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The canola blob

The canola blob

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In the last Stock Report, we promised to give you some tips on how to eat and shop healthy on a budget. But that will have to wait, because Cate and I need to make the following emergency public service announcement:

The restaurant world has been taken hostage — by canola oil!

Over the past several months, Cate and I have eaten out at all sorts of restaurants here in the Napa Valley, from Mexican to Thai, from Chinese to French, from Italian to fusion. And we’ve discovered there’s one thing nearly every meal had in common.

Canola oil.

This week, Cate and I celebrated our wedding anniversary, so we decided to go for a special night out. A friend recommended a place in the next valley over, so we took the drive in hopes that this quaint little eatery might provide a temporary shelter from the relentless canola downpour. Maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t be offered yet another menu built on the viscous foundation of this “neutral” oil.

But alas, like a breached tanker foundering on a reef, our hopes were dashed.

Scribbled upon the chalkboard hanging above the service window was the plat du jour:

First up, Belgian Endive Mixed Greens drenched in a Canola Oil Vinaigrette.

For the main course, Apricot Couscous, Braised Greens, and a Saffron Braised Moroccan Chicken marinated in Canola Oil and slowly braised in a Canola Oil Sauce.

I would go on, but I can almost feel my laptop keys getting slippery. Many modern-day restaurants — even-higher priced restaurants; our bill with tip came to just under a hundred bucks — are now essentially purveyors of canola. That means if you go out to eat on a regular basis, there’s a good chance that one-fourth to one-third (or more) of the calories in your diet now come from the canola oil used in the recipes.

So what’s the problem? Canola’s good for you, right? Just ask your server; they’ll tell you. (I’m serious, ask them, and witness them leap to the defense of this ubiquitous food product as if they just bought stock in the stuff.)

Here’s a list of our favorite sales pitches for the promiscuous use of canola:

• “It’s got a high smoke point.”

• “No one’s allergic to it, like with peanut oil.”

• “It’s not animal fat, so vegans can still order fries.”

• “It’s not just pure canola. It’s a blend.”

• “The chefs like it for its neutral flavor.”

• “It’s cheap.”

• “It’s heart-healthy.”

The first six statements are fairly innocuous. But the claim that canola (a rapeseed cultivar developed in the early 1970s) is “heart-healthy” is not only untrue, it is almost universally rejected by the world’s leading lipid researchers.

The preponderance of current evidence suggests that canola oil is a trans-rich toxin that, perhaps more than any other single component of the modern American diet, has contributed to increases in cardiovascular disease, metabolic dysfunction, stroke, dementia, and a long list of other familiar diseases.

Among the experts, this is no longer controversial: Canola oil is death in a bottle.

You might recall how, several years ago, the New York City Board of Health banned the use of all but small amounts of artificial trans fats in the city’s restaurants. Soon after, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a similar restaurant bill terminating artificial trans fats in California.

Trans fat, or “trans” for short, is a misshapen molecule that, once consumed, binds to your body’s enzymes in such a way that the enzymes cannot release them. The enzymes mistake the trans for natural fats, and once they pick them up they can’t let them go. That’s what makes trans so unhealthy.

‘But just a second,’ you might be thinking — ‘Canola doesn’t contain trans fats, does it? I mean, they’d have to say so on the bottle, wouldn’t they?’

Yes, they would, if they were selling the canola oil north of the border, in Canada. Here in the U.S., there is no such labeling requirement, so most consumers never learn that their bottle of “heart-healthy” canola oil contains as much as 5 percent trans fat, a percentage that goes way up when canola is heated during cooking.

And since most people don’t happen to have Ph.D.s in biochemistry, consumers don’t realize that the trans fat content is just the tip of the toxic iceberg. Trans fats are a predictable molecular product of canola oil processing. It’s the unpredictable, randomly mutated molecular configurations that are making so many people sick.

These other distorted molecules — trans’ entourage of nasty thugs — react with oxygen and iron in the bloodstream to create a barrage of free radicals. These free radicals beget more free radical formation, creating “free radical cascades” that, like radioactive energy, can be absorbed by every cell in your body, creating tissue damage and frying your arteries.

How did all this trans and other distorted molecules wind up in canola oil? From extraction and processing, that’s how. Ironically, the canola oil that sits in the canola seed is just fine, even healthy, as it is high in essential omega-3 fatty acids.

The processed canola oil — extracted with heat and high pressure and the use of harsh solvents, like hexane — is, chemically speaking, an entirely different animal, a substance rendered so rancid you’d think it would stink.

That’s where the “bleaching” and deodorizing come in.

I understand that this is a lot to swallow. So for now, suffice it to say that, if you’re serious about protecting your long-term health, you might want to look into the facts surrounding this now ubiquitous oil, because it’s everywhere, and not just in the restaurants. It’s in salad dressings, olive oil blends, and so-called health foods like granola. Heck, they’re even coating dried blueberries with the stuff.

Don’t believe me? Take my challenge: See if you can go one week without consuming canola oil. Check the labels on the foods in the store, and gently compel your waiter or waitress to tell you about canola oil in your restaurant order (tell them canola gives you heartburn).

The first five people to go a week without eating canola will win a free copy of our book, “Food Rules.” See DrCate.com for details.

Cate Shanahan, M.D., is a family physician with Queen of the Valley Medical Associates and can be reached at 251-3681. Luke Shanahan is a food and health writer and aspiring cook. Their books include “Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Foods” and “Food Rules: A Doctor’s Guide to Healthy Eating.” Learn more at DrCate.com.

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