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Canola, an edible rapeseed of the mustard family, is grown primarily for its oil. Lowest in saturated fat of all vegetable oils, canola is high in oleic, linoleic and linolenic polyunsaturated fatty acids.

While canola’s makeup is 40 percent oil, it is also 20 percent protein, yielding a high-quality meal for livestock feed. Canola varieties have been bred specifically for use in confections, as a shelf-stable cooking oil, and for the biodiesel industry.

Rapeseed has been cultivated since humankind’s earliest recordings. In Europe, rapeseed has been an important food and fuel-oil source since the 13th century. Its popularity grew in World War II, when rapeseed oil was used as a marine engine lubricant because it adheres well to moist metal.

In 1979, the term “canola” was officially registered in Canada to describe “double-low” rapeseed varieties – those with less than two percent erucic acid in the oil and less than 3 mg glucosinolates per 100 grams in the meal. In 1985, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recognized that rapeseed and canola have separate identities: rapeseed is used for industry, canola is for human consumption.

A DNA-modified canola variety high in laurate, typically found in tropical oils, was first planted commercially by Calgene in 1994. The high-laurate canola is trademarked “Laurical” and sold to the confectionery market as an alternative to cocoa butter. Calgene contracts with producers, most in North Dakota, to produce 40 to 500 acres per farm. Laurate canola yields 30 to 35 bushels per acre and sells for $6.25 per bushel.

Production notes

Worldwide canola production has reached 38 million tons annually- ranking third among all edible oils. Most is grown in China and Europe, which together produce more than 22 million tons annually.

U.S. demand for canola is rapidly increasing – even though domestic production doubled in the past seven years to 719,000 tons, consumption still outpaces production almost 3 to 1. Canada exports more than 70 percent of its canola oil – over 400,000 tons – to the United States. Current U.S. canola production is almost two million acres; 650,000 acres are in Minnesota and North Dakota.

Canola is similar to sunflower in return per acre and may be more profitable than wheat. Producers can double-crop, as canola is planted in the fall and harvested in the spring, and small grain farmers can use their existing equipment. To grow canola successfully, good drainage is essential, and the fields must be free from canola or other cole crop production for four years.

The average net return per acre is $23. Prices per ton are about $220 for canola seed, $339 for oil, and $167 for meal. However, prices are declining.

Functional values

Canola oil is low in saturated fats – 7 percent or less – and contains significant amounts of essential fatty acids, including oleic acid, claimed to lower cholesterol, linoleic acids and linolenic acids, which aid the immune system and blood clotting. In the United States, 45 percent of margarines, 60 percent of shortenings, and 80 percent of salad dressings contain canola oil.

High-oleic and low-linolenic canola oils can be made shelf-stable without extensive hydrogenation, so they are low in the trans fats said to cause heart damage. These fats also hold up to high cooking and frying temperatures and are ideal for biodiesel.

Genetically engineered high-laurate canola oil is less expensive than tropical oils such as coconut and palm kernel. Laurate’s sudsing quality makes it useful in shampoos, soaps and detergents. The silken texture is ideal for chocolate-flavored candy coatings, frostings and whipped toppings, and as a dairy substitute in coffee creamers. Calgene is the only laurate canola supplier.

Areas of opportunity

Fuel markets: Canola oil can be used for both biodiesel and motor oil, although soybean oil may be more economical

Gourmet cooking oil: Virgin canola oil may be promoted as a substitute for imported olive oil.

Lauric oil markets: Domestically produced high-laurate canola oil could potentially replace some of the $400 million of tropical oil imported annually, primarily from the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. The worldwide lauric oil market exceeds 10 billion pounds and is expected to increase as economies improve in China, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

In Minnesota, processing just 100 million pounds of lauric oil would require more than 150,000 acres of canola, and generate more than $35 million in the rural economy.