If you want a heart-healthy oil to use for cooking, both canola oil and olive oil fit the bill. However, when comparing the characteristics and benefits of these oils, extra-virgin olive oil comes out a little ahead since it is less processed and contains higher levels of beneficial compounds than canola oil. This is especially true if you want to avoid genetically modified foods, since the majority of canola oil is produced from genetically modified rapeseed.
Of the three main types of fat, saturated fat is the least healthy, potentially raising both your cholesterol and your risk for heart disease. Foods containing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats may provide some health benefits, although you still need to consume them in moderation. The healthiest oils are those that are high in monounsaturated fat and low in saturated fat. Canola oil contains 7.4 percent saturated fat, 63.3 percent monounsaturated fat and 28.1 percent polyunsaturated fat, while olive oil contains 13.8 percent saturated fat, 73 percent monounsaturated fat and 10.5 percent polyunsaturated fat. Olive oil contains more monounsaturated fat than canola oil, but also more saturated fat.
Omega-3 Fat Content
People often don't get enough of the essential omega-3 fats, which help lower the risk for high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease. Although neither olive oil nor canola oil provide the most beneficial types of omega-3 fats, DHA and EPA, canola oil contains more of a type of omega-3 fat called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, with 1.3 grams per tablespoon compared to only 0.1 grams per tablespoon in olive oil. One tablespoon of canola oil each day will provide the recommended amount of ALA for those who consume 2,000 calories per day.
Extra-virgin olive oil is minimally processed without the use of high heat or chemicals, which helps maintain the high levels of beneficial phytochemicals called polyphenols it contains. Canola oil, on the other hand, requires lots of processing using both high heat and chemicals, so it contains only minimal levels of these beneficial chemicals, which can be destroyed by this type of processing. Consuming 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil per day provides enough polyphenols to increase your beneficial high-density lipoprotein, or good cholesterol, levels, according to a study published in "The Annals of Internal Medicine" in September 2006. Other beneficial effects of the polyphenols in olive oil include increasing bone formation, decreasing inflammation, increasing antioxidant activity and lowering your triglycerides and low-density lipoprotein, or bad cholesterol, according to an article published in "The International Journal of Molecular Science" in 2010.
Use in Cooking
Heating oils past their smoke point causes toxic fumes, which could negate some of the benefits of using healthy oils. For high-heat cooking, such as searing, browning or deep-frying, refined or light olive oil is the healthier choice, but for cooking over medium-high heat, such as stir-frying or baking, the Cleveland Clinic recommends either extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil, naming extra-virgin olive oil it's best pick oil.
- MayoClinic.com: Olive Oil: What Are the Health Benefits?
- Help Guide: Choosing Healthy Fats
- Cleveland Clinic: Guide to Cooking Oils
- USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory: Oil, Canola
- USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory: Oil, Olive, Salad or Cooking
- International Journal of Molecular Science: Biological Activities of Phenolic Compounds Present in Virgin Olive Oil
- Mother Earth News: What Cooking Oil Labels Really Mean
- Annals of Internal Medicine: The Effect of Polyphenols in Olive Oil on Heart Disease Risk Factors: A Randomized Trial
- Pennsylvania State University Extension: Questions and Answers About Canola Oil
Based in Massachusetts, Jessica Bruso has been writing since 2008. She holds a master of science degree in food policy and applied nutrition and a bachelor of arts degree in international relations, both from Tufts University.