Not long ago I posted on the spurious attack job that Michael Jacobson and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) mounted against palm oil. Apparently the palm oil industry isn’t taking it lying down. A couple of days ago the Malaysian Palm Oil Promotion Council placed a large ad in the New York Times refuting the claims the CSPI ad made about the saturated fat in palm oil and the industry’s being responsible for the decimation of orangutans.
Today’s New York Times has a lengthy article about the fracas entitled Fat Fight Becomes a Rumble in the Jungle that focuses primarily on actor Paul Newman’s anger over the CSPI’s fingering him and his cookies (made with palm oil) as orangutan killers and heart disease promoters. As you might imagine, Mr Newman, who is as liberal as they come, is outraged the he, The Paul Newman, could possibly be accused of being both an anti-environmentalist and a health menace to kiddies (the main consumers of his cookies). And to be so accused by another such bastion of liberalism as the CSPI must have seemed beyond the pale. Although I too have a problem with Mr. Newman’s cookies (and it ain’t the palm oil that’s in them) I can see his point. The CPSI’s attacks were, by its leader’s own admission, inaccurate and were pure demagoguery in its worst form.
Mr. Newman’s daughter, an uber-environmentalist herself, encouraged dad in the early 1990’s to start a branch within his food company Newman’s’ Own using only organic products. Since then Newman’s Own Organics has produced a line of foods containing organic ingredients and distributed throughout the country. Mr. Newman donates all the profits from the enterprise to charity.
When Mr. Newman decided to add crackers and cookies to his line, he discovered what all cooks and food manufacturers know: it takes shortening. Problem is shortening is a fat. Fats combine with the flour and surround the flour particles and break or ‘shorten’ (thus the name, shortening) the long gluten strands into shorter sections so the resulting products are flaky like a croissant or non-chewy like the two outside layers of an Oreo cookie or a cracker. The kind of fat that works the best as shortening for crisper products is saturated fat, which is why butter and lard have been used for ages. In an effort to get away from saturated fats, food manufacturers moved to partially hydrogenated fats, trans fats, which have the same shortening characteristics of saturated fats but up until Jan 1 of this year could be included on the label as polyunsaturated fats. But as we all now know, trans fats are bad actors. So Mr. Newman was on the horns of a dilemma. He wanted an Oreo-like cookie that smacked of good health, but needed shortening to make it. In today’s anti-saturated fat world butter and lard were out, so he opted for palm oil, a source of saturated fat, but one that most people wouldn’t recognize as such.
But he didn’t fool the eagly, saturated-fat-seeking eyes of the folks at CSPI, who went on the attack. What the CSPI found so egregious in Mr. Newman’s products compared to, say, a regular Oreo cookie, is that Mr. Newman had the temerity to actually advertise his cookies as a healthy alternative when they contained, horror of horrors, saturated fat. In fact, the CSPI and
Mr. Jacobson and the report’s other authors accuse Mr. Newman of “bragging” on his labels for cookies and microwave popcorn that palm oil is free of trans fat and is less saturated than palm kernel oil.
“These statements are literally true, but mislead people into thinking that palm oil is positively healthy,” the report said. “Palm oil is not a health food.”
So, who is right and who is wrong in all this finger pointing? Both.
Mr. Newman is correct that palm oil is a more healthful alternative to trans fat, but he’s wrong in saying his cookies are healthful; Mr. Jacobson is right that Mr. Newman’s cookies aren’t particularly healthful, but is off the mark on his criticism of palm oil. Let’s look at the facts.
Just because a product is made with all organic ingredients doesn’t mean that it’s good for us to eat. Pure cane sugar is not good for you whether it’s organic or not. If I had to eat a cookie I would rather eat one of Mr. Newman’s than one filled with trans fat, but health-wise I would be better off avoiding the cookie altogether.
Michael Jacobson and the CSPI are totally off base in their attack on palm oil in particular and in saturated fat in general. Remember, these were the same guys promoting trans fat-laden margarine over butter just a few years back. There is no conclusive evidence that saturated fats, which are perfectly normal fats and have been part of our diets for millennia, are a danger for heart disease or anything else. In fact, carbohydrates, the macronutrient much beloved by Dr, Jacobson and the CPSI, when over consumed are converted by our own bodies to palmitic acid, a saturated fat. Generally, our bodies tend to detoxify ingested toxins by breaking them down and/or converting them to non-toxic substances, which is precisely what happens with carbohydrates. It wouldn’t make sense from an evolutionary perspective for our metabolic systems to convert a non-toxic substance into a toxic one, which would be the case if the Jacobson/CPSI way of thinking were correct.
What I find particularly loathsome about Michael Jacobson and the CPSI is that they apparently created the orangutan ‘crisis,’ which they knew to be untrue to bash Mr. Newman and others who use palm oil in their products. According the the New York Times:
Mr. Jacobson denies that he has a personal campaign against the Newmans and concedes that their palm oil isn’t killing orangutans (my italics). But he still takes their labeling to task.
How could you believe anything this man says? But then, he does get some things correct, although not for the right reasons. After conceding that their products maybe aren’t responsible for the destruction of the orangutans, he says of the Newmans:
“They may be environmentally sound, but don’t eat these cookies if you really care about your heart.”
I agree. Don’t eat these cookies (or any others) if you really care about your heart.