Much less threatening than chlorofluorocarbons in the ozone but accorded equal weight, vegetable oils found in some processed foods have been the focus of a considerable flap recently.
Health advocacy groups, joined by producers of soybean oil, issued warnings that the so-called tropical oils--palm, palm kernel and coconut--in many foods might be cholesterol-free as advertised (all vegetable oils are), but being high in saturated fats, they spur cholesterol production in the blood. Palm oil producers promptly issued defenses, suggesting that soybean oil, when hydrogenated, was worse and that their oil even contained “a potential anti-cancer agent.”
At the same time, consumer advocates noted that the consumer often had no choice anyway, because embedded in the flap about health was a more compelling problem of disclosure. Processed food labels list ingredients, but only 55% provide nutritional information--the calories, protein, fat, carbohydrate and sodium provided by those ingredients. Unless nutritional claims are made, nutritional labeling isn’t required by law: The question is whether it should be.
Companies Made Changes
Much of the furor began with the campaign of the National Heart Savers Assn., an Omaha-based group run by a man named Phil Sokolof, whose heart attack two decades ago gave him personal interest in the connection between high cholesterol and heart disease. Initially, he wanted to promote “cholesterol awareness” and widespread cholesterol testing; he was drawn to the question of specific oils only by what he calls the “deception” of the “No Cholesterol” boasts.
Singling out some of the biggest brands in full-page newspaper ads, Sokolof had spectacular success. A number of companies, including Keebler, Sunshine Biscuits, Kellogg and Pillsbury, announced that they would reformulate their cakes, cookies, breads or cereals--replacing palm or coconut oil with a polyunsaturate like soybean oil. Sales of palm oil--most of it imported--plunged, Malaysian Oil Palm Growers cried trade protectionism and the fats fight was on.
There were people, of course, who pointed out that the tropical oils ingested from packaged foods mattered little, because such oils accounted for about 3% of the total fat in the American diet. On the other hand, says Charles Mitchell, staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, “if the recommendation is to cut back on saturated fat, every little bit helps.”
Indeed, for all the public debate about which particular fats should be the first cut from the diet, there was never any dispute about the need to cut down. The Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, the Surgeon General and most recently the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, all undertook studies of the question, and all concluded that fats contribute greatly to heart disease, among other illnesses.
Beyond the fat debate, however, is another debate. There may be “a strong consensus that Americans have to reduce their fat consumption,” says Ellen Haas, executive director of the Washington-based Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, “but the consumer can’t make informed choices when he’s bombarded with health claims and there’s inadequate disclosure” of what he’s eating. Aside from the lack of nutritional information, many don’t even specify the particular oil used, preferring the custom of “and/or” labeling, as in “may contain one or more of the following (oils): coconut, cottonseed, soybean, palm kernel or palm"--often whichever was the most economical at the time of manufacture.
Oddly enough, while several offices of the government were propounding the need to limit fat in the diet, others fended off the question of whether food companies even had to disclose the fat in their products.
The FDA, which has authority over the labeling of all food products except meat, poultry and eggs (the Department of Agriculture gets those), continues to permit “and/or” labeling of ingredient oils instead of specific identification and the use of the words “hydrogenated” and “partially hydrogenated” instead of “saturated” and “partially saturated.” Instead, it has proposed rules setting limits on the amount of cholesterol contained in products that boast of being “cholesterol-free” or “low cholesterol.”
Legislative efforts have been equally inconclusive. In 1985, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) authored a bill requiring that food labels reveal the sodium, potassium, and fat and cholesterol content of the product. In 1987, Reps. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) proposed that food labels state which oil they contained and saturated fat content. In 1988, Glickman, chairman of the Agriculture subcommittee on wheat, soybeans and feed grains, repeated the proposal with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
And this week, Glickman and Harkin tried again with a Low Cholesterol Consumer Education Act. It requires that processed foods containing vegetable oil either identify the oil or provide “complete nutrition information about fat, saturated fat and cholesterol--information that must also be provided if the label boasts about cholesterol or vegetable oil content.
Even the most interested observers seem relatively uninterested in this bill: Most believe that “comprehensive food label reform is needed,” says Mitchell. It’s their hope that the public furor and the public war between palm oil and soybean oil will precipitate more wholesale legislation, perhaps, it is rumored, from Metzenbaum.
In the long run, how the labeling question is resolved will make a difference not just in the question of fats and oils, but in questions about other ingredients, as well as the question of nutrition claims (“low calorie,” “high fiber”) and health claims (“natural,” “light,” “good for you”). In the short run, however, the consumer is the only entity who can act immediately and decisively--by refusing to buy food products that don’t give him information he wants on the label. He might even speed up the official resolution of the question.