The Satyam in our oil

Which cooking oil is best for us? Why do I ask? Are we not bombarded with advertising messages telling us there is a healthy oil that is good for the heart? They talk of monounsaturated fatty acids (mufa), and polyunsaturated fatty acids (pufa) and of course, catch-us-words like omega properties. I am sure you, like me, try to understand this scientific jargon and conclude that any oil that has all these elements, must be good.

Then we presume if we are being told the product is healthy, somebody must have verified the claim. If not, we depend on food regulators of the rich world. Food is after all nutrition and even medicine. It must be taken seriously, we are sure. So, we as aware citizens go out and buy the healthy oil.

Like you, I also thought I had it figured out. Then the Centre for Science and Environment’s pollution monitoring laboratory tested various types—from peanut, to mustard, safflower, sunflower, olive and more. As the results came in, we compared them with what we knew about these oils. It is then we realized we do not even begin to understand the science of our food and its relation with our bodies—in a world, where our food is not our own anymore. The business is in our kitchen. In this business, our nutrition and its science are also business, even profit. If food regulators slip—are unmindful or negligent—our health is compromised.

This for me is the story of our cooking oil and our bodies. Let me explain. We started with the presumption, verified by nutrition regulators, a healthy oil is one that has less saturated fat, more monounsaturated fat (mufa) and the level of polyunsaturated fats (pufa) is balanced between saturated and mono. In addition, we need to consider the sub-constituents, the essential fatty acids—omega 6, omega 3 and the current posterboy, omega 9. The oil, which has these in some proportion, is the best. We thought we had cracked it.

On further research we found that this science is not simple, nor exact. Coconut oil, which has a high amount of saturated fat, scores poorly on this good-oil matrix, there is now more evidence that we have misunderstood it. It is being learnt that coconut has antimicrobial components like lauric acid and capric acid, which build the body’s immune system. It is well known this fatty acid is what gives mother’s milk its special kick—babies suckle to make disease-fighting fatty acid derivative monolaurine from the lauric acid they get from mother’s milk. Why is it we discount coconut oil as unhealthy? Could it be because there is so little public research, coming from different regions of the world, with different diets and different traditional foods?

Before you think this is another big-business conspiracy, take the troubling case of trans fat in our oil. Trans fat is indicted across the world for being really bad for us because it increases the bad cholesterol (ldl) and worse, even reduces good (hdl) cholesterol. The fact is nutrition science has been warning us about the evils of trans fat for many years. Nobody listened. Is it because this involves the core business interests of cooking oil companies? The fact is that trans deviation in the oil chain happens because of the industrial process of hydrogenation—something companies perfected so that they could sell oil with long shelf life and soft to use. Just consider how this science was deliberately suppressed in the fast-food haven of the US, where food regulators refused to accept it even when state after state, restaurant after restaurant is now switching to better alternatives.

This complicity is worse because science is not simple. Take the fatty acids sold to us through best selling recipe books for their health benefits. What is not explained is the ratio—the amount of omega 6 we consume in relation to omega 3. As most commercial oils are rich in omega 6 and low in omega 3, our diet and health are hurt. This is the fine print we must learn about.

But the most interesting issue is about how the market changes the way we like our food. Therefore, over time our oil has come to be this colourless, odourless thing. All oils taste the same because industry extracts it (using various chemical solvents), then cleans it and because we want it, even sells it as double and triple refined. This also means we don’t know what we consume. In other words, there could be a mixture of edible oil, or even in rouge cases, and non-edible oil in our bottle of gleaming liquid. But then we don’t like its taste, do we?

In all this, we have destroyed, indeed discredited the art of cold pressed oil—where we extracted it fresh and ingested its best qualities. Next time, you are sold the benefits of olive oil, remember, this is its secret—cold pressed and natural. Why then have we turned our backs on cold pressed mustard oil? Another case of another local oil and regional flavour being lost in our one-market world?

All this would have been just rant, if our regulators functioned in public interest. Then science (not profit) would be policy. Consider what the ministry of health has issued in the name of labelling nutrition facts and you will know how our food is at risk. It literally allows companies to get away with anything—as long as it is on the label.

And this is the time when we must be even more vigilant because our food is in the hands of the most powerful. Who makes our cooking oil today? Everyone from multinational Cargill or ConAgra—who have worked the system, in many continents, for long.

Remember we cannot afford a Satyam in our food. This is about our bodies. Our health. No monkey business allowed here.

— Sunita Narain