Written by Prof. Agyeman Badu - Ever since man was created and given dominion over all that was created, the food that has been eaten by man included saturated fat as the only edible fat. It is natural and the only fat the body produces. Herbivores, omnivores and carnivores despite the food they eat, naturally produce and store animal fat which is saturated.
What this means is that irrespective of the plants, grains and meat mammals eat, the body will only produce saturated fat in mammalian milk and body fat
The introduction of polyunsaturated fat into human diet is a recent phenomenon. In the early 20th century, technological advances ensured that oil in the seeds of many grains and vegetables could be expressed into vegetable oil. It was such compelling discovery that the industrialised world did not waste any time in turning on the production line.
Saturated oils are tropical oils and, therefore, these oils had to be imported into the Western world. With the production lines turned on, the branding and marketing strategy had to be developed fast to take on the initiative.
The name essential oils was adopted almost as if the body lacked something that the oil offered. There were scientists who felt at the time that the name was a betrayal of genuine scientific principles without the much needed evidence, but there were also those who acquiesced. What followed, however, was what some termed the greatest deceit or disservice to both the scientific community and to mankind.
Some in the food industry felt that to capture the edible oil market, saturated oil must be discredited in order to give the so-called essential oils or polyunsaturated oils or the vegetable oils the free run as the edible oils of choice, and that was done.
Scientists were recruited and studies were formulated that provided whatever evidence that could be relied on to link saturated oils to heart attacks, hypertension, and hypercholesterolaemia. The propaganda kicked in and the nutrition community bought into the evidence and hyped and, indeed, saturated oils were discredited as bad edible oils. They relied on their not-so-liquid oil at room temperature to indicate how it lines the blood vessels and lead to blockage.
Coconut oil, palm kernel oil, shea butter and palm oils all lost their major importance. It, therefore, became cheap on the international market and was used more for soap and in other industrial produce than for food. Export of vegetables to the tropics started in earnest.
Corn oil, sunflower oil, groundnut oil, soya oil and many others flooded the market. In countries such as Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, research centres put up very spirited defences for coconut oil and palm oil, but the world communities had accepted the verdict and the propaganda had gained considerable currency. No such defence came from the African scientists.
In Ghana, vegetable oil was brought in, in large quantities as food aid after the 1966 coup in canned silver gallons as a friendship pack and to date, the local indigenous oil industry has all but collapsed. Coconut oil, palm kernel oil and shea butter are rarely used.
The vegetable oil, in the yellow plastic gallons popularly known as ‘Kufuor gallons’, are all over the place. In some of them, the inscription only indicates ‘vegetable oil’ and not even the type of vegetable from which it is produced is stated, but they are allowed into the country.
Then there is the most offensive bit, where people collect already used and discarded vegetable oil, take it back to the factory, bleach it from the brownish black colour of several runs of usage to the bright yellow colour of fresh oil, deodorise it and it is ready for export to Africa in drums. In our country, they are poured into smaller containers and even into thin plastic bags and sold cheaply to the unsuspecting innocent public.
Palm oil was able to stand its ground a little bit and continued to be used in food preparation, but it has also lost significant ground not least because nutritionist, dietitians and caterers have all been fed with the falsehood that these tropical oils cause heart diseases and hypercholesterolaemia. Margarine is a laboratory creation from vegetable oil whereas butter and cheese are natural products from wholesome milk.
A doctor who qualified and worked in 1910 recounted that in his early years of practice in USA, he hardly saw a case of myocardial infarction or heart attack. The cases started trickling in, in the 1920s and the epidemic started in earnest in the 1930s.
An unending saga
In Ghana, early researchers saw cases of hypertension in less than two per cent of the populace and diabetes in 0.5 per cent. In Ghana today, we sit on an unimaginable epidemic of 1 in 2 for hypertension and 1 in 8 for diabetes. Nobody seems to be addressing the cause, not the cardiologists, physicians or the public health physicians or the nutritionist or the food scientist or the biochemist. Most are busy treating the symptoms in a never-ending saga.
My hypothesis is that the only significant change in our eating habits has been the edible oils we use. Once upon a time, it was tropical oils, but now it is vegetable oils and for many people, it is reused vegetable oils. Whereas others use a table spoon full per serving, we pour our cooking oil and, therefore, the amounts eaten are considerable and since these are eaten every day and at all times of the day, the impact can be severe.
It is a scientific falsehood that; whereas tropical saturated oils are natural, the vegetable oils are artificial. There is nothing essential about those oils; there is nothing, not an amino acid, not a critical high or low molecular weight fatty acid and, therefore, the name, as challenged earlier, was a misnomer.
Most of the earlier studies done have long been discredited as not following proper laid down scientific rigourism.The evidence for the saturated oils is, however, natural. The fat composition of nature’s food to every mammalian child, breast milk is the same as coconut oil, palm kernel oil and shea butter.
These are the type 1 oils most essential in maintaining the intactness of all our cell membranes. The lack, thereof, leads to unstable membranes or leaky membranes, the cellular basis of the many diseases that have plagued the world today.
If that fat was no good, why will nature produce it for the most vulnerable baby? Palm oil and olive oil are both type 2 oils. Olive oil is promoted, but not palm oil despite the fact that the colouring also has added beneficial effects.
Polyunsaturated fat or vegetable oils is the source of transfat when heated and also the source of low density lipoprotein, the so-called bad cholesterol. The body is unable to use the polyunsaturated fat or oils except in combination with cholesterol and that will only be used in the absence of type1 fat, the saturated oils.
So the body produces increased cholesterol so long as we eat vegetable oil or polyunsaturated fat. The combination is what is used to repair any damage to cell membranes but the repair is not as good as using saturated fat or oils. The transfat does the greatest damage to the cell membranes and the recycled oils imported into African countries are nothing but transfat. The leaky membrane is the basis of most non-communicable diseases.
All of us have raised cholesterol levels because the body requires it for repairs so long as we eat polyunsaturated fat.
Cholesterol levels will go down when we eat our tropical oils or saturated fat because that is what the body uses to repair itself, every cell in the body, kidney, liver, brain, heart, lung, skin, etc. The benefit of fermented food is also closely linked to this phenomenon. The fermentation process produces the building blocks in the body for the production of saturated fatty acids which is needed in the body.
What, therefore, is the role of the seed oils in seeds which have become commercialised? Nature intended that it gives the energy for germination only. As soon as the seed germinates, there is no polyunsaturated fat anywhere in the plant. “You challenge indigenous knowledge at your peril,” said the late Dr Oku Ampofo.
Our grandmothers and theirs before them knew this and sent grains to be milled and pepper for grinding as soon as they started sprouting. Birds who eat grains will pick out the yellow eye of maize which is the seed and throw that out before eating. Even birds know that polyunsaturated fat is not good for them.
We all have increased cholesterol and what most of our doctors do is to prescribe statins, the best performing pharmaceutical agents for decades. We must find out why the body, such a perfect machine, is producing continually such a bad thing as the low density lipoprotein or cholesterol. What is the trigger? Ghana imports about $500 million of vegetable oil every year and spends so much on antihypertensive, anti-diabetic and anti-cancer drugs, but it does not link the relationship between the two.
Some Ghanaian scientists have been supported for their MPhils and PhDs by the food industry and, therefore, cannot ruffle feathers, it is a bit like our agronomist and the multinational seed companies. We need intellectual freedom fighters in Ghana and Africa who will read around the subjects and find alternative explanations that are not printed in mainstream scientific journals a lot of which are funded by the food industry and seed companies.
A return to indigenous knowledge and practices and finding scientific reasoning for those practices is where knowledge begins, it is not discarding what generations have done which has served them well. There was minimal hypertension, diabetes and cancers in Ghana in the 1950s, when all we ate and had been eating, since the beginning of man, was tropical or saturated oils. So where from the explosion?!
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