Is olive oil good for hearts or profits?

February 07, 1993|By Sheryl Julian | Sheryl Julian,Boston Globe

Americans love the idea that a single food will cure what ails them, a fact that olive oil promoters have seized upon. People looking to reduce their risk of heart disease, they say, should use olive oil in place of other oils -- a position debated by health educators, nutritionists, scientists and policy-makers at a recent conference in Cambridge, Mass., on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

The three-day 1993 International Conference on the Diets of the Mediterranean, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, was sponsored by Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, a Boston organization, and the Harvard School of Public Health, with support from members of the International Olive Oil Council. Samples of olive oil were tucked into the flower arrangements at one luncheon and handed out in miniature shopping bags to the 250 attendees.

Scientists at the conference said Mediterranean people have a low incidence of heart-related diseases in part because of a diet based on olive oil. They cited statistics that show olive oil is highest of all oils in mono-unsaturated fatty acids, which can lower serum cholesterol. Olive oil is often favored for its distinctive taste as well; one Italian scientist noted that some elderly Italians start the day with a glass of olive oil.

But after weighing the evidence, some health care professionals were skeptical. The olive oil promoters' heavy hand gave Ruth Palombo "an uneasy feeling about what was going on here." Ms. Palombo, director of the Office of Nutrition at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said endorsing one fat for general consumption doesn't take into consideration the varied tastes of ethnic groups in the United States.

Among the U.S. and European scientists at the conference was the noted researcher Ancel Keys, whose 1960 study of men on Crete was the first to link a low incidence of heart disease to the diet of that region.

"The health statistics of the Mediterranean are good," said Marion Nestle, head of the Department of Nutrition, Food and Hotel Management at New York University and a co-chair of the conference. But diet is just one part of the formula for good health; Americans, she said, are "extremely sedentary and susceptible to television." In contrast, Mediterranean people are more physically active, eat lots of fruits and vegetables and complex carbohydrates, and consume more plant oil than animal fat, she added.

One panelist joked about our susceptibility to promotions. Warren Belasco, an American studies professor at the University of Maryland, noted how consumers are quick to latch on to anything new. Americans -- particularly those in the "elite bistro ghetto" -- will embrace any ethnic cuisine, he said, adding that we're guilty of a kind of "cultural strip-mining." We eat Italian food that's not really Italian, he explained. A few minor changes would convince Americans that they were eating a Mediterranean cuisine -- and a profitable trend would take off. "The economic context would be Fortune 500," he added.

Humor aside, a switch to Mediterranean diet would require complicated agricultural changes in this country. Our federal policy presently favors the meat and dairy industries -- two sources of our saturated fat -- and special-interest groups manage to pressure the policy makers. "This is an old, old story," said New York University's Ms. Nestle.

Add to that the fact that Americans don't grow olive trees, except for a limited number in California, and the proposition becomes more costly. Because olive oil would have to be imported, "a massive shift cannot take place," said Theodore Panayotou, an agricultural economist at the Harvard Institute for International Development. "The prices of olive oil would rise in the Mediterranean as demand outside increased." And in this country, he said, "The dislocation of agriculture from the Midwest to Florida and California isn't possible. It would give an impetus to grow trees where they can't grow. With new varieties of trees, you would need more pesticides." On the other hand, as far as decreasing cattle in exchange for vegetables, the change "would help the land and reduce soil erosion."

All agreed we need to eat more fruits and vegetables. But Patrick O'Brian, a USDA economist, said that in order for American agriculture to keep up with the ideal diet, farmers would need to increase their output of fruits and vegetables by 100 percent. As for a single fat becoming prevalent in the diet, he would only say, "There are no good or bad foods, only the right balance."

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