Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Smart Balance or Stupid Balance?

I recently, and mistakenly, bought a tub of Smart Balance to use in pancakes for some vegan friends. While its cousin Earth Balance is indeed suitable for vegans, it seems Smart Balance is not, as it contains whey. Clearly the distributor thinks that people who don't eat dairy are more earthy than they are smart.

Though both Balances have been widely embraced as healthy stuff, they violate several of Pollan's rules for good eating laid out in the climax of In Defense of Food. For instance:

-Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.

-Avoid products that make health claims.

-Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable, C) more than five in number.

In looking over Smart Balance's ingredients, which are both numerous and alien, I paused when I came to palm oil. I had just read an article in Nat Geo about deforestation in Borneo, caused in large part by supplying the growing demand for, you guessed it, palm oil. (For a rebuke of the article, see the very suspiciously named Palm Oil Truth Foundation, which seems like something out of communist Russia. It also calls the article's style "meandering" and states that "there has not been a public debate about the causes of global warming." Red flag!)

Without seriously researching the subject, I can't say that the palm oil in Smart or Earth Balance comes from Borneo, though the odds seem good, since most of the world's supply does come from there. Palm fruit plantations now cover much of the island, replacing habitat for the local indigenous people and the orangutans and pygmy elephants they share it with.

The deforestation necessary to create the plantations also helps Indonesia to rank third for greenhouse gas emissions, just behind the U.S. and China (!). I don't know about you, but that's not something I want to spread on my pancakes.

Again, I can't comment on how direct the link is (unless any editors out there want to pay me to), but here's something I can say.

It sure seems a lot more simple to just buy butter from your local dairy farm. It has one (two if there's salt) ingredients, and your great grandmother would definitely know what to do with it.

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Jennifer said...

Making one's own butter takes all of 10 minutes too. Get a pint heavy cream, room temp, put in larger jar (quart). Shake vigourously. When it's butter, dump it out, poor cool water on it, squish out the rest of the buttermilk with a spoon, repeat until reasonably clear. Add salt to taste. Butter. Delicious. Best I've ever had. We make it all the time now - this first run took a lot longer since we had to stop and read the directions over and over again (it couldn't possible have been that easy, could it?):

Carol said...

I know, I know that you're right, but I do have to point out -- as shown by your empty-container photo -- that that stuff is damn good. That said, we gave it up months ago. But only because it was creepily good. Happy Inauguration!

Adam Stark said...

Hey, Aaron, awesome blog!

Just to address the palm oil controversy:

1) Oil palms yield more oil per acre than any other oil plant. Greater productivity = greater environmental efficiency = more land left untouched by modern agriculture.

2) Oil palms aren't an annual crop, like soy, canola (rapeseed), etc., so less violence is done to the land with the constant tearing-up of the soil to plant, and re-plant yearly. Less aggressive (chemical) fertilization is used; less pesticides for a tree crop growing in its natural habitat.

3) Yes, oil palm plantations take habitat away from orangutans and the like (although a lot more wildlife can survive in a tree plantation than a monocultured field full of annuals). But let's not throw that stone in our glass house. Until we tear up our wheat fields to let the bison back in, let's not get on our high horse about a poor, poor country trying to make some money off their own agriculture. Almost all large-scale agriculture is inherently, ecologically violent. Oil palm plantations much less so that the alternatives.

4) On a nutritional basis, a distinction ought to be made between palm kernel and palm fruit oil. The kernel oil ain't great for you -- but it's not nearly bad as you've been told. The palm fruit oil -- brilliant red -- is actually one of our healthiest, most heat-stable fats. Like other fruit oils (olive, avocado), it's very rich in antioxidants, and can stand up to long storage and high-heat cooking without a whole lot of lipid peroxidation.

5) CSPI are a bunch of scare-mongers. That "Dying for a Cookie" ad they ran full-page in the NYT was kind of bullshit. I wrote them to tell them as much. They wrote me back to (mostly) agree with me -- or at least, to agree with my individual points, not the final assessment...

6) Finally, if you want vegan "vegan" butter for pancake frying, may I suggest straight-up red palm fruit oil, avocado oil, or macadamia oil.

In Health and Tastiness!

Tony said...

Adam, thanks for the super informative piece on the palm oil. Anyone ever seen palm fruit oil here in the States?

I'd like to mention that Smart Balance is a whole different ballgame than I Can't Believe It's not Butter, etc. It is a much more interesting product: Smart Balance contains a lot of weird stuff, but it is blended with plant sterols, and because of these ingredients it has been actually proven to reduce LDL cholesterol (that's also why it was so expensive). Most any cardiologist would recommend you take it if you have high cholesterol. That's why my parents eat it. It'd be great to get people to just eat whole grains and unprocessed foods, etc., to do so, but before you cream (get it?) Smart Balance, realize that it is a 'healthy' spread, not intended to be just a fake butter.

Sandy Howell said...

Adam, great post! CSPI are not the only alarmist gooks at work on the palm oil issue. It looks like groups like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Rainforest Action Network are also on the payroll of anti-palm oil lobbies, probably the competing oils you mentioned.

I may not agree with everything in the Palm Oil Truth Foundation site, but I must say that the site is correct in pointing out that there is a concerted and well planned conspiracy to stop the growing popularity of palm oil as an edible oil, for food manufacturing, and as feedstock for biodiesel. All on account of palm oil's low price!

Aaron Kagan said...

"Gooks," Sandy? Better to be an alarmist than a racist. Perhaps you meant "goons."

And I must say, for someone accusing others of being on the take, you sound suspiciously like you are too.

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