Importers’ Group Launches Palm Oil Defense

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Times Staff Writer

Importers of palm oil--one of the so-called tropical oils accused of contributing to heart disease in America--launched an expensive counter-offensive Wednesday urging American food manufacturers and consumers “not to be intimidated by scare tactics which are not based on scientific evidence.”

The Malaysian Oil Palm Growers Assn., which has suffered a 44% decline in oil exports to the United States since 1986, said in a full-page advertisement in the USA Today newspaper that palm oil is a “healthy” and “nutritious” vegetable oil. The ad said the oil has not been proven to raise blood cholesterol levels as implied in recent negative campaigns.

The ad is scheduled to run later in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, said John Phipps, a spokesman for Hill & Knowlton Inc., the public relations firm coordinating the campaign for the Malaysians. The initial ads will cost $205,000, Phipps said, but the Malaysians have established a palm oil promotion fund with about $10 million available over the next three years to respond to attacks on the oil.


The Malaysian exporters said they are responding to an attack initiated two years ago by the American Soybean Assn. and a series of high-profile newspaper ads placed late last year by the American Heart Savers Assn. One of the effects of the campaign was that major food processors said they would no longer use tropical oils.

Although tropical oils are cholesterol-free, they are high in saturated fats, which help to form cholesterol in the blood. High levels of cholesterol in individuals are a factor in heart disease.

In many cases, tropical oils have been replaced in food formulas with soybean oil, which is low in saturated fats. However, as used in food formulas, soybean oil is often hydrogenated--a process that health experts warn has the effect of markedly increasing the saturated fatty acid content of the oil, leaving the consumer not much better off had he consumed the straight saturated fat.

Health experts have expressed concern about the escalating advertising campaigns because they view them as misleading to the public. They said that tropical oils are such an insignificant contributor to the total fat in the American diet (less than 3.5% of the total fat, according to the Food and Drug Administration) that a total elimination of the oil would have no effect on the problem of excessive saturated fats in the American diet.

Battle for Market Share

In response to the new Malaysian campaign, the soybean group, which represents U. S. soybean farmers, hastily convened reporters Wednesday to complain that the reputation of its members “has been grossly maligned by foreign interests.” Highlighting the “foreign funding” of the palm oil exporters campaign, James Lee Adams, a Georgia farmer who is president of the soybean association, said the Malaysian industry “is making a desperate effort to save its U.S. market.”

Although the soybean association said its initial campaign was to highlight a health issue, this controversy has all the markings of a simple battle for market share. In this case, at issue is who gets what share of a U.S. vegetable oil market worth more than $1 billion a year. Tropical oils are relatively new to the U.S. market--and never gained significant market share--but as imports of palm oil in the United States increased rapidly in the early 1980s, the soybean association seized upon the saturated fat content of tropical oils. Phipps said the association sent “fat fighter” kits to soybean farmers accusing tropical oil importers of trying to put American farmers out of business. At the urging of the association, a letter-writing campaign to legislators and food manufacturers was begun, Phipps said, complaining that the campaign’s misleading claims contributed to a drop in palm oil imports.


In defending its campaign, the soybean association said Wednesday that it provided information only to its members and did not go directly to consumers as the Malaysian campaign has.

Soybean growers also tried to get federal legislation that would require labeling of tropical oils as saturated fats. But the Food and Drug Administration, citing the small amount of tropical oils in the American diet, testified against singling out the oils. Supporters of tropical oils argue that the more widespread use of hydrogenated soybean oil is more of a contributor to the saturated fat problem in the United States than tropical oils.

“This is a battle between the soybean manufacturers and the Malaysian government,” said Dr. David Heber, an associate professor of clinical nutrition at the UCLA School of Medicine. “From a public health standpoint, this is a tempest in a teapot.”

Source of Hidden Fat

Moreover, Heber said, the fuss loses sight of the real issue, which is that Americans consume too many calories and particularly too many calories from fat of all kinds. Consumers exposed to these campaigns should keep in mind that the healthiest choice is to reduce total oil consumption, he said.

“Cooking oils are the No. 1 one source of hidden fat in the American diet. . . . Increased fat and calories contribute to the risk of heart disease and many forms of cancer,” he said.

Criticisms of tropical oils gained widespread publicity late last year after the Heart Savers, organized by a wealthy Omaha businessman, sponsored a series of newspaper ads accusing food manufacturers of “poisoning America” by using tropical oils in their food formulas. The American Council on Science & Health denounced the ads as “a disservice to the American consumer.” But several food manufacturers responded swiftly to the ads in announcing that they would remove tropical oils as well as animal fats such as lard from their formulas.


Asked Wednesday if its concern was the health of the American public, why it did not also campaign against lard at the same time it criticized tropical oils, soybean association officials responded that many of the association members are livestock producers. “I don’t think any organization would work against its own industry,” Adams said.