The Tropical Oils Scare [1]

The Tropical Oils Scare [1]
Palm oil has been a part of the human diet for thousands of years. Up until the late 1980s, you could find palm oil in many prepared foods sold in North America and Europe. Manufacturers preferred it over other vegetable fats because it gave foods many desirable characteristics. In areas of the world where palm oil has been used as a staple in the diet, common illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer have been relatively low, attesting to its healthful nature. It has a history of use as a healing salve for wounds and to ease pain and as a medicine to treat a number of health problems such as headaches, rheumatism and cancer and to improve reproductive health. Pregnant women went out of their way to include ample amounts of palm oil into their diet to ensure themselves a trouble- free delivery and a healthy baby. For generations it was considered a useful, healthy fat.

Today many people avoid palm oil, particularly in North America. Here the view is that it is an artery clogging saturated fat that promotes heart disease. We frequently hear warnings in the media to avoid palm and coconut oils - the so-called tropical oils. Diet and health gurus often tell us not to use them.

Despite a long history of safe and effective use, within a few short years, palm oil has been transformed from a healthy food into a despised artery-clogging villain. How could a food that has served mankind well for so many years suddenly become a diabolical poison?

The answer to that question is a combination of greed, misunderstanding, and clever marketing. It has nothing do with science or with fact. The attack against palm oil was a cleverly designed publicity campaign sponsored by the vegetable oil industry in the United States as a means of increasing profits. Welcome to Marketing 101.

How do you convince customers to buy your product even though it is inferior to the competition? One way is to price it below the competition.

Another way is to lie. Years ago, companies could get away with bold-faced lies. Today there are laws that prohibit false advertising. Nowadays marketers use a new strategy - legal lying. Lie as much as possible without breaking the law. Even if your competitor's product is superior to yours in every way, if you can create the impression in the minds of the customer that his product is inferior, you win. How do you do that? Publicity! This is how the vegetable oil industry succeeded in taking over the tropical oils market and in so doing gave these oils an undeserved bad reputation.

The domestic vegetable oil industry in the US has been trying to capture the imported oils market for decades. At first their approach was based on price, but rather than lowering their price, they focused on getting the competition to increase theirs. In the 1930s, they were successful in getting Congress to impose a sales tax on palm and coconut oils. Consequently, the price for these oils increased. Many customers switched to the cheaper domestic oils. This strategy worked for many years. Then in 1966, the tax was suspended and domestic oil producers had to compete on an even playing field. Several attempts have been made by the domestic vegetable oil industry to reinstate a tax on imported oils. To date these attempts have failed. A new plan of attack was needed - legal lying.

During the 1960s and 1970s, heart disease was at an all time high. Elevated blood cholesterol was proposed as a possible cause. Saturated fats, in general, were being scrutinized because of their tendency to raise cholesterol.

Unlike other vegetable oils, palm and coconut oils were highly saturated. Vegetable oil industry executives reasoned that if they could instill fear and prejudice in people against saturated fats they could capture the tropical oils market. They mapped out a strategy to attack saturated fats and particularly tropical oils using heart disease as their battle cry.

Spearheaded by the American Soybean Association (ASA), the vegetable oil industry waged a vicious campaign demonizing saturated fats. Their aim was to crate the image in the public mind that saturated fats are the cause of heart disease.  Fueled by the ASA, the media began spewing out stories on the dangers of saturated fat and tropical oils. In 1986s, the ASA sent out a "Fat Fighter Kit" to nearly a half million soybean growers encouraging them to write to government officials and food companies protesting the importation of the highly saturated tropical fats of palm and coconut oils.

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