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Winnipeg's Michale Eskin, World Class Researcher on Canola Oil and Lipid Rapper, to be inducted into the Order of Canada

by Rhonda Spivak, August 2, 2016

When Professor Michael Eskin first learned recently that he is to be inducted into the Order of Canada, he was surprised. "My colleagues nominated me for this distinction without telling me about it. I had no idea they had done this. It was particularly gratifying that my colleagues would do this," he told the Winnipeg Jewish Review.


Eskin who is a professor and former associate dean in the Department of Human Nutritional Sciences, Faculty of Human Ecology,  at  the University of Manitoba is receiving this esteemed honour from the Government of Canada for his internationally recognized  research in canola oil, which has contributed immensely to the success of the canola oil industry in Canada. The ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa will occur later in 2016 or early in 2017. 


I asked Eskin to give our readers a lesson in "Canola Oil 101" (for those like me who know nothing about the subject), and he gave me a very informative, and interesting overview.


"Rapeseed oil (which was later renamed canola oil) isn't indigenous to Canada," Eskin noted,  "A Polish Farmer who came to Canada in the 1930’s  was sent some rapeseed  seeds by his friend in Poland which  he very successful grew.


"During World War II, with the blockade of European nations, the oil from rapeseed proved to be an excellent lubricating oil for marine engines and in 1942 the Canadian Department of Agriculture was given a mandate to grow it. In order to meet the required needs they also imported a rapeseed from Argentina. However, once the war over the demand for rapeseed oil as a lubricating oil  diminished with the introduction of the diesel engine."


"The question was raised in Canada Agriculture as to whether rapeseed oil could be used for food?/" Eskin continued,“ in the late 1950's, two plant breeders (Dr. Baldur Stefanson and Dr. Keith Downy of Saskatchewan) started to see if they could change the nature of the oil by traditional cross breeding, The problem was that rapeseed oil contained 50-70% erucic acid which was considered unsuitable for food use. The breeders successfully reduced this fatty acid  to less than 2% and produced an oil with a  unique composition that was very  low in saturated fatty acids, very high in monounsaturated fatty acids, and  high in polysaturates including the omega 3 fatty acids, linolenic acid. The changed fatty acid composition of the oil proved to be very beneficial to heath by effectively  lowering cholesterol. The two breeders became known as the founding fathers of canola oil"


Eskin came to Winnipeg in 1968 from London UK  to teach at the U of M in the Department of Foods and Nutrition, which is now the Department of Human Nutrition Sciences. At the U of M of Manitoba, he worked with the late Professor Marian Vaisey-Genser (a sensory expert) on canola oil for 30 years studying the chemical composition of canola oil, its performance and the stability. Other colleagues looked at the nutritional aspect. We were commissioned by the Canola Council of Canada to write a booklet for dietitians and other health professionals to promote  canola oil. The booklet was used around the world and contributed to the wide acceptance canola oil and its subsequent approval by the FDA."


Eskin has done extensive research on the minor components of canola oil, which has "changed the way breeders modify it."


As he explains, "It is important to make sure that the minor components of the oil, such as vitamin E aren't lost."


Not surprisingly, the “main oil” used in the Eskin household  is canola oil. Eskin also  mentioned that  “high oleic acid canola oil has now replaced hydrogenated canola oil in food service establishments as it is much more stable and suitable for frying by avoiding the production of trans fatty acids"


 Eskin, who has continued his  research of canola oil for over the past 43 years has written or co-written 14 scholarly books (some of which have been translated into a variety of foreign languages)  on canola,  food biochemistry, edible oils and functional foods snd is co-editor of the journal Lipid Technology.  One of his books, considered a classic food biochemistry text was published in its 3rd edition in 2013 and just translated into Portuguese for the Brazil market..  "My latest book (his 14th), Bitterness: Perception, Chemistry and Food Processing, is in the final stages of production," he notes. At present he is working with a colleague on a new antioxidant and anticancer component in canola meal.


Eskin grew up in Birmingham, England. His father who immigrated to England from Russia was a shoichet and chazan while his mother was a teacher.  Eskin is also a cantor and a classically trained singer who studied voice at the Birmingham School of Music and later in London continued his voice training with Benvenuto Finelli, the principal tenor with Sadlers Wells Opera. Eskin's first 2008 CD “Mostly Genesis with a Little Exodus” is being used as a teaching tool in Jewish schools in Toronto, England and in the US. His son Josh, a teacher and musician, composed and performed the music on the CD.  Eskin has served as cantor in the UK as well as Canada. In addition to synagogues in Winnipeg, he has also performed as cantor in orthodox synagogues in Western Canada. He is currently leading the High Holiday services at the Chavurat Tefila Synagogue. 


After graduating with a doctorate in biochemistry from Birmingham University, in England, Eskin  then went on to teach in London, before moving to Winnipeg to teach at  U of M. His career as a cantor has benefited his scientific career. The final song on his 2008 CD, a Pesach Rap, was so taken by the U of M that they made a video and put it on UTube. This ultimately inspired him to do some scientific raps the first one of which was called "Lipids Get a Really Bad Rap: It Isn’t Fair." (The words include:"Cholesterol, Cholesterol gets all that bad attention. Without you there would be no lipid digestion. They are needed in the bile to emulsify the fats so the body gets all those polyunsaturates."). The rap was first presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Oil chemists’ Society in the US in 2012 and proved a big hit at the conference. They recorded it at the conference and put it on UTube. Eskin's son Ezra, also a local teacher and musician, arranged the music for it, and played accompaniment as well as recorded for the video.


Eskin has a knack for song writing including material for Sesame Street used on CBC TV. He also did a surprise song on the late Israel Asper at a Hebrew University function honoring him many years ago  titled “I am President of CKND” based on Gilbert and Sullivan. It was quite a hit and Eskin later recorded it at the CKND TV station.



Eskin’s Lipid Raps (several of which are on UTube) are currently being used in courses in universities in Canada and the USA. The U of M recently wrote an article on Eskin, the rapping professor, in TeachingLife, titled “The Professor who puts Phat in Fat.” Eskin is quoted in the article as saying "Science can be very dull...You almost have to be a bit of an entertainer."


Eskin reports that several months ago Professor Oleg Medvedev of Moscow State University asked for permission to use these raps in a nutrition centre he has established. They are now shown with Russian subtitles underneath! (Eskin has therefore really returned to his roots since his parents were form Russia) 


Eskin has received major awards from the Institute of Food Technology in the USA for his research in lipids. He has also received a number of awards from the American American Oil Chemist Society, including the Alton Bailey Medal for  outstanding contribution to the science and technology of lipids.


In addition to his academic and cantorial activities, Eskin chairs the Family Council at the Simkin Centre.

Mazel Tov to Eskin and his family on receiving this prestigious distinction of being inducted into the Order of Canada !



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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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