If you have ever driven through Germany in the springtime, 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.
Rapeseed Popularity Around 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 of rapeseed 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.
History of Rapeseed or Canola Oil
Rapeseed has been cultivated and used by humans for thousands of years in India and since the Middle Ages in Europe, 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 until 1974, rapeseed oil was used very little in the food industry, mostly seeing use in the 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. "Rapeseed 00" is the term for genetically modified edible rapeseed.
Edible Rapeseed Oil
Canola oil contains omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids and is high in monounsaturated fats. 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 on the stovetop, and in cold dishes as a dressing ingredient or marinade. Since it has a fairly high smoke point, it is commonly used for frying at medium-high temperatures, up to about 450 degrees F.
It is pollinated by honeybees and the honey is mixed with other types or sold as bakery-grade.
Other Uses for Canola Oil
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.