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The absurdity of junk journalism – should we demonise mothers’ milk because it contains palmitic acid?

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HERE WE GO AGAIN! Another attempt to demonise Palm oil and save the world. This time it’s a rather unsubtle and loose article in The Mirror suggesting Palm oil causes cancer. It’s nonsense, of course, but a lack of credible evidence never stopped lobbyists and activists from creating urban myths or false narratives.

Let’s look at the latest version.

The Mirror recently ran a story which found that palmitic acid promotes metastasis in mouth and skin cancer in mice. The paper’s headline reads: ‘Fatty acid found in Palm oil linked to spread of cancer’. It had bottles of unspecified vegetable oil in the picture, with other photos showing Palm oil plantations.

The story is actually about palmitic acid, not Palm oil, but the idea is to link the possible risk factors from palmitic acid back to Palm oil. Unfortunately for the Mirror its editorial team forgot that as well as allowing us to read the paper online we can also look up where the same story might have appeared before. That’s right, the Mirror’s story is just a regurgitated Guardian article from November 2021 (which was subsequently also picked up by the Daily Express) by the same journalist.

The singling out of Palm oil in this manner is highly misleading, but I suspect it is no mistake or coincidence. It is only halfway down the article that the author hints at the problem, stating palmitic acid ‘is found in Palm oil – but also in a wide variety of foods such as butter and olive oil’.

That’s the admission that exposes the myth-making going on – palmitic acid is not peculiar to Palm oil. In fact the derivation of the name ‘Palmitic Acid’ is simply because it was first found in Palm oil. It just as easily could have been named after something else where it is found such as Olives and ‘Olivitic Acid’.

You probably craved palmitic acid since birth, enjoying it as a significant constituent of your mother’s milk. 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 – but meat and dairy are not the target here. There are no photos of motherly breasts, cows or pats of butter.

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. The average person consumes 20g to 30g of palmitic acid per day, and if the body cannot get enough from diet, it will actually synthesise its own supply, since it plays essential roles in human physiology. The idea then, that the body – after all the millennia of evolution – would synthesise something that would be directly harmful doesn’t really sit right with how we understand our bodies work.

Yes, we can take too much water, too much salt and too much anything – including, no doubt, palmitic acid – and harm can be done, but the amounts we have to take of such substances are beyond normal behaviour and it is no coincidence that research studies of mice or rats conducted have huge amounts of substances fed into them to give us results that say, coffee, or avocados are harmful.

So one can only speculate why The Mirror’s correspondent would single out Palm oil for the cancer scare treatment, when palmitic acid is so ubiquitous. It suggests 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 for over a decade, 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. This approach is, however, counterproductive, because the unintended consequence is that the less efficient and productive replacements will require more land to produce the same amount of vegetable oil – thus deforestation will increase rather than decrease. It is perfectly possible – as the majority of the world’s Palm oil suppliers have shown – 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 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 that oleic and linoleic acids arenot a risk 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 simply can’t escape the stuff if you are using and ingesting oils.

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. Time to live in a cave and read your Mirror or Guardian in peace?

What’s worse is that many lay readers of The Guardian or Mirror 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 farmers. 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 flavouring ingredient in processed foods, especially margarine.

Indeed, associations with cancer have been claimed for most food ingredients. And 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 Mirror, Express or 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 and other fat-soluble vitamins, which promotes eye health.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that singling out Palm oil in covering an obscure study of interest mainly to oncology research scientists shows either a gross misunderstanding of the subject, or a deliberate activist agenda.

Or both.

I suspect both. Activist journalism can seriously damage your health.

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Brian Monteith has worked in public relations for nearly forty years, initially in the City, then Scotland and finally as an international consultant in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia. A former member of the European and Scottish parliaments, he is now managing editor of brexit-watch.org and ThinkScotland.org.

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