Ahhh, I love it when I receive a chain e-mail full of misinformation, fallacious arguments and fear mongering. It’s like the universe is calling out to me to unleash my sceptical sword and sever the head from the raving beast. In the last few weeks I have received the following email on the dangers of canola oil from at least four different people. I have had requests via Facebook to look into these claims and a while ago my dad even phoned me to ask about the claims contained in the exact same e-mail.
As the good go-to sceptic that I am I will happily dig as deeply into the Canola Oil Conundrum as I can. I can’t wait! This is the original text of the e-mail I received; all formatting has been left in its virgin state;
RE: CANOLA OIL
I recently sent this letter to Fair Lady magazine in SA. But they haven’t published it, which I suspect may have something to do with the fact that Fair Lady runs ads for the product concerned. I think it’s important that as many people as possible KNOW about the origins of this product. Then, if you choose to buy it, at least you’re doing so with your eyes open.
Please forward this to the people in your address book. Email is the most powerful weapon in the world for free speech. I hope to receive this back in three months’ time, when it’s circled the globe. I am very far from being a health freak. But I believe that we have the right to know what we’re consuming. In South Africa, it seems, our labelling laws are so lax that manufacturers do not have to give any info whatsoever. Hence my research. Hence my (so far unpublished) letter to Fair Lady.
RAPE IN A DIFFERENT GUISE
Recently I bought a cooking oil that’s new to our supermarkets, Canola Oil.
I tried it because the label assured me it was lowest in “bad” fats. However, when I had used half the bottle, I concluded that the label told me surprisingly little else and I started to wonder: where does canola oil come from? Olive oil comes from olives, peanut oil from peanuts, sunflower oil from sunflowers; but what is a canola? There was nothing on the label to enlighten me, which I thought odd. So, I did some investigating on the Internet.
There are plenty of official Canola sites lauding this new “wonder” oil with all its low-fat health benefits. It takes a little longer to find sites that tell the less palatable details. Here are just a few facts everyone should know before buying anything containing canola. Canola is not the name of a natural plant but a made-up word, from the words “Canada” and “oil”. Canola is a genetically engineered plant developed in Canada from the rapeseed plant, which is part of the mustard family of plants.
According to AgriAlternatives, the online innovation and technology magazine for farmers; “By nature, these rapeseed oils, which have long been used to produce oils for industrial purposes, are toxic to humans and other animals” (This, by the way, is one of the websites singing the praises of the new canola industry.)
Rapeseed oil is poisonous to living things and an excellent insect repellent. I have been using it (in very diluted form, as per instructions) to kill the aphids on my roses for the last two years. It works very well; it suffocates them. Ask for it at your nursery. Rape is an oil that is used as a lubricant, fuel, soap and synthetic rubber base and as a illuminant for colour pages in magazines. It is an industrial oil. It is not a food.
Rape oil, it seems, causes emphysema, respiratory distress, anaemia, constipation, irritability and blindness in animals and humans. Rape oil was widely used in animal feeds in England and Europe between 1986 and 1991, when it was thrown out. Remember the “Mad Cow Disease” scare, when millions of unfortunate cattle in the UK were slaughtered in case of infecting humans? Cattle were being fed on a mixture containing material from dead sheep, and sheep suffer from a disease called “scrapie”. It was thought this was how “Mad Cow” began and started to infiltrate the human chain. What is interesting is that when rape oil was removed from animal feed, ‘scrapie’ disappeared. We also haven’t seen any further reports of “Mad Cow” since rape oil was removed from the feed. Perhaps not scientifically proven, but interesting all the same.
US and Canadian farmers grow genetically engineered rapeseed and manufacturers use its oil (canola) in thousands of processed foods, with the blessings of Canadian and US government watchdog agencies. The canola supporting websites say that canola is safe to use. They admit it was developed from the rapeseed, but insist that through genetic engineering it is no longer rapeseed, but “canola” instead. Except canola means “Canadian oil”; and the plant is still a rape plant, albeit genetically modified.
The new name provides perfect cover for commercial interests wanting to take billions. Look at the ingredients list on labels. Apparently peanut oil is being replaced with rape oil. You’ll find it in an alarming number of processed foods. There’s more, but to conclude: rape oil was the source of the chemical warfare agent mustard gas, which was banned after blistering the lungs and skins of hundred of thousands of soldiers and civilians during W.W.I. Recent French reports indicate that it was again in use during the Gulf War. Check products for ingredients. If the label says, “may contain the following” and lists canola oil, you know it contains canola oil because it is the cheapest oil and the Canadian government subsidises it to industries involved in food processing. I don’t know what you’ll be cooking with tonight, but I’ll be using olive oil and old-fashioned butter, from a genetically unmodified cow.
Say No to Canola
Research Finance Officer
Faculty of Health Sciences
University of Cape Town
Tel: (021) 406 6491
Fax: (021) 406 6390
I’m sure you know what I’m about to do, don’t you? That’s right; I’m going to demolish the ridiculous bollocks contained in this e-mail and provide you with the actual facts of the situation. Ooh, imagine that, interesting and accurate information – imagine the power!
One of the first things I do when I receive an e-mail which smells like an unfounded urban legend is look up the subject on snopes.com. Sure enough, Snopes has a fantastically detailed article on an almost identical e-mail which was circulated in the USA. If I may borrow from the masters of chain mail destruction;
What we have here is a bit of truth about a product’s family history worked into a hysterical screed against the product itself
Here is the overview of what the people over at Snopes found out about canola oil;
- The Rape plant is a member of the Mustard family, together with its relatives the turnip, cabbage and horseradish plants (among others). Before you start picturing the devastation of a mustard gas in WWI, imagine delicious baby cabbage leaves in a salad with fresh baby tomatoes and sweet corn. See? Nothing terrifying about a plant which happens to be related to mustard.
- Rapeseed oil has been used for cooking for centuries across Europe, the Near East and the Far East. However, as any sceptic knows, the fact that a product has been in use for a long time does not necessarily mean that it does not have an associated health risk. At high temperatures, unrefined cooking oil can give off chemicals which may cause lung cancer, and rapeseed oil is particularly notable for this. Therefore, if you plan on doing a lot of wok cooking with unrefined cooking oil OF ANY KIND, lower the temperature of the stove to 180 degrees.
- Rapeseed oil was not used for human consumption in the USA before 1974 because it contains a high percentage (30-40%) of erucic acid which can cause heart lesions in lab animals.
- In 1974 a variety of rapeseed oil with very low erucic acid content was introduced for consumption in Canada. By 1978 this new variety of rapeseed oil held less than 2% erucic acid and by 1990 the level of erucic acid was reduced to a range of between 0.5% and 1%. This reduction in the level of erucic acid was accomplished through cross-breeding and NOT through genetic engineering. Cross breeding is a common agricultural practice and is responsible for sweeter apples, larger fruit of all kinds and less spiky pineapples. And your pet poodle.
- Rapeseed oil was re-christened “Canola Oil” in 1986 when the product was introduced to American consumers; this was done to distance the healthy oil from the negative connotations of the word “rape”. That’s right; canola oil is HEALTHY oil! It is lower in saturated fat than any other oil, it is second only to olive oil when levels of monounsaturated fats are counted and it contains Omega-3 fatty acids. Let’s put that into everyday terms, canola oil is very low in fat, it can contribute to a more balanced, and even a lower level, of cholesterol and triglycerides, and its Omega-3 may even contribute to brain growth and development.
Ok, so we have our facts straight about the health risks and benefits of canola oil, now’s the time to dismiss some of the lunacy in the chain e-mail itself. The very first thing I did when I got this e-mail was to try and contact Athalie Russell to confirm if she is in fact the author of the letter. Unsurprisingly I found that the telephone number and e-mail address listed in the letter do not exist. The fax number rings endlessly with no answer whatsoever. I have not contacted UCT to confirm if they have an Athalie Russell in their employ, but I figured that would not be necessary. If she does exist, her name has been hi-jacked to lend an air of authority to a chain letter. That brings me to the first fallacious argument I’d like to point out in this letter, the Appeal to Authority. Most people do not take the time to credential-check every e-mail they come across, so when they see “Faculty of Health Sciences” their brains say “OK, this e-mail must be true it was written by a doctor”. It doesn’t matter that Athalie apparently doesn’t exist and this letter was written by someone else entirely, your average Joe will forward it to everyone in their inbox because they care.
There is an important distinction to be made between an appeal to authority and an actual authority. If you are faced with any advertising where a person is standing in a white coat looking scholarly, and you are being told to buy a product because doctors / scientists say that you should, it’s an appeal to authority. Buy my hamburger disinfectant because this actor in a white lab coat says you should. Yeah, that’s not going to get my hard earned cash out of my wallet!
On the other hand, to accept the fact that the Earth orbits the sun in an elliptical orbit with a period of approximately 365 days, and that the sun is a massive broiling furnace of super-heated plasma, emitting enormous amounts of light and energy because your science textbook, the weight of evidence and the results of thousands of experiments confirm these claims is not a thinking error. It’s responsible and cautious to accept the consensus of the scientific establishment because that establishment has come to the aforementioned consensus through many years of hard work by many people. And any errors are corrected overtime by the very nature of science.
My second major concern about this e-mail is that the author claims to have submitted it to a local magazine, she specifically says;
I recently sent this letter to Fair Lady magazine in SA. But they haven’t published it, which I suspect may have something to do with the fact that Fair Lady runs ads for the product concerned.
If I was truly concerned about the health of thousands of my fellow citizens, I would not address my concerns to a women’s interest magazine. If I truly wanted to effect some change I would write to the Advertising Standards Authority or the consumer protection agency. A letter in Fair Lady might cause a little bit of unhappiness in its readers, but it would not actually be of any benefit. The claim that the magazine had not yet printed this letter because of a conflict of interest does not address a far more obvious cause; this letter is a load off unsubstantiated bullshit. Careful application of Occams Razor to the problem would lead one to conclude that the suspicions of a fictitious letter writer should be discarded.
The letter writer then makes the mistake of asking the reader to send this load of crap on to his / her entire address book. What makes this a mistake? Because it is a dead give-away that this letter is spam and the claims are false. If the information in this letter were true, it would not be necessary for you to e-mail it to all of your aunties; they would most probably get the info through more reliable channels. The only way for this misinformation to penetrate the popular consciousness is for it to spread as widely as possible on unregulated pathways.
Lets look now at some of the factual claims made in the letter to see how deeply confused the author is;
Recently I bought a cooking oil that’s new to our supermarkets, Canola Oil.
Well, Canola oil was introduced to North American consumers in 1986 and since the e-mail I received is a blatant knock-off of one that originated in the USA, I think it is reasonable to conclude that this is not, in fact, a new product, but one which has been available for 24 years.
Olive oil comes from olives, peanut oil from peanuts, sunflower oil from sunflowers
Well, it comes from sunflower seeds actually, but now I’m just being pedantic. Perhaps I shouldn’t expect that level of accuracy from the author of a chain e-mail.
Canola is not the name of a natural plant but a made-up word, from the words “Canada” and “oil”. Canola is a genetically engineered plant developed in Canada from the rapeseed plant, which is part of the mustard family of plants.
We already know that being a member of the mustard family is not necessarily a bad thing, and we have learned from Snopes that the rapeseed oil used for consumption is not genetically engineered but was produced through cross-breading. The two methods developing new strains of plants are distinct.
Rapeseed oil is poisonous to living things and an excellent insect repellent. I have been using it (in very diluted form, as per instructions) to kill the aphids on my roses for the last two years. It works very well; it suffocates them. Ask for it at your nursery. Rape is an oil that is used as a lubricant, fuel, soap and synthetic rubber base and as a illuminant for colour pages in magazines. It is an industrial oil. It is not a food
There are a few errors in this paragraph which share a theme; stupidity. The rapeseed oil you may use to kill aphids is not the same as the canola oil you may use for cooking. The two oils are produced by genetically distinct plants. Unprocessed, pre-1974 rapeseed oil can be dangerous to your health if cooked at high temperatures. Post-1974 rapeseed (or canola if you prefer) oil is a different kind of oil. Its very chemistry has been changed. If you are stupid enough to use unprocessed pre-1974 rapeseed oil, or the version you might use to kill aphids, to cook your dinner in, you deserve what you get. Sorry, I can give you a healthy dose of scepticism, but I can’t cure you of being a dunce.
Yes, rapeseed oil was used as an industrial lubricant in the USA (remember, it was not restricted for human consumption in Europe and the East at this time), but that kind of rapeseed oil is NOT canola oil. And Yes! Oils suffocate insects, that doesn’t make them poisonous to humans. Let’s do a little experiment here, if you can, place a small amount of cooking oil in a bowl and drop a few insects into the bowl. Wait, and observe… Does the insect die? Do you die when you make fried eggs?
I will borrow from urbanlegends.about.com to address the claims about rapeseed oil fed to sheep causing Mad Cow disease;
The fact of the matter is that rapeseed meal, not the oil processed from it first, has been used as animal fodder for a long time – and still is to this day, even in England and Europe. Similarly, the facts behind what the missive claims about the rise and fall of Mad Cow disease are not borne out by science. Most scientists concur that Mad Cow disease developed when the animals were fed sheep offal that was contaminated with a virus-like disease known as Scrapie. There is absolutely no known link between sheep Scrapie disease and canola oil.
Let me repeat that; there is absolutely no known link between sheep Scrapie disease and canola oil. And we know the cause of Mad Cow disease; bovine spongiform encephalopathy, it’s a kind of prion disease which damages the neurons in the cows brain. That’s why they stumble about, they are losing motor control.
The e-mail’s author then makes me very angry when he says
Perhaps not scientifically proven, but interesting all the same.
EXCUSE ME, WHAT? How can he even say that? He is basically admitting that his claims are full of shit, but thinks that we should consider them because they are interesting! No. No. NO! He is pulling facts out of his butt-hole and expecting us to take them seriously because he thinks it’s “interesting”! That’s like accepting the claims of Intelligent Design because they are interesting; believing that life was created by an invisible wizard in the sky because it’s interesting! Never mind that there’s no evidence… Okay, deep breath…
Let us summarise, the author of this Canola Oil confabulation is a misinformed anti-scientist who has absolutely no understanding of the process involved in the creation of Canola Oil. I wouldn’t take health advice from him if my life depended on it!