Are American foodies ready for artisanal canola oil?

A health craze waiting to happen.
A health craze waiting to happen.
Image: Reuters/Todd Korol
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Healthy food fads come and go, but this one could soon come full circle: Not long ago canola oil was the darling of American health-conscious consumers, before losing its appeal to boutique virgin olive oils and other heart-healthy cooking options like almond and avocado oils. But there are a few signs that it could again become a coveted oil among American foodies.

This year, health food grocer Whole Foods announced that it would require labels on all genetically modified (GMO) foods sold in their US stores by 2018, and at least one large canola oil producer, Washington state’s Pacific Coast Canola (PCC), took notice. The president of PCC’s parent company, Joel Horn, is betting there’s room for a cheaper non-GMO premium oil in the US that can compete with favorites like olive and almond oil (which tend to be non-GMO) among the health-crazed. Horn says that North American farmers are convinced, too. So far, the canola oil produced and sold in the US has been overwhelmingly GMO. By contrast, European markets have long had access to non-GMO canola oil, which has won the affection of European foodies.

The company has been slowly ramping up production of non-GMO canola oil since August. On Nov 7., PCC—now the larger of two expeller-press (an oil-pressing process devoid of chemicals) canola processing facilities in North America—received its largest-ever shipment of 33 million pounds (14.9 million kilos) of canola for processing.

Canola oil has a lot to overcome to compete with higher-end oils favored by US foodies. Originally called rapeseed oil in the US (it still goes by that name in Europe), it was once used mainly on machinery as a lubricant. But in the 1970s, Canadian scientists made a savvy name change after successfully breeding new, less bitter varieties of the seed. It then became the cooking oil called canola—short for “Canadian low-acid” oil—across North America.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the oil gained traction as an odorless, tasteless, “heart-healthy” American choice for home cooking. But soon thereafter, olive oil, avocado, macadamia and almond oils took hold, promising the same low-saturated, high-monounsaturated-fat health benefits, along with a host of more exotic connotations.

Canola oil has an advantage, though, especially in the post-crisis era: It’s cheap and getting cheaper, thanks in part to modest increases in world production. For the first time in recent memory, this year it’s expected to be cheaper than soybean oil. In the US, American canola oil consumption increased 4% from 2011 to 2012. For budget-conscious US consumers, a non-GMO label could be canola oil’s ticket back into the foodie club.