All Commentary
Wednesday, November 1, 1989

The Market for Low Cholesterol

Dr. Walker is Executive Director of The Fraser Institute, Vancouver, Canada.

Just about every time conversation turns to food these days, the subject of cholesterol isn’t far behind. Saturated fats, so it is said, are the source of fatty build-up in our veins and arteries, causing restricted blood flow and in many cases premature death from heart attack or other afflictions. During such discussions, even my most laissez-faire friends often intone that the government should do something about this problem. According to these well-intentioned folks, producers of prepared or manufactured foods, which often use large amounts of shortening or oil containing saturated fats, ought to face regulation of what and how much they can use. The problem, they note, is that competition among these producers leads them to purchase the cheapest ingredients they can find. In so doing, they are able to undercut the prices of their competitors and attract gullible consumers who can’t even pronounce most of the ingredients on the package. Here is a case, we are told, where untrammeled free enterprise leads to an outcome which is in nobody’s interest. So, for the sake of their health, even diehard opponents of big government say that this is a special case, and therefore we need a regulation to solve the problem.

Until recently, I would have been inclined to agree with that assessment. However, I have been reading about developments which suggest that there is a market in caring about cholesterol. In fact, the market is working right now to reduce the amount of saturated fats in the foods we eat.

It turns out that a principal source of oils in shortening and similar products is tropical vegetables such as palm and coconut. Of course, as anyone who has watched the television ads for margarine can tell you, there are alternative sources of oil, such as soy and corn, that do not have the same problems as palm and coconut. The suppliers of these alternatives are not unaware of the fact that anyone convinced of the merits of eating polyunsaturated fats is a potential customer.

These producers, therefore, in pursuit of their own interests, have been engaging in increasingly active campaigns to tout the benefits of their polyunsaturated oils and the hidden dangers of tropical oils. For example, a recent Wall Street Journal story noted that ads in food-industry magazines have depicted a coconut as a bomb with a fuse ready to explode. The caption reads: “Warning, coconut oil may be hazardous to your health.” They have been joined by a new organization, the National Heart Savers Association, that encourages people to eat a healthier diet.

The campaign is working. Kellogg, Frito-Lay, Pepperidge Farm, and Hardee’s all have switched rather than fight the polyunsaturated tide. Palm oil imports into the U.S. last year were 44 percent below their 1986 level. At this rate, saturated fats will have been driven from the market, by the market, in the consumer interest.