop was well adapted to the cooler, moister regions of the Canadian prairies. Seed of the B. napus species was quickly increased from a sample of seed thought to have originated in Argentina while a Shellbrook farmer distributed B. rapa seed he had brought with him from Poland in 1936. Thus, the two species became known in Canada as Argentine and Polish types.

Commercial production began in 1943 with a government guaranteed price of 6c/lb and production quickly expanded to 79,000 acres by 1948, about 75% of which was B. rapa. However, with the war over and diesel replaced steam power, the government withdrew its support price and the market and crop almost disappeared. Fortunately, an edible oil market was found in Japan where rapeseed oil was the traditional deep-frying oil (Tempura), and the crop was saved.

From the outset scientists involved recognized that rapeseed could also be an edible oil source for Canada. At that time Canada imported 90% of its edible oil needs and some companies in the early 50s began to market the oil domestically. This new product in the edible market interested Canadian nutritionists who reported that lab animals fed rapeseed oil performed poorly under stress and had enlarged adrenal glands. Further lab animal studies reported additional nutritional problems suggesting that the fatty acid composition of rapeseed oil was the cause. Fatty acids are the building blocks of an oil and the fatty acid composition of an oil determines its utility, value and nutritional quality. For example, linolenic and linoleic acids are essential fatty acids for human nutrition. Rapeseed oil differs from other edible oils in containing a substantial amount of long carbon chain, monoenoic fatty acids, eicosenoic and erucic acid. Their nutritional value was questioned.

These nutritional concerns focused scientists on discovering efficient techniques to search for rapeseed germplasm with little or no long chain fatty acids. Scientists at the National Research Laboratory in Saskatoon introduced and built a new instrument called a gas chromatograph that could analyze an oil’s composition in minutes, compared with the previous technique requiring a 2-pound sample of seed and a week’s time. Thanks to this breakthrough plant breeders produced the first low erucic varieties of B. napus in 1968 and in B. rapa in 1971 (Oro and Span, respectively). The elimination of the long chain fatty acids was achieved by genetically blocking the biosynthetic pathway for erucic as the oil is laid down in the developing seed. Tests of this new natural oil showed it to be nutritionally desirable and ideally suited as a salad and cooking oil as well as in margarine shortening blends. Further reports of the anti nutritional effect of high erucic rapeseed oil were presented at the Second International Rapeseed Congress in 1970. To protect the crop, Canada decided to take what little seed we had of the low erucic strains of both species to California that winter to replace the old high erucic varieties with Oro and Span. The returning seed was sown in 1971 and with the cooperation of the entire industry, conversion to low erucic varieties, was completed by 1973.

Other producing countries followed Canada’s lead in converting their production. However, the export of rapeseed oil or seed into the United States was blocked because rapeseed oil was not used in the U.S. before 1958. Thus, it was not included in their list of ingredients considered Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). Agriculture Canada undertook a vary large body of nutritional research to obtain canola GRAS status in 1985, thus opening the US market to Canadian canola oil. 

Research into the fatty acid composition of rapeseed oil established that each step along the fatty acid biosynthetic pathway was controlled by an enzyme that could be genetically manipulated. As a result, specialty oil varieties have been developed and grown under contract. These include the very high erucic (>50) varieties for the plastics industry and the low linolenic, high oleic varieties with extended keeping qualities and absence of cooking odors. Recently a canola oil nutritional supplement, containing very long chain fatty acids, promises to reduce inflammation and support brain and eye health. 

Although a superior nutritional and functional oil had been produced a major market constraint remained, namely, the utilization of the high protein meal remaining after oil extraction. Even though the protein quality of the meal was equal to soya meal, feed efficiency and weight gains were well below expected levels when rapeseed meal was fed to swine and poultry. This restricted feed market in turn limited the amount of seed that could be processed. The problem was the presence of sulphur compounds in the seed called glucosinolates. Although theses compounds give the desirable flavor and odor to vegetables like cabbage, turnip, mustard and many other cruciferous crops, the rapeseed plant concentrates glucosinolates at high levels in the seed. When the seed is crushed and moisture is present the glucosinolates release isothiocynates that interfere with the iodine uptake by the thyroid gland in nonruminant animals.

To breed rapeseed plants free of glucosinolates, again new chemical methodologies had to be developed to rapidly and accurately measure the various glucosinolates within a small sample of seed. Using these new techniques breeders where able to identify a strain of B. napus with a reduced glucosinolate content and from that germplasm produce the first low erucic, low glucosinolate variety, Tower in 1974 and the first double low B. rapa variety, Candle, in 1977.

By 1980, with the cooperation of everyone in the industry, the 6-million-acre commercial crop was converted to the new double low varieties thus removing the meal market constraint. Animal nutritionists at several universities conducted extensive studies to convince both domestic and foreign feed formulators that low glucosinolates meal was indeed a safe, wholesome and an economic feed. Indeed, it is now established that dairy cows fed canola meal produce over 1 litre more milk per day than when fed other commonly used protein supplements (such as soya meal).

As a result of the nutritional upgrading of the oil and meal, a new name for the crop and its products was required and the name, “canola” was coined, defined and trademarked. The development of canola is considered a success story because it diversified Canada’s agriculture base, eliminated Canada’s dependence on edible oil imports, and increased returns to producers while expanding markets at home and abroad. In addition, it also resulted in the established a large rural based, value added, oilseed crushing and refining industry. Canola has also responded to all the biotechnologies with nearly all the crop herbicide tolerant and hybrid varieties dominating the acreage.

Canola – the healthy oil

Canola oil is heart healthy, versatile and affordable. It’s healthy fat profile, neutral taste, light texture, and high heat tolerance make it a culinary superstar – from salad dressings, sauces, and marinades to baking, grilling, sautéing and deep-frying. 

What is Canola?

  • Canola is a plant - a member of a large family called crucifers. Included in the Brassica family, canola is related to kale, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and mustard.  Crucifers are easy to identify as their four yellow flower petals form the shape of a cross.
  • Canola grows to a height of one to two metres and is ready to harvest in about 3 ½ months – depending on temperature, moisture, sunlight, and soil fertility.  It is a cool season crop and grows particularly well on the Canadian prairies, where hot days and cool nights allow it to develop its unique fatty acid profile.  
  • The yellow flowers produce narrow seed pods about 5 cm in length. There is an average of 60 to 100 pods per plant.  Each seed pod contains from 20 to 30 tiny round seeds, about 1 mm in diameter.  
  • After harvesting, the seeds are crushed to release the canola oil. Each seed contains about 45% oil – double that of soybeans.  
  • Canada – primarily the prairie provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba – is the world’s top exporter of canola and one of its top producers.
  • Canola oil is used all over the world.  It is the number one cooking oil used in Canada and Japan, and the number two oil in the United States and Mexico. Overall, it is the third most consumed oil in the world. 
  • Although they look similar, canola and rapeseed plants are very different. Canadian researchers used traditional plant breeding to eliminate the undesirable components of rapeseed and created a new plant called ‘canola’.
  • Did you know that the name canola comes from two words - Canada and ola (oil)?  It is a true ‘Made in Canada’ innovation!

Canola Oil is a Heart Smart Choice
Canola oil is heart healthy and is recognized as being heart smart by many health organizations. It has the least amount of saturated fat of any common cooking oil and contains less than half the saturated fat of olive or soybean oil.  Canola oil also has the most omega-3 fat of any cooking oil and is a good source of vitamin E.  
Canola oil is:

  • Free of trans fat and cholesterol. Trans fat increases the risk of heart disease in two ways: it raises “bad” LDL cholesterol and lowers “good” HDL cholesterol.
  • Low in saturated fat. Saturated fat has also been linked to increased risk of heart disease by increasing bad LDL cholesterol.
  • High in monounsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fat may help reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering bad LDL cholesterol and controlling blood sugar.
  • High in omega-3 fat. Alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3) must be consumed because the body cannot make it on its own.  Omega-3 fat is anti-inflammatory and may help protect against heart attacks and strokes.
  • A source of omega-6 fat. Linoleic acid (omega-6) is also essential in the diet because the body cannot produce it.  Omega-6 fat is essential for human growth and development as well as for the skin health.

Canola Oil is Heat Stable
Canola is a stable oil that does not break down at high temperatures, ideal for sautéing, stir frying, deep frying and other high heat culinary needs. Its smoke point, the temperature at which it begins to smoke and degrade, is one of the highest of all cooking oils at 468F (242C). This is well above ideal deep-frying temperatures (365-375F or 185 – 190C).

Canola Oil is Versatile
Canola oil remains free flowing in the refrigerator, so vinaigrettes, marinades, and salad dressings can be poured right out of the fridge. Canola oil is light, clear and has a mild flavor ideal for baked goods. It blends easily with other ingredients to produce a moist product with soft texture. Reduce trans and saturated fats in your baking by replacing the solid fat or melted solid fat with liquid canola oil. Not only will you reduce the total fat by up to 25 percent, but you will also replace the solid fat with liquid canola oil, which is lower in saturated fats and contains no trans fat. Use this chart to help you convert your recipes.

Canola Influencers

For the 25th anniversary of SaskCanola, we created an award to honour outstanding individuals who have been instrumental in the success of the Saskatchewan canola industry over the years. The recipients of this award have made distinguished and exceptional contributions of knowledge, education and ongoing efforts to promote canola. Learn more about each of the esteemed recipients of the Canola Influencer Award below.


2019 Recipient – Wilf Keller

Click here to learn more about Wilf and his contributions to the canola industry

In Wilf’s honour, SaskCanola made a $1,000 donation to his charity of choice – The YWCA Saskatoon

Pictured, Wilf (left) receives the Canola Influencer Award from SaskCanola director Bernie McClean (right)


2018 Recipient – Zenneth Faye

Click here to learn more about Zenneth and his contributions to the canola industry

In Zenneth’s honour, SaskCanola made a $1,000 donation to his charity of choice – The Foam Lake Kids Sport Program

Pictured, Zenneth (right) receives the Canola Influencer Award from SaskCanola director Lane Stockbrugger (left)


2017 Recipient – William Cooper

Click here to learn more about Bill and his contributions to the canola industry

In Bill’s honour, SaskCanola made a $1,000 donation to his charity of choice – The Parkinson Society of Saskatchewan

Pictured, Bill (right) receives the Canola Influencer Award from SaskCanola director Doyle Wiebe (left)


2016 Recipient – Dr. Keith Downey

Click here to learn more about Keith and his contributions to the canola industry

In Keith’s honour, SaskCanola made a $1,000 donation to his charity of choice – The Rotary International Annual Fund

Picture, Keith (right) receives the Canola Influencer Award from SaskCanola director Terry Youzwa (left)

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