In an article on how palmitic acid supports metastasis of selected cancers, The Guardian singles out palm oil as a culprit. This is environmental activism, not science reporting: palmitic acid is everywhere.
The paper’s headline reads: ‘Fatty acid found in palm oil linked to spread of cancer’.
Singling out palm oil in this manner is highly misleading, however. Only halfway down the article does the author hint at the problem, by stating that palmitic acid ‘is found in palm oil – but also in a wide variety of foods such as butter and olive oil’.
Palmitic acid is not particular to palm oil. Palm oil is not even the most abundant source of palmitic acid. In meat and dairy products, palmitic acid represents 50% to 60% of total fats, compared to a mere 44% of total fats in palm oil.
Palmitic acid is in fact the most common saturated fatty acid found in nature. It is found in plants and animals alike.
In the human body, palmitic acid is also the most common saturated fatty acid. It makes up 20% to 30% of total fatty acids in the body. An average 70kg man contains about 3.5kg of the stuff. Breast milk contains 20% to 30% palmitic acid, too. The average person consumes 20g to 30g of palmitic acid per day, and if the body cannot get enough from diet, it will synthesise its own supply, since it plays essential roles in human physiology.
One can only speculate why The Guardian’s science correspondent would single out palm oil for the cancer scare treatment, when palmitic acid is quite ubiquitous. It appears to betray an underlying agenda linked to the environmental threat of deforestation, which implicates a minority share of the world’s palm oil production.
Palm oil is far from the only agricultural product linked to deforestation, of course. Soy, timber and cattle ranching all encroach on natural forests. Demonising palm oil, which has been the go-to approach of environmental lobby groups, will achieve little, since plantations once devoted to palm oil will simply be turned over to other crops or livestock if palm oil becomes unprofitable.
The problem of deforestation is linked to poverty, insecure property rights, and inadequate domestic environmental regulation or enforcement. It is perfectly possible – as the majority of the world’s palm oil suppliers prove – to produce this product without causing deforestation.
The abstract of the study The Guardian cites says that palmitic acid, a saturated fatty acid, is prometastatic – that is, it is used in the process of metastasis – in oral carcinomas and melanoma in mice, but that linoleic acid, which is poly-unsaturated, and oleic acid, which is mono-unsaturated, are not.
This might suggest (and apparently did suggest to the author of the article) that oleic and linoleic acids are not prometastatic at all. However, the study also shows that oleic acid, while inhibiting metastasis in oral and skin cancers, actually promotes metastasis in cervical and gastric carcinoma.
And while palmitic acid is the most common saturated fatty acid in nature, oleic acid is the most common and widely distributed fatty acid of all.
Triglycerides of oleic acid make up 70% of the composition of olive oil, up to 75% of pecan oil, 61% of canola oil, up to 67% of peanut oil, 60% of macadamia oil, up to 80% of sunflower oil, up to 20% of grape seed oil, 40% of sesame oil, and 14% of poppyseed oil. One can’t escape the stuff.
This makes the case for singling out palm oil even weaker. One can’t eliminate palmitic acid from your diet by cutting out palm oil, and if one did try to switch to a different oil, one would merely expose oneself to different prometastatic fatty acids.
The study covered less than 10% of all fatty acids, so the effect of any of the others on cancer metastasis has yet to be determined.
Besides, as the scientists interviewed for the article point out, these findings might lead to new treatments for metastasising cancer, but it is ‘too early to determine which type of diet could be consumed by patients with metastatic cancer that would slow down the metastatic process’.
That is meant to tell readers not to jump to rash conclusions that a diet that excludes palmitic acid, or palm oil, will have any benefit whatsoever, even if they do suffer from metastatic mouth or skin cancer.
‘Link to’ cancer
What’s worse is that many lay readers of The Guardian won’t even read past the word cancer. Their takeaway from this article will be that palm oil ‘is linked to’ cancer.
That is likely what the author intended, but it is incredibly irresponsible reporting that could cause unnecessary anxiety in readers, and unnecessary losses to food companies and thousands of small-scale palm oil producers.
This technique can be used to demonise just about any food. Take broccoli, for example. It contains acetaldehyde, which is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.
Acetaldehyde is also found in apples, coffee, grapefruit, grapes, lemons, mushrooms, onions, oranges, peaches, nectarines, pears, pineapples, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, sour cherries, and mango, the essential oils of alfalfa, rosemary, balm, clary sage, daffodil, bitter orange, camphor, angelica, fennel, mustard, peppermint, and lychee, in oak and tobacco leaves, and in cotton leaves and blossoms, as well as breast milk, dairy products, cooked beef, chicken, and fish, and it is used as a synthetic flavoring ingredient in processed foods, especially margarine.
Associations with cancer have been claimed for most food ingredients. For most of them, multiple studies have shown both positive and negative associations (except bacon and pork, which not a single study would exonerate, and olives, which not a single study would condemn).
So if one wants to run a public fear campaign against a particular foodstuff, it isn’t hard to find some speculative ‘link to cancer’, and blow a negligible risk up into a scary headline in The Guardian.
Contrary to the attempt to demonise palm oil, the medical literature supports numerous claimed health benefits. It is a great source of antioxidants, such as vitamin E, which is good for the immune system and for brain health, and reduces one’s risk of heart disease, certain forms of cancer, and age related macular degeneration. It also increases the body’s ability to absorb vitamin A, which promotes eye health, as well as other fat-soluble vitamins.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that singling out palm oil in covering an obsure study of interest mainly to oncology research scientists shows either a gross misunderstanding of the subject, or a deliberate activist agenda. Neither is worthy of The Guardian.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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