The TV Doctor
March 01, 2013
The TV doctor who promotes “the latest miracle cure” is promoted by the network and applauded by an appreciative audience. But behind this all-knowing expert is a staff of writers who are sure to remember the sponsor (usually a pharmaceutical company) who pays their checks. I’ve learned to beware of crusaders who have simple answers to complex problems. A mention of one of his miracles sends people scampering to stores to empty shelves of the latest wonder. And today’s wonder is red palm oil and its high beta carotene content. According to the simple laws of economics, supply will try to meet demand. In this case it means increased production of red palm oil, extracted from the fruit of a palm tree that grows in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Cultivation of the palm tree has been increasing quite aside from the doctor’s antics because of greater demand by the food and cosmetics industries. Interestingly, animal rights groups point out that this demand is leading to destruction of large stretches of the jungle, home to many wild creatures including the orangutan. They claim that when the jungle is cleared every living creature is either captured or killed and adult wild animals are often shot on sight. Adding to the complexity of the situation is the fact that the health claims about red palm oil do not stand up to scientific scrutiny.
As is usually the case with the doctor’s promotional miracles, there is always a seed of truth. But that seed 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, but this has little relevance to humans.
The color of the oil comes from beta-carotene, the same substance that contributes to the orange hue of carrots and many other fruits and vegetables. It is the body’s precursor for vitamin A, which makes it an important nutrient.
For some years, scientists and supplement makers thought beta carotene was the best source of vitamin A since the human body only converts beta carotene to Vitamin A retinol when needed. Unfortunately, we now know that excessive hydrocarbon beta carotene interferes with the absorption of the two xanthophyll carotenoids necessary for macula health, lutein and zeaxanthin.
It’s true that 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 and skin problems. In such cases red palm oil would be highly useful since it also includes vitamin E tocotrienols, which are generally lacking in the U.S. diet. This fact is usually ignored in the simplistic presentation on TV. The truth is, beta carotene is no panacea. The body needs a broad spectrum of nutrients for optimal health.
The greatest benefit of red palm oil may be to those selling the oil.
Spencer Thornton, MD
Biosyntrx President / Chief Medical Officer