Dr. Oz is a powerful guy, blessed with a name that conjures up wizardry. He just unveils his latest “miracle,” which seems to happen on an almost daily basis, and people scamper off to the nearest the health food. Recently the great Oz anointed the oil extracted from the fruit of the palm tree that grows in Indonesia and Malaysia as a wonder product that can aid weight loss and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and heart disease. Introduced to this marvel by his a guest, a homeopath, Dr. Oz excitedly gushed about the beta carotene and “special form of vitamin E” found in “red palm oil.” A curious business. Tell me, does a Professor of Surgery at Columbia University with over 400 research publications under his belt really need advice on nutrition from a homeopath?
As is usually the case with Oz’s miracles, there is a seed of truth that then gets fertilized with lots of verbal manure until it grows into a tree that bears fruit dripping with unsubstantiated hype. For example, one study did show a reduction in the severity of cholesterol-induced atherosclerosis in rabbits fed high doses of red palm oil. This has little relevance for humans but magicians who pull rabbits out of hats may consider adding red palm oil to the diet of their little assistant. The red colour of the oil comes from beta-carotene, the same substance that contributes to the hue of carrots and many other fruits and vegetables. It is the body’s precursor for vitamin A, which makes it an important nutrient.
Unfortunately, in many areas of the developing world there is a shortage of both beta carotene and vitamin A in the diet leading to a high incidence of blindness, skin problems and even death. In such cases red palm oil would be useful, but of course there are numerous other ways to introduce beta-carotene into the diet including “golden rice” that has been genetically modified to provide the nutrient. Aside from remedying a vitamin A deficiency, there is not much evidence for increased intake of beta carotene outside of that contained in a balanced diet. There are suggestions that higher blood levels of beta carotene reduce the risk of breast cancer in high-risk women, but the beta-carotene levels may just be a marker for a better diet.
As far as the Alzheimer’s connection goes, Oz may have been referring to a study in which 74 seniors with mild dementia were compared with 158 healthy seniors. People with dementia had lower levels of beta-carotene and vitamin C in their blood. Again, this does not prove that the lower levels are responsible for the condition, they may just signal a diet that is poorer in fruits and vegetables. Tocotrienols, the “special form of vitamin E” Oz talked about, have shown some borderline effects in Alzheimer’s patients at doses way higher than found in red palm oil. There is no evidence for preventing the disease.
What about the claim that red palm oil causes loss of belly fat? That seems to come from a rat study in which a tocotrienol-rich fraction extracted from palm oil caused a reduction in fat deposits in the omentum, the tissue that surrounds organs. There was no evidence of abdominal fat reduction, and furthermore, the study involved putting the animals on an unnatural and unhealthy diet. But these are not the facts that the audience was treated to on the Dr. Oz Show.
What the eager viewers witnessed were three visually captivating but totally irrelevant demonstrations of the purported health benefits of red palm oil. First in line was a piece of apple that had turned brown because of “oxidation.” This could be prevented with a squirt of lemon juice, Oz explained. Then came the claim that red palm oil protects our brain the same way that lemon juice protects the apple. This is absurd. Vitamin C inactivates polyphenol oxidase, the enzyme that allows oxygen to react with polyphenols in the apple resulting in the browning. The human brain, however, bears no resemblance to an apple, except perhaps for the brains of those who think it does. Yes, oxidation is a process that goes on in the human body all the time and has been linked with aging but suggesting that beta-carotene because of its antioxidant effects protects the brain like lemon juice protects the apple is inane.
Just as zany was the next demo in which two pieces of plastic half-pipe representing arteries were shown with clumps of some white guck, supposedly deposits that lead to heart disease. Oz poured a gooey liquid, representing “bad fats” down one of the tubes, highlighting that it stuck to the goo. Then he proceeded to pour red palm oil down the other pipe and lo and behold, the deposits washed away. Totally meaningless and physiological nonsense. The homeopath then explained that saturated fats behave like thick molasses cruising through the cardiovascular system, but palm oil does not, despite being high in saturated fats. While saturated fats may lead to deposits, they do not do this by “thickening” the blood. Arterial deposits are the result of some very complex biochemistry and are not caused by “sludge” in the blood. Oz even exclaimed that this demo was indicative of how red palm oil reduces cholesterol in a month by 40%, better than drugs. A search of Pubmed reveals no such study.
The final demonstration involved Dr. Oz lighting a candle and a flare, without wearing safety glasses mind you. The message seemed to be that the body burns most fats slowly, but it burns red palm oil with great efficiency, preventing weight gain. Where does this come from? Possibly some confusion about medium chain triglycerides which are somewhat faster metabolized than other fats. But these are not found in palm oil. They are found in coconut oil and palm kernel oil. Oz and his homeopath expert were as confused about this as about the rest of red palm oil info they belched out.
Aside from scientists who took issue with the misleading information, animal rights groups also attacked Oz’ exhortations about the benefits of the oil claiming that it will lead to destroying larger stretches of the jungle, home to many wild creatures including the orangutan. They maintain that when the jungle is cleared every living creature is either captured or killed and adult orangutans are often shot on sight. A tragedy. Another tragedy is that Dr. Oz could be doing so much good if he just focused on real science, as he sometimes does, instead of drooling over the latest “miracle” as presented by some pseudo expert.
Joe Schwarcz, Ph.D., is the Director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society and teaches a variety of courses in McGill’s Chemistry Department and in the Faculty of Medicine with emphasis on health issues, including aspects of “Alternative Medicine”. He is well known for his informative and entertaining public lectures on topics ranging from the chemistry of love to the science of aging. Using stage magic to make scientific points is one of his specialties.