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BW Businessworld

Case Study: Know Not What I Eat

“The food industry profits from providing poor quality foods with poor nutritional value that people eat a lot of ” — Dr Mark Hyman, American physician, scholar and an NYT bestselling author

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

Aparna Aiyer was more confused than she was before she began on this journey. She was at a premium supermarket and at the beginning of her healthy diet programme. Salads, her nutritionist had said, and Aparna had thought that was a lark until, after having bought her salad leaves and things, she faced the oil counter. There were some 50 kinds of oils across peanut, coconut, sunflower, safflower, canola, walnut, grapeseed, flaxseed, sesame, cold pressed, double cold pressed, extra virgin…

“You can use olive oil, its monounsaturated fat will help reduce your LDL (bad cholesterol) and increase your HDL, the good cholesterol…” said the sales lady Mythili. “It also has a great amount of Vitamin K; why don’t you buy the EVOO instead of pure olive oil, because they contain more of the nutrients than pure olive oils… (and she went on).

Aparna: Oh, God! I don’t want to know so much. I don’t know what is phytochemicals and you mean Pure Olive oil is not so good even if it’s ‘pure’?

And Aparna decided to buy the no-nonsense ‘salad oil’. But when she got home, her parents who were already setting the table for lunch, looked at the unusual looking bottle of oil and turned it around several times to see what it was made of.

Uncle Vidur: ‘Salad Oil’ is like saying ‘massage oil’. It can be anything…

Father: Ladies, be careful what you buy and what you use. Here, Vidur, take a look. Is this good for the human body or is it machine oil? Ha ha ha!

VIDUR, who managed a large beverage factory, was once in oil research, hence Thyagaraj (Aparna’s father) trusted his judgement. Then having pored over the pack print, he said, “Ok, this is based on canola oil and that is generally not used as a salad oil. Salad oil is not like peanut oil that comes from peanuts or olive oil that comes from olives. It is a generic oil.”

Mother Brinda: Then, why sell something labelled ‘Salad Oil’?

Vidur: Because people don’t research. Does your anti-ageing cream actually do that? For salads, you need a mild oil. I mean something that is not overwhelming like mustard oil.

Brinda (her brow creased already): And you are not happy with canola? Oh, God! My mother recently bought two 2-kg jerry cans at the supermarket where there was an offer!

Vidur: Canola is not a real oil like groundnut or coconut or oils that derive from their mother seed. There is no canola plant! It is just a nice name given to oil extracted from genetically modified or engineered rapeseed, which itself is from a wider basket of seeds. It is the coming together of Can from Canada and Ola for oil. There ends its etymology. The name was changed to distance the consumer mind from the unhappy connotations of the word ‘rape’. The seed was re-engineered to lower the erucic acid to make it better for humans as well as animals.

Brinda: Oh, God… but when Amma called from the supermarket I told her to ask if it was organic and the man told her it was!

Vidur: This is another fabulous modern-day myth. What is the sales person going to know? Organic is not just the non-use of pesticides. Organic also means not genetically modified or engineered. That nothing inorganic has been added in the growing or processing. I have not heard of organic canola oil.

Brinda: Vidur, then, how is one to know anything about what we are buying, if everything is going to be couched in marketing blah? You say I am a student of chemistry and I should examine. But how am I to know that oils gets bleached? What manufacturer/marketer tells you, “Hey, I have bleached my oil?” You don’t expect a lay consumer to know? All I have read is canola has omega 3 fatty acids. And I went for it. Now, you are saying if bleached that gets partially destroyed and trans fat goes up! This is really upsetting!

Vidur: Tell me, Brinda, have you read the pack print of the oil you are using currently?

No ad-vad. Just been using it. Thyagu’s family uses same brand, Amma used to use that too until she went for an economy purchase and bought Canola. “Read the pack?” I always forget to carry my reading glasses! Then, where’s the time, Vidur? But let me tell you, the print is also so tiny as if they don’t want you to read!

Vidur: There you go. This is what we found when we researched behaviour. Generally, people do not read the pack unless they have a medical condition. The percentage of people reading packs is 1 per cent and below.

But people also read newspaper articles on nutrition. Like you are clued into omega-3 fats. So, a canola oil maker will sponsor an article on omega 3 in Yahoo! and you will read it as a general lifestyle story, and thus he has bought your attention. When an ad appears saying our oil is rich in antioxidants or omega 3, you go, ‘A-ha!’ and that becomes your preferred oil.

But the trigger is the advertisement through which they tell you about the oil’s claimed benefits.

Take olive oil, for example. Everybody says olive oil is healthy because it comes from southern part of Europe, people are healthier in the Mediterranean, they have a long life and so on. Park that, and look at rice bran oil. It came from Japan. People in Japan are healthy. Then, they found that rice bran oil contains oryzanol, an antioxidant and supposed to be good on cholesterol.

But why the Japanese live longer is not just due to the rice bran oil but climate and soil too. Then again, if you know Japanese cuisine, they do little to the food — fresh, raw or boiled and minimum seasonings. So, when they tell you rice bran because it has worked for the Japanese, I feel that claim must be researched through prolonged clinical study, through replacing current oil with canola or rice bran oil to know real advantage.

Aparna: How is rice bran oil sold in Japan? As a healthy oil?

Vidur: In Japan, that is what they use traditionally. Just like you use sesame oil; in India, you know nobody makes a health claim on sesame oil. It is what people use. It is part of our lifestyle in some regions. No chest thumping happens there. Ditto for mustard oil. Ditto for coconut oil. People use coconut oil in Kerala. Coconut oil is touted as bad for arteries and so on. But I don’t think the Keralites are dying of heart attacks. They have both wonderful hair and heart!

Brinda: Oh, but now coconut oil has come back as the best thing you can do for yourself.

Vidur: Ok, tone down that thought. I will come to that later. So, this is the thing; in Japan, nobody was actually ever claiming that it was the best oil for the heart and so on. It was part of their normal diet. That was how they lived. It was a part of their tradition, given they are growing a great amount of rice. Just as in Punjab and Bengal, mustard is grown aplenty, so they use mustard oil. And that is again a function of their soil and climate!

Thyagaraj: So, what is the real story about oils? There is the jazz about saturated fats, unsaturated, monounsaturated… Brinda is right, why should I be knowing all this, why can I not expect that the marketer will sell me what is good for my health?

Vidur: All this, thanks to Google. But good that it is making us ask questions and find answers. See, all oils contain 3-4 kinds of acids. All are good acids, but some of them cannot be excessive in our diets, for they affect the health. And in the long term can lead to grief. Let me tell you about just the top three: Saturated fatty acids — SFA for short; monounsaturated fatty acids or MUFA and polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFA.

Why they are called that is a chemistry lesson which you don’t need unless you plan to make oils. But these are significant differentiators.

SFAs are what make oils thick. They are essentially fat molecules. So all red meat, all dairy and dairy products contain SFA. As simple as that. You may want to do some gearing, but remember the underlying principle. These acids raise cholesterol levels and the American Heart Association prescribes no more than 5-6 per cent of your daily calorie intake to be SFA; that means 100 calories, or thereabouts, can be SFA.

Brinda: But if it is bad why have it? Just because you like butter and ghee?

Vidur: The important thing is to know what foods contain which of these acids and to balance your intake. So, if your main course is rich in SFA as in red meat, then think of how much SFA you are imbibing. Can you eat red meat and coconut oil? And ghee? And butter? Take a breakfast menu of toast with butter, Granola with 8 per cent SFA in one 50 gm portion, and you end that with milk and chyawanprash, which has ghee. To my mind, you have gone to town with your SFA. That is the way to think. So one isolated blob of butter won’t kill you but the above menu is worrisome, because SFA increases your bad cholesterol. But these SFAs also help in bone health, liver health; so it is catch-22. You need to make your choices… So, when you want to add dark chocolate which has 7-8 per cent SFA because it is good for your heart, should you not cut elsewhere?

See, the marketer of every food will tell you how good his product is for you. Butter companies will; granola chaps will; chyawanprash will; milk will. But we need to gear.

Ok, then MUFA, a good acid. They are claimed to be very good as they reduce the bad cholesterol and claimed to increase the good cholesterol. These are found in excellent levels in olive oil and mustard oil. Groundnut oil has predominant MUFA but we cannot be blind to the levels of SFA and PUFA, which varies across brands. And a lot of research points to PUFA as being not so good.

So, the understanding has to be that if groundnut oil is my choice for whatever reason, then I must remember that I am getting a lot of PUFA already, so my other PUFA-based eating must reduce. What I am saying is, NO manufacturer is going to tell you this. He will talk about his brand in isolation. What some tell you is, replace SFA with PUFA; which is good. But only relative to SFA!

So then, PUFA. The thing with this acid is that they reduce both the good and the bad cholesterol which is bothersome. These are found in all oils but the level differs. Sunflower and safflower seed oils have high PFA. You have to read the fine print and take your decision, not leave it to advertising and the manufacturer.

Brinda: Wow! How is the consumer to know all this? I didn’t know! I have been using the wrong oils!

Vidur: There is nothing like wrong oil. There are only oils that I need to balance in my food chart. PUFA oils have omega 3 and 6 but I get the bad effects of PUFA too. How then can someone tell me use my oil for its fabulous Omega 3/6?

But for me, mustard oil is the winner. Low SFA, high MUFA and a lot of omega 3 and 6! See, everyday new findings emerge in oil research. So, use different oils on different days. Doctors suggest that we rotate the oils we use to keep all fatty acid intake in balance. A research body in London evaluated the fat found in clogged arteries. They found that only 26 per cent was SFA. The rest was unsaturated fat, 50 per cent of that being PUFA.

Thyagaraj: I am depressed. No ad says any of this! They only tell you, ‘My oil is the best for your heart!’ Why would I even care to ask questions? And they only talk heart. Now, you say SFA is good for liver and bone health. Nobody says that! How is an average consumer like, say my driver, my maid to know a PUFA from a MUFA?

Vidur: Well, you had better know, as no marketer will tell you. Out in the US, coconut oil has come back with a vengeance. They claim great therapeutic values but nothing from Indian oil industry, nothing local.

But there is more to know. For example, vegetable oil is naturally free from trans fats and cholestrol, but if hydrogenated, it develops trans fats!
Aparna: And how are you going to find out?

Vidur: Manufacturers need to add hydrogen to their oils during processing to make them more stable and avoid rancidity in the fried foods that their customers produce with them. Therefore, processed foods such as chips, namkeens, etc., contain partially hydrogenated oil, to improve the texture, shelf life, and flavour stability of foods. Don't you wonder how a factory made food is crisper than home made? Now you know!

Thyagaraj (to Brinda): When you buy a bag of namkeen, do you sit with a magnifying glass to read the pack print to see if the oil was hydrogenated? And even if you did, will the pack say that? Nope. You are supposed to know that food processing will involve hydrogenating oils. Purinjida? The moment you hydrogenate oil, bingo! You get trans fats!

Brinda (completely lost): Then, how come some oils claim to reduce your cholesterol?

Vidur: First of all, you need cholesterol to produce cell membranes, hormones and bile acids and your memories! So it is necessary. Sometimes cholesterol goes up in our body. Oils with some kinds of fatty acids do help reduce cholesterol. But there too, some rethinking has emerged. For instance, until some years back, PUFA was claimed to reduce cholesterol. But after years of selling PUFA-rich oils, research shot that down and said that this PUFA also reduced good cholesterol, the HDL, putting my heart at greater risk!

Subsequently, some of these oils have added MUFA-rich oils or oryzanol-rich seed oils to their blends so that the PUFA-MUFA balance is struck.

Thyagaraj: But how sad that in the meanwhile ads terrorised the consumer with man collapsing during a game of badminton, or in a train, ambulances screaming around and a devastated family looking on!

Vidur: Absolutely! Not any longer; today they have all redone their advertising, removed the aggressive claims they used to make, and sent off the ambulances. Some retained the oil as-is in the market; some others have added other seed oils to their oils (created blends) to bring about the PUFA-MUFA balance.

Brinda: Achcha- I didn’t know! But does the label say ‘now with less PUFA’?

Vidur: I am not sure, you read the numbers and infer, I guess. So, today the erstwhile high PUFA oils are changing their formulation but not saying so upfront. They are not going to tell you, “Oops, sorry, we were wrong about the PUFA. What our ads claimed was wrong.” The consumer will never forget your sin.

Thyagaraj: But that’s the way corporates are. They are not going to admit that they have made a mistake and have made wrong claims. Nobody will do that.

Aparna: Uncle, tell me, then don’t you think oils which are PUFA high should be withdrawn?

Vidur: I am not a marketing man and I think these are usually in the realms of marketing ethics. I am an R&D fellow. And your uncle *smile*. But if I were the owner of a brand that I realised has been making a misleading claim, I would withdraw it instantly.

Thyagaraj: Why? Let me understand. Is it because the claim that you made is not what the brand is now and people probably continue to buy it for the wrong reason?

Vidur: Naturally, isn’t it? Since I made a product delivery claim, I think it is my duty to reverse that impression in your mind. Also from my company’s standpoint, I will be doing right by my brand by being upfront. See, it’s one thing to say this product is good on your heart health. But I go further and say, “Consume this and it will keep your heart healthy.” That is a different statement.

What happens then is that people with heart problems also start using my brand. Some years later, I find that my oil is not going to deliver on the claims I made, because my PUFA dominant oil reduces your good cholesterol as well. Should I not warn them? God, I should!

Aparna: That’s not enough! They need to issue a warning in the papers in the form of an ad to say new research points to xyz component as being harmful for heart patients. We are taking our oil back to the drawing board and changing it to make it healthy for you — (that’s proactive!).

We had a discussion in class recently. A baby product company in Australia went through exactly this. It stopped selling its bath seat in 1997 because of some complaints about safety. But it did not recall those it had already sold. In 2002, a few more infants died. Company X was in denial that these later deaths had to do with its product, until its integrity officer, God-bless-his-soul, said the risk would cost him brand image. They just exited the business.

Brinda (alarmed, and addressing Vidur): So, is PUFA bad? Did they change the composition of their oil? What did they do?

Vidur: Difficult to say, but essentially some added other oils to balance the PUFA-MUFA ratio; but I am not too sure about all brands. PUFA is known to reduce your good cholesterol as well. Hence you need to communicate what the other fatty acids do for you.

Thyagaraj: Gosh, this is upsetting. This is not a joke. When you are talking about health, you have to be very careful what you say. How come we do not have guidelines for this?

Vidur: I think, more than anything else, food companies should devote 50 per cent of their communication to health. There should not be any hardsell for products that affect health. For instance oils should say, ‘Consume oils in moderation’. There must be strict guidelines for what you say about your food product…. We never know what the consumer takes away!

To be continued...

Read Analysis: Sachidanand Madan | Prakash Nedungadi | Dr Rakesh Gupta

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