Little did I know last week, when I resurrected the episode in which Harry Paris explained watermelon names, that 3 August was National Watermelon Day. Mind you, every day is national something day. Today (8 August) is apparently National Zucchini Day, which is also appropriate. National Palm Oil Day? Not likely
One of the important things I missed in the previous newsletter that I do know I missed: Bee Wilson’s review of two books on palm oil. No matter how much you may know about palm oil, I’m willing to wager you’ll discover something new in the review. Even more so in the books, I expect, although I have not read either yet. The thing about palm oil, as Wilson makes clear, is that it is both hard to find and absolutely everywhere. It is the ultimate all-things-to-all-people commodity, ready to do whatever a food chemist or manufacturer of cosmetics and household cleaning products (many owned by a single company) needs it to do. And that is the result of its very invisibility: tasteless, odourless, colourless.
I really hope you will read the piece (and I’ve also made it easy for you to listen to Bee Wilson talking about it). I’m left wondering; that eco-friendly, expensive, plant-based detergent I willingly traipse to refill, does it, too, depend on palm oil?
Bee Wilson would not need pointing at a recent piece retelling the story of the mint humbugs laced with arsenic; her second book featured “poison sweets”. But the underlying reason for a score of people dying in Bradford, Yorkshire, in 1858 and the horrors being visited on both ends of the palm oil chain seems the same: the substitution of cheap commodities for more expensive ones.
Sugar was still expensive in 1858, and sweetie-makers often used cheap adulterants such as gypsum or plaster of Paris, “not tasty but perfectly safe”. Except when a pharmacist’s assistant mistakenly pointed a purchaser to an unlabelled drum of arsenic trioxide instead of the adulterant.
I say the underlying reasons seem to be the same, and they may once have been, but as Bee Wilson points out in the conclusion to her review, they no longer really are:
Cheap palm oil is part of an interlocking late capitalist system. When we say there is a demand for RBD [refined, bleached, deodorised] palm oil, we mean there is a demand for instant noodles and foamy shampoo in plastic bottles and cheap ice cream all year round. Robins notes that campaigners tend to be more hostile towards palm oil than towards other tropical products such as cocoa and soy which also pose threats to ecosystems. He suggests that this hostility comes down to the fact that ‘palm oil is perceived as being in things, rather than a thing in its own right.’ Zuckerman’s subtitle makes the same point: ‘How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything’. The suggestion is that ‘everything’ has been contaminated, but we might be OK if we replace the palm oil with something else, something better. That wouldn’t be enough: it’s the ultra-processed ‘everything’ that needs to change.
Remember nudges? Those were the little tweaks that could be made to help people to make better decisions, like putting fruit rather than candy bars at the checkout till in a cafeteria. I’ve shared a few here myself. Alas, there seems to be a bit of an academic ding-dong in the pages of the esteemeed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about whether, in general, nudging is effective.
At issue is the question of publication bias. Are we seeing only the positive results, in which nudges did change behaviour? What about the ones where it had no effect?
On this, there seems to be some disagreement, both in terms of how much bias exists and how much difference it makes. I do not understand the statistics involved, but I do take heart from the observations in one of the critical papers that there probably is an effect in the “food” domain, and that this domain shows no evidence of strong publication bias.
Artificial intelligence, which I still prefer to call machine learning, has been showing off lately. Perhaps you have seen portraits generated by This Person Does Not Exist. Let me, then, introduce you to This Food Does Not Exist. To which I must add, Yet. For who could possibly resist a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the shape of a Rubik’s cube.
Stay cool, or warm. Whichever.