Canola Fields in China

Over 8,000 nutrition professionals attended the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in Houston this year. The conference, organized by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is the world’s largest annual meeting of food and nutrition experts. This year the program included several sessions related to the Mediterranean diet and healthy oils with advice on how to implement the diet and include “good” oils in the eating patterns of Americans. Despite the widespread recognition of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil continues to be very much overlooked in the dietetic community. This may have to do with the nature of the educational sessions presented, but also the promotion that goes on during these expositions.

In one educational session with the title: A new perspective on healthy oils: From belly fat to heart health, Dr. Peter Jones, director of the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals, presented his study comparing canola oil, high oleic acid canola oil, flax/safflower oil, DHA enriched high oleic acid canola oil and corn & safflower oil and their effects on cardiovascular disease risk. The study was funded by the Canola Council of Canada, Flax Council of Canada and Dow Agrosciences among others. Of course there was no mention of olive oil or any comparison to it.

The second part of this session discussed dietary recommendations for fats and how they fit into healthy eating patterns. While it was mentioned that the type of fat is important and not the amount, once again olive oil was barely mentioned, and the message to the dietitians was that canola oil appears to be a desirable option for replacement of saturated fat.

In another session Dr. Emilio Ross, from the Hospital Clínic de Barcelona presented the Predimed study, which garnered widespread interest earlier this year as it showed that a Mediterranean style diet with olive oil and nuts could protect from stroke more than a low-fat diet. He discussed the details of the study, as well as its components such as olive oil and nuts. Ross, who was also one of the researchers on the Predimed team suggested that perhaps nutritional recommendations should be reconsidered based on these results.

When it came to a discussion of the application of this diet, the second presenter, Dr. Penny Kris-Atherton PhD, RD, a noted cardiovascular researcher and dietitian said that a Mediterranean-style diet can be adjusted for today’s lifestyle. While that was encouraging, she provided a vague description of the Mediterranean diet and lacked some important information about the main source of fat in it: olive oil. In fact the only resource that she provided to the dietitians in the audience on olive oil was the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (recommendations about which foods to choose, and which to avoid for the American public published by USDA), which mentions olive oil briefly along with other oils such as canola and safflower.

The healthfulness of nuts was stressed often during this session and that comes as no surprise since both speakers have either received grants or have been consultants for the California walnut commission.

Yet another session focused on the benefits of corn oil, with the title: What’s Old Is New Again: Corn Oil and a Reduced Risk of Heart Disease. Here the research team of ACH, the company that owns the Mazola corn oil brand, presented their study on the heart-healthy benefits of corn oil. The research coordinator Dr. Constance Geiger said, “This new study could potentially change the way healthcare professionals and registered dietitians view corn oil and cooking oil in general,” and the description of the session noted, “While corn oil serves as the gold standard for which other oils’ effectiveness is tested, the appearance of many new oils on the grocery store shelves has many dietetic professionals confused about research surrounding the health benefits for these products.”

Nutrition professionals particularly in the U.S. continue to receive one-sided information when it comes to the basics of the Mediterranean diet and olive oil. While it is important for the latest research to be presented at nutrition conferences, it is also important to present all of the facts. Discussions about healthy oils and fats, heart disease and the Mediterranean diet cannot be complete without discussing olive oil which was the only oil used in the often-touted Mediterranean diet.

But apart from the sessions, the exposition, which gathers over 350 companies, is another area where companies have the opportunity to educate, teach and promote their products to registered dietitians and other nutrition professionals. Companies and organizations such as the Canola Council of Canada and the United Soybean Board have been promoting their products for years to dietitians with educational materials, samples, recipes, giveaways and culinary demonstrations.

Now we are seeing companies such as Dow Agrosciences also promoting their oils such as the so-called Omega-9 Oils. In case you do not know what Omega-9 is, it is actually another term for oleic acid, the most predominant fatty acid in olive oil. One may wonder if this term is now being used, instead of the term oleic since it may remind consumers of the word “olive.” Let’s not forget that the word oil actually comes from the Greek word elaion (olive tree). According to some sources the word “oil” referred only to olive oil until the 1300’s.

Unfortunately there was little presence or promotion of olive oil at the huge conference — only a small booth for the North American Olive Oil Association, with a few handouts. This is a missed opportunity for olive oil organizations. Olive oil for many consumers is associated with its health benefits, and consumers receive much of their nutrition information by the media and nutrition professionals. It is especially important that olive oil is presented and promoted to this group, as they are the ones who will not only recommend a particular oil to their clients and patients but also the ones who will appear in the media when healthy oils and the Mediterranean diet are discussed.

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