Has your GP ever asked you to consider going on the ‘Mediterranean’ diet?

In 2017, evidence emerged that a diet rich in legumes, fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, high-protein dairy, fish and limited servings of meat can lower the risk of heart disease and early death. Cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil is also a large component of this diet, and has long been considered a “good fat”.

Growing up in Canada, where canola oil (the same species as oilseed rape) is industrially produced and considered a less healthy option, I was surprised to learn about the health benefits and nutritional profile of cold-pressed Irish rapeseed oil, which are very similar to olive oil.

Leona Kane owns and operates Broighter Gold rapeseed oil (broightergold.co.uk) with her husband, Richard, on their family farm in Co Derry (Richard may be familiar to readers as he was part of the Irish Farmers Journal ‘From the Tramlines’ series in which we followed his progress on the fields for two years, in 2018 and 2019). Leona was also surprised to learn about the benefits of a cold-pressed rapeseed oil when she first started researching the product 15 years ago. The name is based on the gold hoard found in their fields, on Broighter Road, in 1896 which was dubbed ‘the Broighter Gold’.

“We started renovating the farmhouse when I found out I was pregnant with our first child,” she says. “Right after our son, Jacob, was born, we got the range installed and brought up some of our unfiltered rapeseed oil. We used it to cook our steaks and I went, ‘Gosh, that’s actually quite nice.’ Richard replied, ‘That’s our Broighter Gold.’ We had a good laugh but that’s how it all got started.

“Jacob was quite unwell for the first four years of his life and I spent a lot of time sitting in hospital with him, so I started doing research then,” she continues. “I was trying to figure out if [making rapeseed oil] was something we could realistically do on our farm. I realised that we could, in fact, cold-press a rapeseed oil – and it’s actually healthier than olive oil. I have always been into fitness and healthy eating, so I couldn’t believe it.”

Entrepreneur at work

Leona got to work. She joined an Invest NI course which was geared towards new entrepreneurs and soon after, in 2011, she and Richard officially launched Broighter Gold. Now, 13 years later, the business has acquired numerous accolades including a slew of Great Taste and Blas na h’Eireann awards. Just this past week, at the Balmoral Show, Leona was recognised for her achievements within the agricultural industry from the Council for Awards of Royal Agricultural Societies.

“It has been hard work, but at the same time we’ve hit some major goals,” she says. “If anyone ever asks when the right time is to start a business, for us it was a complete disaster of a time – but we’re still here.”

Broighter Gold is sold throughout Ireland, the UK and in Abu Dhabi. They also have a line of flavour-infused oils. / Clive Wasson

Leona and Richard currently employ a team of six and their products are sold throughout Ireland, the United Kingdom, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Leona largely credits their success to their farming approach and commitment to soil health and sustainability, which ultimately comes across in product quality.

“We decided to grow one type of oilseed rape on our farm,” she explains. “Once we started to press the seed, we had a huge spike in interest from chefs who were saying, ‘This doesn’t taste like rapeseed oil,’ and I thought, ‘Oh God, what are we doing wrong?’ But they actually liked the taste, saying it wasn’t as nutty as some others, so that was a big plus for us.

“Farmers aren’t used to getting compliments, so to get so many positive feedback was fantastic,” she adds, laughing.

Product testing

Trying to find the source of the distinct flavour and naturally vibrant colour of their oil, Leona worked with AFBI (the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute) to thoroughly test their product. What they discovered was interesting: the soil in their area is uniquely suited to growing oilseed rape. The distinct flavour and colour is simply an effect of their individual terroir.

Main: Leona Kane on the family farm in Co Derry with her children Jacob and Emily; below, a selection of Broighter Gold rapeseed oil products. \ Clive Wasson

“Now, given the last nine months we’ve had nothing but rain, so we’ll have to see how this year goes,” Leona says. “Our crops are actually completely organic this year because we have nothing on it – we couldn’t get out into the fields with the terrible weather.”

Through the product testing, Leona also discovered that their oil contained all of the nutritional benefits she learned about in her research, as well as no traces of glyphosates or Erucic acid, which can sometimes be found in other oils. Of their 750ac, Richard grows on approximately 200ac each year. Their entire crop yield goes back into their business.

The pair recently acquired a new warehouse with a new press and bottling line, which should help as they increase production to meet their growing demand. Keeping things simple has always been at the heart of Leona’s business plan – to let the product speak for itself.

Leona learned about the health benefits of cold-pressed rapeseed oil 15 years ago and was surprised to learn it was as healthy as olive oil. / Clive Wasson

“Oilseed grows for roughly 11 months a year,” she explains. “We plant two weeks after we harvest, which is usually around the end of August. Once we harvest, we dry the oilseed with gas – never diesel. We then clean it, bag it and put it through the cold press system.

“It’s quite simple; there’s nothing fancy about it,” she continues. “Once it’s pressed, we filter and bottle it. On tours people ask if we add any colouring agents, but we don’t add anything to it. We then either infuse it ourselves – we offer several flavoured oil products – or send it out in its natural form.”

Health benefits

Leona tells Irish Country Living that cold-pressed rapeseed oil contains half the saturated fat found in a cold-pressed olive oil. It also contains the same “good fats” which are present in olive oil.

“Olive oil is really good for you and I always used it, so when I found out that rapeseed oil has ten times more Omega-3 [fatty acids] and half the saturated fat, plus Omega-6 and 9, which you don’t normally get in other foods, I was fascinated.”

Sarah Browne.

If this is the case, why aren’t more GPs recommending we make the switch to Irish rapeseed oil? Dr Sarah Browne is a registered dietician and lecturer at University College Dublin (UCD). She says that rapeseed oil has simply not had the same level of research applied to it, which means we don’t have the same amount of evidence.

“The evidence for olive oil in a Mediterranean diet that reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease is from a really big study from around 15 years ago,” she says. “In their study, subjects were given 1L of extra-virgin olive oil and they had to consume that over a week – so we’re talking quantities that are almost therapeutic.

“That was a large-scale, multi-centre study. Unfortunately, no similar work has been done with rapeseed oil so we can’t make those same big claims. But from a fat profile, it does have the same [level of] high monounsaturated fats.”

Fat is our friend

Sarah says that if we want to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease or diabetes, we need to reduce the amount of saturated fats in our diets. However, they should be “actively replaced” by monounsaturated fats and the right mount of Omega-3s.

“I suppose that’s where these health claims come in around rapeseed oil, because it does have a profile of monounsaturated fats,” she adds.

So if we were to swap the extra-virgin olive oil for a cold-pressed Irish rapeseed oil, would that work if our GP has recommended we go on a Mediterranean diet?

“You’ll see some research on the new Nordic diet, where they would use rapeseed oil instead of olive oil,” Sarah says. “And they would say, that’s the swap – just go with what’s in your region and make it look like a Mediterranean type diet pattern.

“The one thing we have a bit less on is the antioxidant profile – with olive oil it’s not just the fat profile, it’s all of these different active components within it which work together to reduce inflammation and attenuate the risk of cardiovascular disease. We know there are antioxidants in cold-pressed rapeseed oil, but we don’t yet have enough data to be able to make the same claims.”