The Centre for Science and Environment periodically comes up with sensationalist 'studies' that are lapped up by the media, create confusion and panic among consumers, and garner loads of publicity for the organisation's head, Sunita Narain. I put the word 'studies' in quotes because the CSE's aim is not to produce useful information, but rather to attack multinationals and further its anti-globalisation agenda.
A previous scare they manufactured related to pesticides in carbonated beverages. At the end of this post, I've written about the duplicity involved in that report. For the moment, let's focus on the current kerfuffle. It concerns trans fats, and features prominently in the dailies this morning. The front page of the Hindustan Times asks: "How edible is your cooking oil?" The article, written by Chetan Chauhan and Sanchita Sharma, begins with the line, "You may be better off using butter than cooking oil, suggests a new study". The Hindu's headline reads: "Most edible oil contains harmful trans fat, study shows". The paper quotes Sunita Narain as saying, "The study found that if all oils are compared against Denmark standard, then no edible oil in the market could claim to be healthy".
That is NOT what the actual study found. On page 28, section 13.2, titled Trans Fatty Acids, the CSE's report states: "In 21 refined edible oil samples analysed for trans fats; trans fat content was in the range of 0.08 to 3.3%. Most of the samples were within the trans fat limit of Denmark of 2%... except Saffola Gold... and Shalimar's Classic Basmati."
Sunita Narain says no edible oil meets Danish trans fat standards; her own organisation's study says that 19 of 21 refined edible oils DO meet that standard, and 2 have trans fat levels slightly above the allowable limit. What's going on?
CSE has created the confusion by fudging two different categories of product: refined edible oils on the one hand, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils on the other.
A QUESTION OF CATEGORIES
The first of these categories consists of any oil you can buy in shops: sunflower, peanut, coconut, mustard, olive and so on. These oils have been used in cooking for millennia. The second category, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHVOs), refers to margarine, shortening and, in the case of India, vanaspati. PHVOs are created through an industrial process that was invented a little over a century ago. It involves taking liquid vegetable oil and modifying its chemistry so it turns solid. The higher melting point of PHVOs makes them easy to use in baking, and because they don't get rock hard in the fridge, they are convenient breakfast spreads.
PHVOs grew popular because they mimicked animal fats like butter while being much cheaper to produce. In India, Unilever marketed a PHVO which mimicked ghee, the country's favourite animal fat based cooking medium. Such ghee-mimicking PHVOs were given the wholesome sounding name vanaspati. Unilever's vanaspati brand, Dalda, became the cheap ghee-substitute of choice in most Indian homes, particularly in the north.
Until the mid 1990s, PHVOs were actually considered healthier than their animal fat counterparts. Margarine was supposedly better for you than butter, and Dalda preferrable to ghee. That's because, at the time, the main division health professionals made was between 'bad' saturated fats with large amounts of cholesterol and 'good' low-cholesterol unsaturated fats. PHVOs had lower levels of saturated fat than butter and ghee, and contained no cholesterol, and were therefore marketed as healthy substitutes for animal fat based mediums.
THE EVIL TRANS FAT
Over the past decade and a bit, a more complex view of fat and cholesterol has come to dominate dietary thinking. We now speak of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, good (HDL) cholesterol and bad (LDL) cholesterol, essential fatty acids and so on. At the same time, the health industry has found a new super-villain in the form of trans fat. Trans fat occurs naturally in small quantities, but it is mainly created in the process of hydrogenating vegetable oil. PHVOs are chock-full of trans fat, and therefore, far from being healthier than animal fats, they're considerably worse for your heart. They are also, apparently, carcinogenic.
The CSE study repeatedly confuses edible oils / cooking oils with vanaspati / PHVO. Section 6.2 is titled: Major Players of Edible Oil, but lists a number of vanaspati brands. In its conclusions in Section 14, however, the study makes a distinction between edible oils, which, as remarked upon earlier, contain very low levels of trans fats, and vanaspati brands, which have high levels of the same.
The central conclusion of the CSE report, then, is that vanaspati has unhealthy levels of trans fat. But that is true BY DEFINITION. Trans fats are created in the process of hydrogenating vegetable oil, and vanaspati is made by hydrogenating vegetable oil. To tout this as an unusual finding is a bit like printing a front page headline screaming, "Large Scale Tree Felling Can Deplete Forests", or, "The Oil You Cook With Contains Fat". My guess is that CSE began its investigations hoping to find high trans fat levels in refined cooking oil. Having failed to do so, and recognising that a report about high trans fat in vanaspati would get little attention, they decided to mix up the two categories, so a bewildered media would spread the word that refined cooking oil was dangerous.
THE COLA CONTROVERSY
A few years ago, Narain cooked data in similar fashion to 'prove' that fizzy drinks contained dangerous amounts of pesticides. The actual amount of deadly chemicals the study found in Coke and Pepsi was vanishingly small, so tiny that no lab could have detected it ten years ago. But that was still acceptabe science. Bad methodology was introduced when CSE compared the pesticide levels in these fizzy drinks with European Union norms for WATER. Water standards are particularly strict because people drink a lot of it. If Pepsi and Coke had been compared with, say, EU norms for pesticide levels in vegetables, they'd have fallen well within allowable limits. So problem one was that the study involved a false comparison.
Since Pepsi and Coke are made from water and sugar, and no pesticides are introduced during the manufacturing process, it stands to reason that at least the same concentration of pesticides resides in our water or sugar. And since every Indian drinks water in far greater quantities than Coke or Pepsi, and ingests sugar in many different forms, it's clear that, if there is a health issue here, it relates not to fizzy drinks but to our water and sugar. But this fact was entirely ignored during the weeks of discussion that followed the release of the CSE's cola 'study'. This was problem two. Indian consumers were given no comparative data regarding pesticides in water, vegetables and other substances, and therefore could not make up their minds about how relatively safe or dangerous the targetted beverages were.
The public relations departments of Coca Cola and Pepsi did a horrible job of conveying their own viewpoint. After weeks, they framed a coherent response, pointing out that dozens of products like apples and cauliflowers contained pesticides in much higher concentrations than what the CSE found in colas. The CSE's reply? " You can't take pesticides out of apples, but you can clean up colas".
This, of course, is entirely false. Pesticides do not occur naturally in apples, and can therefore certainly be removed from the production process. But that is a fight CSE doesn't want to take up, because it involves farmers rather than multinationals.