NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Canola may become an economic lifesaver for farmers in the South and Midwest as the low-fat cooking oil squeezed from the plant's seeds becomes more popular with health-conscious consumers.
Canola oil is lower in saturated fat than other popular cooking oils, including coconut, soybean and corn oils, experts say.
Saturated fat has been linked to cholesterol, a substance that can contribute to clogged arteries and heart disease.
"We think it will be a viable crop for the mid-South and at yields that will be successful for economic returns," said John F. Bradley, superintendent of the University of Tennessee Agriculture Experiment Station at Milan. "It will give our farmers in this area an alternative crop.
"We are not saying it's going to be the salvation of the farmer but it is real promising," he said.
Canola is a trademark for a variety of rapeseed, from which the oil is squeezed.
Canada and Europe are the largest producers of canola. Before 1985, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration listed the seed's oil as toxic to humans and banned its growth. But genetic engineering produced an edible variety and the FDA removed the restrictions.
"This released us from having to import from Canada and Europe," Bradley said. "We have found that it can be grown in the mid-South and the Midwest."
Nevertheless, only about 70,000 acres are grown in the United States. U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show 440 million pounds of canola oil were imported this year.
Researchers say canola's seed production is high and that on a profit basis it outperforms soybeans.
Kentucky and Illinois are the chief producers of canola in the United States. Kentucky growers planted about 2,000 acres of canola in 1987, then 8,000 acres as it caught on in 1988, according to a study by the University of Kentucky.
Farmers in Indiana, Tennessee, Ohio and Michigan so far have only dabbled in the crop. But Bradley believes that during the next five years canola will become commonplace throughout the mid-South.
Canola has become more popular with consumers recently as health concerns have arisen over the use of tropical oils, found to be high in saturated fats.
"I think we will see probably more people going over to canola oil as their cooking oil," said Wayne Flinchum, professor of plant and soil science at the University of Tennessee Agriculture Extension Service in Jackson.