The Marketing of Polyunsaturated Vegetable Oils

Yesterday, in preparing to begin a new series of articles on the relationship between polyunsaturated vegetable fats to obesity, I came across an old, yellowed sheet titled “Comparison of Dietary Fats” that I was given as an undergrad Dietetic student at McGill, in 1989.

(reverse side) Comparison of Dietary Fats – “Provided as a Professional Service by Proctor & Gamble”, 1989 – full size photo, below

It was designed to help us teach consumers how to choose the “healthiest” dietary fats.

As indicated at the bottom of both sides of the handout (see full size photos, below), it was “provided as a Professional Service by Proctor and Gamble“.

Why would Proctor and Gamble, a soap company provide future Dietitians with a teaching handout on choosing healthy oils for cooking? A bit of understanding about how soap is made, will help.

At the time, the making of soap required a mixture of animal fats and lye, however William Procter and James Gamble (brothers-in-law living in Cincinnati in the late 1800s and who formed Proctor and Gamble) needed to find an inexpensive replacement for animal fat for the creation of individually wrapped bars of soap.

The source of soap fat they turned to was a waste-product of the cotton industry – cottonseed oil. It was literally the garbage leftover when cotton was produced and is cloudy, red and bitter to the taste, and toxic to most animals.

They needed to make cottonseed oil solid in order to make bar soap and utilized a newly patented technology to produce a creamy, pearly white substance out of cottonseed oil. This fat resembled lard (the most popular natural animal fat baking and frying fat at the time), so with a little more tweaking, this hydrogenated cottonseed oil was then sold in 1911 by Procter & Gamble to home cooks as Crisco® shortening.

All that was needed now was for Proctor and Gamble to market this industrially-produced seed oil fat, and market it they did. They hired America’s first full-service advertising agency, the J. Walter Thompson Agency that employed graphic artists and professional writers.

“Samples of Crisco were mailed to grocers, restaurants, nutritionists, and home economists. Eight alternative marketing strategies were tested in different cities and their impacts calculated and compared.

Doughnuts were fried in Crisco and handed out in the streets.

Women who purchased the new industrial fat got a free cookbook of Crisco recipes. It opened with the line, “The culinary world is revising its entire cookbook on account of the advent of Crisco, a new and altogether different cooking fat.” [1]

From the very beginning, Proctor and Gamble marketed their industrially-created solid fat (Crisco®) to “nutritionists” and “home economists” – the forerunners to Dietitians.

When Procter & Gamble introduced Puritan Oil® in 1976, a liquid cooking oil made of sunflower oil which became 100% canola oil by 1988, it was natural for them to market their newly created oil to Dietitians.  

Proctor & Gamble now had a lucrative business manufacturing industrial seed oils as dietary fats and they wanted to make sure that we, as Dietitians encouraged people to use their “healthy” fats.

I’ve scanned in both sides of the handout (it’s old and yellowed, having been kept in the back of my “new” 1988 Canada’s Food Guide book for almost 30 years). As can be seen, in first place on the front side of the handout is canola oil identified by the trade name “Puritan Oil®“, a registered trademark of Proctor and Gamble.

(front side) Comparison of Dietary Fats – “Provided as a Professional Service by Proctor & Gamble”, 1989

On the reverse side, is what consumers should know about these oils, including that canola oil is “better than all other types of vegetable oil“.

(reverse side) Comparison of Dietary Fats – “Provided as a Professional Service by Proctor & Gamble”, 1989

I’ve highlighted some of the wording that makes Proctor & Gamble’s bias apparent;

(reverse side) Comparison of Dietary Fats – “Provided as a Professional Service by Proctor & Gamble”, 1989 – red text mine

Some Final Thoughts…

From the very beginning, industrially-produced seed  fats and oils have been marketed to nutritionists, home economists and Dietitians by the companies that created them, in some cases as a “Professional Service”.

As will become clear in the next article we, as Dietitians were tasked by the Dietary Guidelines in both Canada and the US with promoting “polyunsaturated vegetable oils” to the public as ‘healthful alternatives’ to presumably unhealthy saturated animal fats. The manufacturers were there to ‘assist’ as a ‘Professional Service’.

Looking back on the role of fat manufacturers and the sugar industry (outlined in the preceding article) on which foods were recommended and promoted, it makes me question what I was taught and who affected what I was taught. Given that it was known at the time the sugar industry funded the researchers that implicated saturated fat as the alleged cause of heart disease, I wonder what we don’t know about which industry funded which research.  After all, the knowledge about the sugar industry having funded the researchers that implicated saturated fat only ‘came out’ in November 2016 when it had occurred decades earlier.


NOTE: It is increasingly my conviction that the simultaneous (1) marketing of polyunsaturated vegetable oil (soybean oil, canola oil) along with (2) changes in the Dietary Recommendations for people to (a) eat no more than 20- 30% of calories from fat and to (b) limit saturated fat to no more than 10% of calories, combined with the recommendations for people to (c) eat 45-65% of calories as carbohydrate was the “perfect storm” that may well explain the current obesity crisis and associated  increase in metabolic health problems that we now see 40 years later.

In subsequent articles I’ll elaborate on why I believe this is the case.

 

References

  1. Ramsey, D*., Graham T., The Atlantic. How Vegetable Oils Replaced Animal Fats in the American Diet, April 26 2012 (www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/04/how-vegetable-oils-replaced-animal-fats-in-the-american-diet/256155/)

*Dr. Drew Ramsey, MD is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University.


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Author:

Joy Y Kiddie MSc., RD - I'm a Registered Dietitian in private practice in British Columbia, Canada that provides services in-person in my Coquitlam office, as well as by Distance Consultation (using Skype / telephone).