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April 4, 2005

Does rapeseed oil deserve its poor image?

Faith in the health benefits of a ‘Mediterranean’ diet have made olive oil fashionable, but the health advantages of rapeseed oil are lost on most consumers. It’s actually one of the healthiest of fats, while new developments in plant breeding can help magnify health benefits, as Chris Lyddon reports.

Faith in the health benefits of a ‘Mediterranean’ diet have made olive oil fashionable, but the health advantages of rapeseed oil are lost on most consumers. It’s actually one of the healthiest of fats, while new developments in plant breeding can help magnify health benefits, as Chris Lyddon reports.

A name with unpleasant connotations doesn’t help, according to many in the industry. “The name doesn’t help from a marketing point of view,” Home Grown Cereals Authority market analyst John Dadd told just-food.

The industry had not yet tried hard enough to push the health benefits of rape oil. “Not as much energy has gone into marketing the benefits as for other oils,” he said. “If you look at its chemical characteristics, rape oil stacks up really well, but that’s not being translated onto the supermarket shelves.”

“Most of the rape oil sold is hydrogenated for shelf-life, but that also creates transfats, rather than going through esterification,” he said, referring to an alternative process to hydrogenation.

“The standard product is underrated anyway,” Matthew Clarke, UK oilseed rape breeder for Monsanto, told just-food. “You could make a very good case for rape oil being very healthy as it is.”

The Canola name used in some other countries originated when Canada moved into the first single low varieties and then moved into the double lows, Clarke explained. “When breeding companies produced low erucic acid varieties they opened the door to much wider food use,” he said. “It was thought that erucic acid caused health problems, although the latest research suggests not.”

Double low rape gives processed oil that is low in erucic acid and meal low in glucosinolates. Erucic acid has been linked to heart disease, while glucosinolates have breakdown products that are toxic to animals.

“They called the crop Canola,” he said. “Rapeseed is not a particularly pleasant name. It was associated with industrial lamp oil. But it’s a bit late in the day to change the name we’re using here. Double low varieties have been around for 20 years.”

The essential point with its standard fatty acid profile is all that linolenic acid. It’s what people refer to as an Omega 3 oil.”

“Rapeseed is the only major agricultural crop there’s any excitement about, rather than people deciding to cut their losses,” Clarke said. “It’s the only major crop that will almost certainly increase in area over the next few years. It’s probably the only good news story in arable agriculture.”

“Biodiesel will come,” he said. “It’s not been helped by the UK government, but they’ll have to do something soon.”

He describes rape oil as probably the healthiest salad and domestic cooking oil. For example it had the least saturated fat of the major oils at just 7%. Coconut oil contains 90% saturated fat. Rape oil is high in linolenic acid, one of the “Omega 3” fatty acids identified as having health benefits. It was high in linoleic and oleic acid, which meant high in polyunsaturate and monounsaturate.

Better oils from plant breeding

Plant breeding will mean rape derived oils more suited to the needs of the food industry, in particular, high oleic/low linolenic (HOLL) oil. The problem with linolenic acid is that it is relatively unstable. The food industry needs stability, particularly in products for frying which are used repeatedly at high temperatures, as well as to increase shelf life. Rape oil is traditionally hydrogenated to increase its stability, but that meant more of the trans fatty acids, which were implicated in the build up of cholesterol. Clarke thought it was possible that HOLL varieties could take over from standard double lows as the main oilseed rape crop in the next few years. Oils with less than 3% linolenic acid and more than 75% oleic had been achieved in OSR varieties by conventional breeding.

“HOLL is important because of the need to reduce trans fatty acids,” he said. “High erucic is being used for food additives.”

Rapeseed does have an advantage in the European aversion to genetic modification, according to another industry specialist. “The retailers don’t want it, and if the retailers don’t want it there isn’t anybody going to produce it,” Adam Thomas, product development manager of Aarhus United Ltd, told a recent conference organised by the HGCA. It wouldn’t even work as a source of biodiesel, because the glycerine left over from the biodiesel process is used for cosmetics. “If you produce GM biodiesel you get GM face cream,” he said.

He played down the scare over trans fatty acids, produced by the hydrogenation that raises the melting point of oil and is used in the production of things like margarine. Transfats still occurred naturally. “Even if we remove hydrogenation as a process in the edible oil industry we would still be eating transfats,” he said. “It would reduce their consumption by about a half.”

Stopping hydrogenation did limit the uses of rape oil, although a technique called interesterification could replace it to some extent. “We are generally seeing a reduction in the amount of rape oil that’s being hardened and an increase in the use of hard fats like palm. The US had already brought in a labelling requirement for transfats. “I think in time the EU will follow suit,” he said. There was a chance here for new varieties to replace the hydrogenated fats used by the restaurant trade. “This is where high oleic varieties have a good future as an alternative to hydrogenated fat,” he said.

Lack of marketing effort

Oilseed specialist Tim Hancock of Dow Agro Sciences Europe blamed a lack of marketing effort for rape oil’s poor image. He contrasted rape oil’s image in Europe, with that of canola in North America. “In North America soyoil is the commodity and canola is a premium cooking oil,” he told just-food. “Here rape is the commodity and sunflower oil is used for cooking.”

“The industry will tell you that rape is a lot better for frying than sunflower oil,” he said. “It’s perception and image – nothing to do with reality.”

Efforts were being made to market rape oil better in some European countries. “In France they are trying to develop the profile of oilseed rape as a premium product,” he said. “In Germany UFOP are making efforts to improve the profile.” 

He was concerned that the excitement which has surrounded the use of rape oil for diesel engines might tend to detract from its image as a food. “The more people do that the more it has image problems,” he said. Changing the name to canola, like the North Americans, would not work either. “Consumers always want to know what the basic crop is,” he said. “They’d be suspicious.” There was also some evidence that European consumers associate the word canola with genetic modification. The market’s apparent aversion to GMOs could help to rule out any plan for a name change.

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