VEGETABLE OILS are supposed to be better for you than other kinds of shortening used in processed foods, because they are low in the saturated fats that raise cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. That's why a lot of supermarket labels now boast vegetable shortening only. But it turns out that not all such oils are the same. Two in particular -- coconut and palm oil -- are high in saturated fats. The artful labels simultaneously tell the truth and deceive.
Leading health groups want to change the labeling rules so that producers would have to specify when they use such oils -- no more tossing them off with others, as in "this product may contain any of the following . . ." The producers would also have to identify coconut oil and palm oil as saturated fats. Heart disease being theNo. 1 cause of death in America, you'd think that would be fair enough. No ban on their use, just a slightly higher order of truth in describing them.
But nothing is ever simple in this town; sometimes it seems that the narrower the issue, the more intense the fight. This one began almost routinely when a health group filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration last year. Now it has become a food fight in both senses of the word. The venue has shifted to Congress; the health advocates have been joined by the American Soybean Association, which senses a chance to increase sales. The soybean people are not shy. "What You Don't Know About Tropical Fats Can Kill You," says a kit they have put out, and a planter is portrayed beside a drum of palm oil with the legend: "Meet the man who's trying to put you out of business."
The Asian countries -- Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia -- that produce most of the threatened palm and coconut oil have responded to some extent in kind. Malaysia has hired a PR firm. The exporting countries say the sought-after labeling rules would be protectionist, the act of a bully against weaker economies and, in the case of the Philippines, a vulnerable and worthy government in particular need of help. The producers also say the evidence against their oils is not clear, though the U.S. government's own official dietary advice says otherwise. They argue that whatever action is taken should be part of a broader review of labeling requirements that doesn't single them out.
The issue actually came to a vote in the Senate Agriculture Committee this week. The proposed labeling requirement lost 10 to 8, though partly, it seems, on procedural grounds. The committees that have jurisdiction are not Agriculture, but Labor and Human Resources in the Senate, Energy and Commerce in the House. They should move a bill. It's a serious issue, on which all that is asked is full disclosure. If the tropical oils can't stand that, they don't deserve to be sold.