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Battle over Tropical Oils in US Far from Over

January 26, 1989

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) _ An army of farm wives, bolstered by the latest cholesterol concerns, prepares to fan out across the country to tout the health benefits of U.S. soybean oil.

Some of the nation’s biggest food producers agree to stop using highly saturated, imported tropical fats like palm and coconut oils in processed foods, following a bristling private ad campaign.

Meanwhile, Malaysia, a major palm oil exporter, gears up a public relations effort to combat what it calls ″vicious scare tactics″ that target its product.

A vegetable oil war has heated up to full sizzle.

At stake is the $3 billion-a-year vegetable oil market in the United States, where the dominant domestic soy oil producers are squaring off against foreign competitors such as palm oil producers.

Soy oil accounts for about 72 percent of the 16 billion pounds of oil sold annually, according to the St. Louis-based American Soybean Association.

U.S. Department of Agriculture figures indicate tropical oil imports have slumped in recent years: Coconut oil imports fell 18 percent, to 450,000 metric tons in 1988 from 548,000 metric tons in 1986, while palm oil imports fell 37 percent to 175,000 metric tons from 280,000 metric tons in the same period.

Right now, farmers in the heartland are benefiting from public concern raised about highly saturated tropical fats. Saturated fats have been linked to an increase in blood cholesterol that causes heart disease.

″The American consumer will be the big winner with healthy food products, and the farmers will benefit too,″ said Gunnar Lynum of the American Soybean Association. ″We represent the good product and we must promote it.″

Tropical oil purveyors see it differently. Malaysia has hired the New York- based public relations firm Hill and Knowlton Inc., which plans a news conference in March to present scientific claims that palm oil is a balanced fat that reduces cholesterol and has other nutritional values.

Some 1,500 farm wives, in turn, plan their own public relations blitz with visits in the coming weeks to newspapers, radio stations and local groups to tout soy oil. They’ll carry boxes filled with commercial cookies, crackers and cereal that no longer contain tropical oils.

The American Soybean Association, which is funded by roughly 400,000 soybean growers, plans to introduce a ″soymark″ to identify products made with soy oil and has spent $400,000 for promotions over two years.

One of the more visible assaults in the oil wars has been a blistering ad campaign by Omaha, Neb., businessman Phil Sokolof, who spent $2 million to establish his private National Heart Savers Association.

One of his ads showed a coconut ″bomb″ and cautioned consumers that their health was threatened by coconut and palm oils. It listed popular foods containing tropical oils under the caption ″The Poisoning of America.″

So far, a number of giant food processors - including General Mills Inc., Pillsbury Co., Quaker Oats Co., Kellogg Co. and Keebler - have announced they will drop tropical oils in favor of other vegetable fats in formulas for certain cookies, crackers, and cereals.

Tropical oil producers claim the switching doesn’t mean the battle is lost. Rick McElheny, senior vice president of Hill and Knowlton, said the companies made a pragmatic business decision to switch from tropical oils, but predicted they would reverse themselves.

″Because of all this furor and the vicious scare tactics, they don’t want to fight that battle,″ said McElheny. ″They’ll let us do the education, then come back into the market at another time.″

Some researchers also say the issue is not as simple as the anti-tropical oil ads suggest.

They say a small percentage of saturated fat in the American diet comes from tropical oils - most is from meat and dairy products. They also say some recipes require soybean oil to be hydrogenated and that increases the level of saturated fat.

To lower the risk of heart disease, they advocate a balance of saturated and unsaturated fats in the diet, along with exercise and a reduction in total fat consumption.

″A lot of this is industrial hype - they are worried about the competition for the oil market,″ said Patricia Johnston, a food chemist at the University of Illinois. ″I don’t think eating a few cookies with soybean oil is going to make that much difference.″

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