Thu, 01 Jun 2023

The other oil wars

23 Jun 2022, 22:55 GMT+10

By Pushpesh PantNew Delhi [India], June 23 (ANI): The war in Ukraine has sent the oil prices sky rocketing and clouds are gathering on the middle eastern horizon of oil wars in near future. This has distracted our attention from the other oil crisis that is brewing and will impact the lives of many Indians. In recent months, edible oils have hit the headlines in an unprecedented manner.

Tensions rose when Indonesia banned the exports of palm oil on the ground that it was trying to control prices in the domestic market. Incidentally, Indonesia doesn't depend on palm oil for cooking, but there has been speculation that it is likely to use it to manufacture biofuels.

India is the largest importer of Indonesian palm oil and ever since the relationship with Malaysia has encountered unexpected stresses and strains, the import of Palm oil from that country has been under a shadow.

Palm oil is an essential ingredient of vanaspati -- a hydrogenated blend of various oils that is made to look like ghee. The term -- vanaspati-- was coined to identify it as faux ghee made not with dairy but with vegetable oils. During the second world war, vegetable oil-based shortening/margarine had prepared the ground for the launch of this kind of much cheaper cooking medium. In the beginning, Vanaspati was made by blending indigenous coconut oil and peanut oil. With the rise in prices of these oils the cheaper substitutes, palm oil became the staple.

Traditionally, Indians in different regions of the subcontinent have used different edible oils that are grown locally. In Punjab and in most of Northern India, mustard oil is widely used. In Bengal, Assam and Orissa also it is the mustard oil which reigns supreme.

It is not only used for cooking, but also as a condiment and dressing. In Gujrat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, Peanut oil and sesame oil are widely used, both of these are referred to as meetha tel to distinguish it from Kadwa tel -- pungent mustard oil. In Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, as also in Karnataka, sesame and peanut oils are the preferred cooking medium. Kerala marks the divide, where no other oil, but coconut oil, is considered comparable to cook in.

Till a few years back, Indians preferred to use cold-pressed oils produced in a Kolhu, draught animal-driven oil mill. It was believed that this was the healthiest oil that could be procured. With the mass production of edible oils in large industrial units, these oil mills have become almost extinct. As a matter of fact, the first round of edible oil wars was fought decades back when refined -- colourless, odourless -- oils were marketed to large Indian and multi-national companies. There was an advertising blitzkrieg to persuade the consumer that the refined oils were far better than the cold-pressed 'impure' unrefined oils.

What helped these companies capture the market were growing concerns about the adulteration of oils and their ill effects on health. Another plus point of the refined oils was that they had no overpowering pungency of taste.

They could be used to cook sweets and savouries alike. This was when the health concerns were strategically leveraged by industrial oil producers. Hitherto the unknown virtues of sunflower oil, rice bran oil etc. were trumpeted. The oil that claimed a large share of the edible oils market was soya bean oil. Soya bean was a crop that the American-Anglo scientist had long propagated as particularly suited to meet the nutritional needs of the Indian vegetarian population.

During the Freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi had once considered the soya bean as a potentially useful part of the national diet he was then working on but, he had advised exercising caution before accepting all claims of soya supremacy. When launched, refined soya bean was cheaper than other edible oils and appeared more versatile. Many urban Indians switched from traditionally used oils to attractively packaged and well-marketed refined oils like soya.

Another flank on the battleground was opened to market more expensive, 'heart friendly' oils, like Sunflower and Safflower oils. Nutritionists, inspired and encouraged by oils producers, triggered a public debate on artery-choking trans fats, mono-unsaturated and saturated fats, deoxidants etc. Smoking points of various oils were also competitively measured, high-tech jargon like nuclear positron spectrography was bandied around.

Lifestyle columns began spilling over with details about the Mediterranean diet based on the generous use of olive oils that guaranteed exceptional longevity. (Olive oil is supposed to be very rich in omega oils 6 and 9 that compare very favourably with omega 3 fish oils.)For Indians, the mystique of olive oils is akin to the confusing aura of wines. Plain olive oil, virgin olive oil, and extra virgin olive oil are in ascending order the most preferred cooking medium if one can afford to purchase the imports. By now, olive oil exporters have got their act together and are brandishing peer group reviewed journals to prove the point that olive oil, if handled properly, is very well suited for Indian cooking, including shallow and deep frying. It is also argued that heating olive oil doesn't destroy its healthy properties. (Many Indians buy Pomace oil, which is cold-pressed from the residue of the olives from which extra virgin oil is extracted.)The problem is, that those of love their pakodas and samosas, korma and kofta are not pouring over specialised scientific journals, and the minority who does, is apprehensive about the sponsorship of such research.

An additional worry is that there have been news items exposing cheating, and misrepresenting the geographical indicators attached to imported olive oil. Like more Scotch being consumed than being procured in Scotland, today more olive oil is exported out of Italy than is being produced. Neighbouring countries export their produce to Italy and it is re-exported after receiving some 'refinement'. Italy is rightly worried about its brand equity, and the episode has left the Indian consumers even more confused.

There was a time when Oilmen in India enjoyed a prestigious position in society. They had organised themselves in powerful guilds and generously endowed temples and philanthropic works. Inscriptions dating back to the Gupta period testify to this. Amir Khusro, the renaissance man of mediaeval India penned an evocative verse celebrating sarson (mustard) and sesame has been with us since the Vedic period. Can swadeshi oils survive the 21st century oil wars?There are some concerns that imported oils are creating a slippery spill that threatens to erode our culinary-cultural identity. Can one imagine a sorshe maach or besar or alu chokha done with olive oil? Or for that matter, a rogan josh in olive oil?Disclaimer: The views expressed in the above article are that of the writer and do not reflect that of ANI. (ANI)

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