Tracey Koehlmoos: Put that french fry down!

Tracey KoehlmoosLast week, a concerned community member was investigating the type of oil used for frying at the American Club in Jakarta. It turns out that the club had been using a solidified palm oil for frying. I happened to be standing there at the moment of discovery. My public health adviser instincts kicked into gear: “Put down that french fry boys.”

I do love a good french fry, especially the thin and crispy ones. A fry is the perfect conduit for eating ketchup.  Similar to a social smoker, I only take fries from the plates of other people so this generally limits me to stealing a fry or two from one of my boys who are more likely than me to order a hamburger accompanied by fries. Thus, the argument, all french fries are bad may ring true, but some fries are worse than others depending on the type of oil in which they are prepared. I realise that many people may not be well-versed in the risks or benefits of different types of cooking oils. In terms of thinking about being a policy maker in your own life, this tends to be the greatest area of confusion. There is an easy to understand table at this link from the Cleveland Clinic.

What we try to do mostly to benefit our health is to reduce our consumption of saturated fat. In the Cleveland Clinic produced information, under palm oil it says: “High in saturated fat. Not recommended.”

Oddly enough there have been changes globally in health and food standards so that there has been an increased use of palm oil in some settings despite the clear health disadvantages. The disadvantage of palm oil is that it includes a relatively significant amount of saturated fats, consumption of which is associated with an increased ratio of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or bad cholesterol, which can result in low content in polyunsaturated fatty acids. These become trans-fatty acids (so-called trans fats) in the processing of food (chemical hydrogenation). Transfats are a source of bad cholesterol, leading to coronary heart diseases. There has been strong action in the US against transfats which come primarily from vegetable oils and since 2006 companies have had to label products produced with transfats. Therefore most companies have voluntarily stopped using them. However, this has caused an uptake in the use of palm oil despite the health disadvantages. Many cities, including New York,  and corporations like Burger King have switched from using transfats to fry food–which are universally bad for our bodies and those of our friends and children.

As a closed community of club members, we must ask ourselves what is the impact of this cooking method on weight gain, hypertension rates, and hyperlipideamia among frequent club dinners? The devil’s advocates in town are quick to add that really, in the end, people are eating french fries, an unhealthy choice from the start.

However, until the club is able to change the cooking method, a warning should be posted noting that frying is done using a palm oil-based transfat. Now that the community has been made aware, it should be untenable for our children eat another french fry and perhaps sliced apples or bananas should be offered as a side dish to popular children’s meals, or even a small salad as a side dish to adult meals like sandwiches.

Many nations are moving toward transfat banning policies and the labeling of foods that contain transfats. Indonesia has been slow on the uptake of all non-communicable disease risk factor prevention items including signing of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. This is a real example where the American Club can once again set the standard for the nation.

Tracey Koehlmoos is programme head for health and family planning systems at ICDDR,B and adjunct professor at the James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.