If you have ever driven through Germany in May, you may have noticed large fields of bright yellow plants along the Autobahn. These fields are rapeseed blooms, an important crop for Germany and many other countries that use the seeds for cooking oil, biodiesel, and other oil-based products like lamp oil and soaps.
Popularity in the World
Of all the vegetable oils used for human consumption and in industry, rapeseed is among the top three. It follows palm oil and soybean oil as the third most popularly produced oil in the world. Rapeseed oil is more commonly known as canola oil.
It is a very common crop in Germany, however, the largest producer in the world is Canada. In fact, the word "canola" is a portmanteau, or blend of the words "Canada" and "oil."
What Is Rapeseed?
Despite its violent sounding name, rapeseed oil is extracted from the seeds of the rape plant, scientific name Brassica napus. The term "rape" derives from the Latin word for turnip, rapum. Rapeseed is related to mustard, turnips, and other cabbage plants.
Rapeseed has been cultivated and used by humans for thousands of years in India and since the Middle Ages in Europe, mostly for lamp oil, to make soap and later to lubricate engines. It was eaten during famine times. And, during both World War I and World War II, Germany made margarine out of it.
Up to 1974, rapeseed oil was used very little in the food industry, the rest was used in machine and chemical industries. Through selective breeding programs in German universities, the bitter-tasting, toxic substance, erucic acid, was reduced to a level that was safe for human consumption in winter rapeseed.
Later, in Canada, summer rapeseed was found with low levels of the acid and further research picked out plants with low levels of glucosinolates as well. "Canola" technically stands for "Canadian oil, low acid" but is now used generically to mean Canada's edible rapeseed oil. "Rapeseed 00" is the term for genetically modified edible rapeseed. Since 1975, worldwide production of rapeseed (including canola) has increased sixfold.
Canola oil contains omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids and is high in monounsaturated fats. It is considered a healthy oil for cooking by many people. Rapeseed is "generally recognized as safe" by the United States Food and Drug Administration. It is liquid at room temperature, neutral-tasting, and can be used for cooking at medium heat and in cold dishes as a dressing or marinade.
It is pollinated by honeybees and the honey is mixed with other types or sold as bakery-grade.
Other Uses Today
Rapeseed today is used to make biodiesel, margarine, animal feed, and bioplastics. Rapeseed oil is the preferred oil stock for biodiesel production in most of Europe, accounting for about 80 percent of the feedstock, partly because rapeseed produces more oil per unit of land area compared to other oil sources, such as soybeans, but primarily because canola oil has a significantly lower gel point (lower temperature for freezing) than most other vegetable oils.