Bristling over accusations that palm oil is clogging America's arteries, Malaysia has unveiled the new studies showing that its staple cooking oil is good for health-conscious consumers.
In the fiercest oil war this side of the Middle East, the Asian country has made it clear that what's at stake is not only one of its top foreign exchange earners and employers but its democracy and free trade as well.Soybean oil accounts for 80 percent of the $2 billion cookingoil market in the United States, while tropical oils, like palm oil, share a 5 percent slice that is rapidly growing.
The American Soybean Association maintains that palm oil, containing 50 percent saturated fat, raises cholesterol levels in the bloodstrream - and increases the risk of heart attacks.
Since soybean oil contains only about 15 percent saturated fat, the organization wants Congress to require that tropical cooking oils such as palm oil be labeled as "saturated fats" on food packages.
A bill to require such labeling died in Congress at the end of the last session, but is expected to be introduced again by Rep. Dan Glickman, D-Kan. Glickman infuriated Malaysians by pouring a bottle of palm oil over his head at a congressional hearing to demonstrate the fat content.
Another volley in the palm oil battle came from the National Heart Savers Association, which asked in a full-page advertisement in a major U.S. newspaper: "Who's poisoning America?"
Albert Talalla, the Malasian ambassador to the United States, branded the advertisement as "highly irresponsible," and has repeatedly warned that if the livelihood of Malasia's small vegetable oil producers is threatened, they could "fall prey" to communist movements.
"The truth will prevail in the end," said Toh Pang Huat, the president of the Malaysian Edible oils Manufacturers Association, who is confident the industry is armed with enough of the new scientific ammunition to diffuse the "smear" tactics of its critics.
Researchers at the Institute of medical Research in Kuala Lumpur fed 80 volunteers a palm oil-enriched diet for five weeks.
"They were divided into three groups, based on sex, age and smoking habits as these factors can affect the results," said Dr. Lim Ju Boo, the project's chief investigator.
At the conclusion, he said, blood cholesterol levels were reduced by 19 percent.
Similar results were obtained in a separate study by the Pakistan Council for Scientific and Industrial Research using 150 volunteers in Lahore. After 60 days on a palm oil diet, tests showed cholesterol plunged by 14 percent.
Chong Yoon Hin, a nutritionist at the research institute, attributed the "exceptional behavior" of palm oil to its component of vitamin E. A Wisconsin study has revealed that the palm oil-derived vitamin blocked the production of cholesterol in the liver when fed to animals.
But at least one leading American cholesterol expert said the new studies have not swayed his opinion of palm oil, given previous research.
"The balance of evidence would suggest that palm oil is bad for you as far as cholesterol levels are concerned," said Dr. Basil Rifkind of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md.