Friday, January 27, 2017

This Time It's Palm Oil

As I wrote in September, Nutella has been a common spread in Europe for years but has recently caught on in America with its niche, cult, unique and elite appeal.  Whether or not it’s considered cool here, it is now getting some bad press across the Atlantic.

According to this Reuters story, its makers claim that Nutella “relies on palm oil for its smooth texture and shelf life. Other substitutes, such as sunflower oil, would change its character.”  But palm oil faces criticism after European health authorities listed it as a cancer risk.  “The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said in May that palm oil generated more of a potentially carcinogenic contaminant than other vegetable oils when refined at temperatures above 200 degrees Celsius. It did not, however, recommend consumers stop eating it and said further study was needed.”  The news puts the $44 billion palm oil industry at risk and threatens the profitability of Nutella and the quality of the product if they are forced to change.

Meanwhile Italy’s largest supermarket chain is boycotting palm oil in its store-brand products, and Barilla has begun adding "palm oil-free" to their labels.  Palm oil is not banned by any agency and the FDA has taken no action.

As this news came out, I thought it all sounded familiar.  Remember the controversy about butter and margarine?  Years ago when epidemiologists declared fat the culprit in American diets (and denied the role of sugar), we were encouraged to drop butter and move to margarine.  Now Harvard Health reports:  “Today the butter-versus-margarine issue is really a false one.”  Butter is high in saturated fat, but stick margarines are high in trans fats and the newer margarines that are low in both are sill high in calories.

So we want to avoid butter for the saturated fat, but a 2010 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concludes there is “no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD [coronary heart disease] or CVD [cardiovascular disease].”

Of course many of the more exotic oils got a boost when butter was discouraged.  The Prevention website announced:  “We Researched and Ranked 14 Cooking Oils. Which One Should You Buy?”  They favor those high in monounsaturated fat with a relatively high smoke point. Palm Oil is listed fairly high, with 39% Monounsaturated, 11% Polyunsaturated and 50% saturated fat and a smoke point of 450ºF.  “Pros: It's got nutrients like vitamin E and the antioxidant beta-carotene” and has a long shelf life.  That doesn’t sound too bad and it’s listed above rapeseed oil, coconut oil, corn oil, and soybean oil.

But wait, the heart association lists corn oil and soybean oil among the healthier choices.  “They contain more of the ‘better-for-you’ fats and less saturated fat.”

As if this is not confusing enough, a June 2016 NIH review of headlines reads:  “Study says there's no link between cholesterol and heart disease.”  But they warn that these types of news stories “are often based on a selective view of evidence, rather than a comprehensive systematic review. There is currently no comprehensive body of evidence that contradicts current official advice on saturated fat consumption.”  Unfortunately, this one and studies like it often make headlines, leaving us scratching our heads as to what science really tells us.

Finally, movie theater popcorn is horrible.  Some websites consider it practically poison for the high calories and the use of coconut oil.  But here’s one source that says coconut oil has the benefit of being very heat resistant.  “Coconut oil also has powerful health benefits. It is particularly rich in a fatty acid called Lauric Acid, which can improve cholesterol and help kill bacteria and other pathogens,” and “the fats in coconut oil can also boost metabolism slightly and increase feelings of fullness compared to other fats.”  The praise continues:  “It is the only cooking oil that made it to my list of superfoods.”  (Superfood? – no wonder movie theater popcorn is so expensive!)

The primary advice from most of these popcorn-related sites is that coconut oil should be consumed with portion control in mind.  From this review of information, this advice applies to all the other oils, butter, margarine and, for that matter, any other food.

Wow, all things in moderation!  A little perspective would have gotten us there without running around the Internet and plowing through the vast and various and often contradictory reviews and warnings.  If only the authorities and others trying to make diet decisions for us would take note.

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