By Beatrice Trum Hunter
Trans fats form when unstable oils, predominantly polyunsaturated ones, undergo hydrogenation. This process hardens the oils an makes them more stable. However, the process converts the natural sis form of the oils to an unnatural trans form.
The trans form has been shown to increase the risk of coronary heart disease. After lengthy deliberation, the Food and Drug Administration recently took action. The agency will require, by 2006, a specific declaration of trans fatty acids contained in food products.
This action will affect both food processors and consumers. What is likely to occur? Many products, formerly containing trans fatty acids, will be reformulated to contain lower levels, and others will be labeled “trans-free” or “not hydrogenated.” How will processors be able to formulate food products without trans fats?
Doubtless, food technologists will devise solutions. However, food processors already have several options available. They can use oils that have been modified, such as high oleic oils and medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). Or, processors could revert to palm or coconut oils, which have served them well in the past. Unfortunately, these two oils have been wrongly maligned.
Trans Fats are Not Saturated Fats
At present, whenever the words “trans fats” are mentioned, they are followed by the words “and saturated fats.” Wrongly, these two types of fats have been inextricably intertwined by officials and the public. Both types of fats are viewed as unhealthy. To equate saturated fats with trans fats is incorrect and misleading. Saturated fats are not created equal. Palm and coconut oils, predominantly saturated, nevertheless are healthy oils. Food processors reluctantly had abandoned their use in the late 1980s, because of scare tactics waged by competing interests and misguided individuals. The story involved market concerns, not scientific evidence.
Tropical Oils and Trade Politics
Taxing Imported Oils.
As early as 1934, the U.S. Congress imposed a tax of 3 cents per pound on palm and coconut oils intended for food, but not for industrial use. (Less than half of these imported oils are used in food products. The majority is used in soaps, suntan lotions, and other nonfood uses.) According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the act was “principally to protect domestically produced vegetable oils in their use in the production of edible products.”
The tax was suspended from 1957 to 1963. In 1965, a Coconut Oil Users Committee, comprising many U.S. food companies that were using imported coconut and palm oils in their food products, sought a repeal of the tax. In 1966, Congress complied with the request and suspended the tax permanently. The oils could thus enter the country duty-free. However, lobbying efforts to protect domestic oils continued. Another bill introduced in Congress in 1977, if successful, would have reimposed the 3-cents-per-pound tax on these imported oils used with products such as potato chips. The bill failed.
Although these imported oils represented only a very small fraction of oils used in food processing, domestic oil producers were concerned that the lower prices of the imported oils would not only be attractive for increased domestic sales but also would threaten to become global competitors.
The “Tropical Grease Campaign.”
By the mid-1980s, soybean oil accounted for more than 70% of all edible oils in the United States; palm and coconut oils, only 4%. However, the domestic oil industry viewed with alarm the competing interest of the imported oils.
In 1986, with endorsements form other farm groups, the American Soybean Association (ASA) launched a series of attacks that became known as the “tropical grease campaign.” The campaign created a new term, “tropical oils,” and used the phrase derisively. The term was inaccurate. Some oils produced in temperate climates, such as peanuts, soybeans, and other oil-bearing plants, also are produced in tropical climates. The real targets were palm and coconut oils. The face-off was not between tropical and temperate-climate oils, but rather between domestic and imported ones. The ASA attempted to block competition in 1987 by trying to persuade lawmakers to introduce legislation against cholesterol-rising saturated fats.
This effort was abetted by a self-styled consumer crusader, Phil Sokolof, who waged his own campaign against these oils. He established and funded the National Heart Savers Association, and paid for full-page advertisements in nationally distributed newspapers, with the dramatic headline “The Poisoning of America!” He charged that tropical oils destroy life or impair health. The combined campaigns of Sokolof and ASA convinced many consumers that tropical oils were unhealthy, and consumers should be warned on product labels.
A call for labeling.
The ASA viewed potential legislation on labeling as its “biggest weapon” against foreign-oil producers. The ASA ominously warned its members that foreign producers “are trying to put you out of business.”
FDA officials testified against labels that highlighted tropical oils. The FDA press officer, Chris Lecos, suggested that instead of descriptions of which oils are used, “we need labeling on fatty acid content and a breakdown between polyunsaturated and saturated fats.”
U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeuter admitted that “the main objective of the proposed tropical labeling legislation was to protect the domestic oil industry.”
The Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils charged: “The health angle is a smoke screen for a trade issue. …Specific labeling of foods in regard to their content of the so-called tropical oils is clearly discriminatory and without scientific basis.”
The Malaysian palm oil industry, the largest supplier of palm oil, protested against what it termed a “smear campaign” waged by rival American farmers. The group complained to the advertising division of a radio broadcasting company about deceptive advertisements, and caused ASA to withdraw its advertisement claims. Similarly, the Philippines coconut oil industry, the major supplier of coconut oil, complained of false reports being circulated about its product.
Conversion, with Problems
The campaign succeeded in having major food processors reformulate their products with domestically produced oils. According to food writer Jane Heimlich, the anti-tropical-oil campaign resulted in a switch to “true artery-clogging horrors-partially hydrogenated oils.”
The reformulation created problems. Palm and coconut oils resist oxidation and are highly stable. They do not require hydrogenation, and are trans-free. However, many of the domestic oils are predominantly polyunsaturated, which makes them quite unstable, and subject to oxidation. To make them more stable, they need to be hydrogenated. A major portion of soybean oil, for example, is hydrogenated.
Food processors switched reluctantly. Palm and coconut oils have advantages over hydrogenated vegetable oils from the viewpoint of food processing. Palm oil can be separated readily by a physical process into a liquid fraction (palm olein) and a solid fraction (palm stearin). Manufacturers can make bakery shortening from a blend of palm oil and palm sterin, yet leave all the polyunsaturates intact. The resulting food product has no trans fats. Also, both palm and coconut oils are highly suitable for frying because of their high oxidative stability.
Because palm and coconut oils are semi-solid naturally, they do not require hydrogenation. Unlike many other vegetable oils, extraction can be done without the use of harsh chemical solvents. These oils have low foaming tendencies when heated, so they do not require the use of anti-foaming agents. Because these oils have high smoke points, they resist polymerization and oxidation.
These features benefit food processors, but do they harm consumers? The aggressive campaign against these oils was intended to make consumers fearful of unhealthy qualities in the oils, and to pressure food processors to eliminate them. However, the scientific evidence demonstrates that palm and coconut oils are healthful.
The Scientific Evidence
At the height of the campaign waged against palm oil, the July 1987 issue of Nutrition Reviews printed a short review of new findings about palm oil. Palm oil does not act like a saturated fat. On the contrary, animal studies showed that palm oil acts more like an unsaturated fat. Palm oil contains 40% oleic acid and 10% linoleic acid. Both of these fatty acids are effective in lowering plasma cholesterol. Also, palm oil contains tocotrienols, which lower cholesterol. Special triglyceride species and some non-triglyceride species identified in palm oil may have physiologic properties that differ form most saturated fats. A fraction of palm oil is very rich in vitamin E, and also contains large amounts of carotenoids. Both are beneficial in maintaining membrane fluidity and function. In fact, because of its carotene and vitamin E content, palm oil reduces blood clotting that can lead to stroke. The newer findings showed that palm oil had beneficial effects on blood lipids, and reduced cardiovascular risks, thrombosis, and atherosclerosis.
Later, it was found that palm oil is the richest know source of natural carotenoids. By 1993, a natural carotene complex product was extracted from palm oil.
Similarly, newer findings about coconut oil demonstrated that it, too, is a healthy fat. In 1988, N.W. Istfan of Harvard University Medical School’s Nutrition Coordinating Center, vindicated coconut oil. Dr. Istfan reported: “For the U.S. consumer, the use of coconut oil does not increase the role of heart disease.” Other researchers demonstrated that coconut oil reduces the risk of atherosclerosis, heart disease, cancer, and other degenerative conditions. It helps prevent bacterial, viral, and fungal infections, as a result of its antimicrobial component, lauric acid, which is found solely in coconut oil and in breast milk. Coconut oil is rich in MCTs, which provide an immediate source of fuel and energy, and enable the human body to metabolize fat efficiently. This feature helps dieters, athletes, individuals who have difficulty digesting fat, and those with impaired immune systems. Unlike some saturated fats, coconut oil does not raise cholesterol.
The historic evidence strengthens recent findings about palm and coconut oils. Many groups of people, throughout the world, have thrived on these oils in their daily diets, without experiencing negative health effects.
Coming Full Circle.
If some food processors choose to revert to their use of palm and coconut oils-which served them well in the past-an irony should be noted: Instead of the former label declaration announcing that the product contained “NO TROPICAL OILS!” the newer labels may announce “CONTAINS TROPICAL OILS! NO TRANS FATS!” Such labels would come full circle.
This article originally appeared in the August 2003 issue of Consumers’ Research, vol. 86 no. 8.