Business

Flip-Flopping on Fats

by Mark Hay

September 26, 2014
Illustration by Addison Eaton

Last week, Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme both announced intentions to revise their buying policies on palm oil, and ethical donut gobblers across the nation rejoiced. Cultivation of the oil, used not only in frying donuts but also in a vast number of other global foods and consumer goods, is implicated in rampant deforestation and workers’ rights abuses, coating every cruller with an unappetizing sprinkling of guilt. So the donut world’s decision to source only from certified ethical and sustainable suppliers, part of an expanding market reaction against the oil’s evils, feels to many like a significant everyday victory for conscious consumerism. But for many others, the decision just raises the question of why we were so blithely using such a seemingly destructive product in our food for so long. The answer isn’t that we were duped (although palm oil does disguise itself in products). We turned to palm oil because, thanks to years of conditioning and demonization, we’ve learned to fear most other fats.

Although America’s fear of butter and other delicious fats goes back at least a hundred years, the impetus to switch to palm oil really began around the 1970s. Around that time,  the U.S. government, drawing upon now questionable research, declared the saturated fats in butter, full-fat dairy, and red meat bad for your heart. Instead, officials recommended we use more vegetable oils and spreads like margarine (and pushed Americans towards high-carb diets). By the 1990s, the backlash against saturated fats pushed companies like McDonald’s to switch over to vegetable oils.

Almost immediately, we learned of the new evils of trans fats created by hydrogenation, which either lengthens oil shelf life or solidifies it. Hooked on new evidence about the risks of these fats, the United States ruled in 2003 that food labels would have to list trans-fat amounts by 2006. As the deadline approached and trans fats took more and more media punishment, we did not turn back to butter and lard. Instead, the traditional breakdown, holding that we should avoid saturated fats at all costs and use only mono- or polyunsaturated fats whenever possible, held sway, leading food producers to seek out a new lipidic ingredient: palm oil.

A replacement for butter and most vegetable oils, producers favored this once obscure African oil made from palm trees, because as a semi-solid of almost equal parts saturated and unsaturated fats, it could easily stand in for cooking oils and baking spreads alike. It didn’t hurt that it was a low-cost, high-yield product as well. Producing up to 10 times the volume per hectare as soybeans, palm oil accounts for 38 percent of the world’s vegetable oil, while using only five percent of the land allocated for vegetable oil production. But as demand for palm oil soared in the 2000s, cultivators started grabbing land—especially in Indonesia—clearing hundreds of football fields worth of forest every day (including endangered orangutan habitats) to meet global demand. Working conditions on these new plantations are questionable to say the least; hundreds of major land conflicts and thousands of human rights abuses are recorded every year on the Indonesian island of Sumatra alone. Although responsible and moderate development on more expensive reclaimed or allocated land is starting to take off, as an added kicker, we’ve now begun to suspect that palm oil isn’t that great for us either, possibly raising bad cholesterol and lowering the good type.

Determining the actual health effects of palm oil remains confusing. And as it turns out, the actual health effects of butter, lard, and other demonized saturated fats is just as questionable. Although many groups still reject saturated fats, a growing body of literature challenges the correlations between butter and heart attacks, proposing that some sources of fat (like dairy) may be paradoxically good for us, while other fats are—when excessively consumed—bad. Even around the time Americans conclusively turned their backs on saturated fat, it turns out there was a raging debate of dueling evidence, stretching back to the mid-1850s and still unresolved today.

The main reason negative views of saturated fats won out over more positive research may, in large part, be advertising and commercial interests. Just as in the early days of margarine, butter manufacturers lobbied for restrictions on its sale as a dangerous, unhealthy chemical compound, so too in the early 1900s Crisco and other vegetable oil and spread manufacturers launched vicious attacks on butter and lard as unhealthy, expensive, and highly perishable. Such campaigns, coloring worldviews and hammering away at traditional fats, slowly swung what ought to have been a debate into fear and loathing so strong that even now that we’re opening up to butter again, it’s likely we’ll just stick to an ethical version of palm oil, rather than switch back to traditional saturated fats in most of our foods.

If the story of fats in America teaches us anything, it’s that food fads and bans are often illogical overreactions to ongoing scientific debates, fueled by a little advertising. Instead, moderation is the answer—an egg or a stick of butter now and then won’t kill us, but a varied diet wouldn’t hurt either. So despite the donut world’s recent actions, palm oil is probably here to stay, as demand for it in the developing world is rising, it’s extremely cheap compared to other fats and oils, and sustainability standards continue to improve. But as individuals, we can break the cycle of fad diets and lemming-like totalistic bans by making a choice to follow the example of healthy cooks and just use more traditional and diverse fats.

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Flip-Flopping on Fats