Newspapers often base stories on scientific papers. A competent journalist can transform a turgid technical report into an informative article that educates readers. When the article veers into environmental activism however, it becomes little more than propaganda.
It’s hardly a surprise that a recent article in the Guardian, based on a paper in the scientific journal Nature, is a case in point. It reported a study into the effect of fatty acids on the potential for metastasis of certain cancers, the process by which cancer spreads to a new location in the body.
This is a complex field. As the researchers note, ‘metastatic growth from primary tumours is multifactorial and may be dependent on non-genetic factors, including lifestyle. For example, high-fat diets promote tumorigenesis in preclinical models of cancer; obesity is associated with a high aggressiveness of certain types of cancer; and altered uptake and metabolism of fatty acids drive cancer progression.’
What the researchers found was that dietary palmitic acid, but not oleic or linoleic acid, promoted metastasis in oral carcinomas and melanoma in mice.
This is potentially significant if it can be replicated by other researchers, and if what occurs in mice also occurs in humans. A diet rich in palmitic acid might one day be considered a risk factor for certain types of cancer. But that might apply to other fatty acids as well. For example, the researchers note that: ‘oleic acid inhibited the metastatic spread of oral carcinoma and melanoma in our orthotopic models, yet it stimulates metastasis of cervical and gastric carcinomas. Moreover, metastasizing melanoma cells that invade through the lymphatic system acquire a high metastatic competency by being exposed to high levels of oleic acid present in the lymph nodes.’
In other words, it is far too early for definitive conclusions. Animal studies are helpful to understand biological processes that may apply to humans, but they have limitations. The conditions of this study may not be representative of the amounts of palm oil consumed in the typical human diet. And the experiment only involved mouth (oral squamous cell carcinoma) and skin (melanoma) cancer cells and cannot be generalised to other types of cancer.
For the most part, the Guardian article recognises that, and notes that none of the fatty acids tested increased the risk of developing cancer in the first place, also cautioning against patients putting themselves on diets in the absence of clinical trials.
However, both the headline, ‘Fatty acid found in palm oil linked to spread of cancer,’ and the article strongly imply that palmitic acid is only found in palm oil. It would be no surprise if some people, based on the article, chose to avoid foods containing palm oil based on the assumption that they would not be consuming palmitic acid.
In fact, palmitic acid is the most common saturated fatty acid in nature, found in plants and animals alike. In the human body, palmitic acid is also the most common saturated fatty acid, making up 20 to 30 per cent of total fatty acids and totalling about 3.5kg in an average 70kg man. Breast milk contains 20 to 30 per cent palmitic acid. The average person consumes 20 to 30g of palmitic acid per day and, if the body cannot get enough from the diet, it will synthesise its own supply, since it plays essential roles in human physiology.
Palm oil is not even the most abundant source of palmitic acid. In meat and dairy products, palmitic acid represents 50 to 60 per cent of total fats, compared to 44 per cent of total fats in palm oil. It is also present in in cocoa butter (26 per cent) and olive oil (8 to 20 per cent).
Did the Guardian intentionally seek to give its readers the impression that the only source of palmitic acid is palm oil? It seems unlikely to be a dumb mistake, given the sophistication of the rest of the article. Indications are that it is yet another attempt by environmental activists (for which the Guardian is a major mouthpiece) to demonise palm oil.
As I have previously written, for at least 20 years palm oil has been one of the environmental movement’s chief whipping boys. In a handful of countries in South America, south-east Asia and Africa, forests are being cleared by poor farmers to run cattle or plant crops. One of those crops is oil palms. Activists have sought to promote a boycott of palm oil products in the belief that this would lead to less oil production and therefore less deforestation.
It is no surprise that environmental warriors do not understand basic economics. When demand falls, so do prices. That leads poor farmers whose livelihoods rely on palm oil to increase production in order to maintain their income. To increase production, they need to plant more trees.
In fact, 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 solution lies in helping farmers make a good living without needing to clear more land. This requires higher prices, not lower prices.
The whole campaign against palm oil is misguided and counterproductive. Palm oil provides 40 per cent of the world’s vegetable oil and is used in everything from shampoo to biscuits. Relative to other vegetable oils its production is quite efficient, producing more oil per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop. For the same amount of oil from crops like soybean, coconut, or sunflower, between 4 and 10 times more land is needed. It has also substantial nutritional value, being high in carotenoids, including beta-carotene, and is an excellent source of tocotrienols, a form of vitamin E with strong antioxidant properties.
Alarming readers into believing that palm oil causes cancer to inject life into a tired and pointless boycott, as the Guardian article probably intended, is profoundly irresponsible. If it succeeds, the result will be the exact opposite of what the activists seek.
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David Leyonhjelm is a former senator for the Liberal Democrats.
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