Famim Ahmed

Researcher, Dismislab
Soybean oil: Advertisement misinformation confuse policymakers
This article is more than 2 years old

Soybean oil: Advertisement misinformation confuse policymakers

Famim Ahmed

Researcher, Dismislab

Soybean oil is extremely popular as edible oil in Bangladesh. As a result, Bangladesh is the third largest soybean oil importer of the world. But two serious claims about soybean oil have spread on social media.

One claim is, “Soybean oil is not edible nor for cooking. It is toxic and harmful to the body. This quote attributed to the famous Indian cardiologist and founder of Narayan Health Dr. Devi Shetty. The other claim is, “Processed at 2000 Celsius, soybean oil is nothing but burnt engine oil.” This claim is attributed to a Bangladeshi physician, Dr. Jahangir Kabir. In some cases, the two claims are put together and attributed to Devi Shetty.

Between May and December 2022, such posts were shared nearly 10,000 times from various pages, groups and individual profiles engaging thousands of users with likes and comments. The claims appeared in several online advertisements. Even the commerce minister, Tipu Munshi referred to these claims at a press conference.

Dismislab considered three aspects in consideration when fact checking the claims related to people’s everyday food habit and health. Is soybean oil actually toxic? Is it indeed processed at 2000 degrees Celsius, and are the claims actually made by Dr. Devi Shetty or Dr. Jahangir Kabir? After verifying various reports, consulting with relevant people and having contacted Devi Shetty’s office for confirmation it was found that the claim was false on all three counts.

Is soybean toxic?

Soybean oil originates from east Asia and research traces back history of soybean-oil production over more than a thousand years. Whether as edible oil, or for medicinal use or as ingredient for cooking, soybeans have been used all over the world.

The reputed food and drug regulator of the United States, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has listed soybean oil ‘Generally Recognized as Safe.’ The US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2010 Vegetable and Flower Oils Summary Document Registration Review also states that “soybean oil is a natural substance and has not been shown to cause toxicity in humans.”

In addition, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) evaluated the toxicity and effects of soybean oil in the review section of REACH (the law to protect people and the environment from the adverse effects of chemicals) and has declared it safe (marked green). WebMD, a well-known site for health information, also lists it as safe.

Meaning, there is no evidence to suppose that natural soybean oil is toxic.However, various studies have revealed that due to repeated use of various types of vegetable oil, including soybean, free radicals and trans fatty acids are formed, which can lead to high blood pressure or heart disease. The same causes osteoporosis (weak and brittle bones), adverse effects on the liver and kidneys, and even cause cancer. But this applies to edible oils in general, not just soybean oil.

Is soybean oil processed at 2000 degrees Celsius?

Before the Industrial Revolution, soybean oil was extracted by grinding soybeans with the help of domesticated animals. In the 20th century, oil was extracted by crushing the seeds using steam. Now, crude soybean oil is collected using electric screw press or mechanical press. The temperature in this process is between 116 and 132 degrees Celsius.

After the crude soybean oil is collected, it is refined in several steps. Research and verification of at least five independent sources of oil refining machine manufacturers have shown that the temperature rises from 100 degrees to a maximum of 280 degrees Celsius at various stages of oil refining in conventional methods. That is, the claim that soybean oil is processed at 2000 degrees Celsius is an exaggeration — not true.

What the experts say

A report on edible oil with Dr. Devi Shetty’s comments is available in an Indian periodical called India Today. In that article published in 2012, he said, “When extracting oil from nuts is against nature, how else can we get oil that is good for the heart?” However, any comment related to soybean being “toxic for the body” was found neither in Devi Shetty’s videos nor on his YouTube channel. Later, when contacted by email on 3 November, Dr. Devi Shetty’s office confirmed that he never made any such statement.

On the other hand, Dr. Jahangir Kabir, besides his Facebook page, gives advice on daily life through pages like the “Health Revolution” and “JK Lifestyle”. A short video of his question-and-answer session is available on his Youtube channel, where he claims soybean oil is ‘toxic’ as the oil is “burnt at 600 degrees to 700 degrees”. However, there is no claim in any of his videos that soybean oil is processed at 2000 degrees Celsius.

He was contacted in this regard through phone and social media. In response, he sent a link to a nearly two-and-a-half-hour video on his official YouTube channel. From 27 minutes 27 seconds to 28 minutes 10 seconds of that video, Dr. Jahangir Kabir said that “600 to 700 degrees Celsius will be required to produce soybean oil”.

Extent and effect of the claim

“Soybean oil is not edible oil or for cooking… it is toxic” – this fake claim appeared as a public Facebook post on 7 May 2022. It was posted from the profile of a person named Kajal Das, which has been shared more than 1200 times. In that post, he claimed to be a ‘specialist doctor in kidney and heart disease’. A comment on another post reveals that he is a homeopathic doctor with chambers at the Central Homeo Pharmacy on the bank of Laldighi in Chittagong. This has been confirmed by contacting the pharmacy.

Kajal Das was contacted to find out the source of the information mentioned in the post. First, he said that he heard it from Dr. Devi Shetty directly. He told Dismislab, “Devi Shetty wrote this and told me so too.” When informed that Devi Shetty had confirmed that he had not made the statement, he evaded the whole issue.

The statement spread further on 11 May after it was posted on a Facebook page called Medical Information. Kajal Das’ post was featured there and shared more than 8,500 times. It was posted separately on at least 58 Facebook pages over the next three months.

When false claims are advertised

The second claim, “soybean oil processed at 2000 degrees Celsius is nothing but burnt engine oil”, was posted on Facebook this year, mainly as part of a business campaign. On 17 June 2022, a page called Satata Hygienic Food posted both claims, quoting Devi Shetty as saying that soybean oil is “toxic for human body” and Dr. Jahangir Kabir is quoted as saying that this oil is “processed at a temperature of 2000 degrees Celsius”.

In the months following 27 July, the claim was spread on at least 23 pages in the name of Satata Oil Mills, a mustard oil producer.

In that long post, the soybean related claim was: “In the words of renowned Bangladeshi doctor, Jahangir Kabir, ‘Soybean oil processed at 2000 degrees Celsius is nothing but burnt engine oil.’ But alas day by day we are leaning towards soybean oil from mustard oil. Due to the continuous promotion of various foreign companies or importers, we are clinging to foreign soybean oil trampling upon the oil produced at home. And the result? Soybean oil raises cholesterol levels, causes liver cirrhosis, high blood pressure and even cancer.”

The Satata post was then used by other mustard oil sellers for advertisement. For example, a Facebook user named ‘Md Ziaur Rahman’ made the same claim in a promotional post of “Khati Ponno Enterprise” (translating to ‘pure products enterprise’) for selling mustard oil. So, the claim spread further on social media. Similar claims are also found in advertisements selling mustard oil on bikroy.com.

But by September-October, the two false claims merged and fused into one. For example, on 30 October, the two claims were put together on the Facebook page called “Homeopathy is the greatest medical science” with an attribution to Devi Setty. The post has over 900 likes, 22 comments and was shared 119 times on Facebook as of December 14, 2022. In November, this bogus quote became the main message of mustard oil advertisement of social media. A few examples can be found below.

This message created different kinds of reactions among people. People believed the disinformation and thanked the sharers. Some commented “I have been eating poison for so long”, some pondered about what they should do, some asked whether they can use mustard oil for children and so on.

Misinformation both in the media and policymaker’s speech

There was a meeting of the task force committee on commodity price review on 18 May 2022. At a press conference following the meeting, Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi said, “… a few days ago, I saw a report saying that Dr. Devi Shetty has written that eating soybean is harmful. I don’t know if it was really something he said… but people need to become aware of this.”

That is, the minister himself saw the claim. Although unsure whether they were Dr. Devi Shetty’s actual words, he felt that the information should reach more people. A video of this press conference is available on Channel i’s YouTube channel. The quote is available at 1 minute 55 seconds of the video.

The minister’s statement that soybean oil is harmful was widely aired on various TV stations, online and online editions of English and Bengali newspapers of Bangladesh. Thus, the claim found its way into the mainstream media as well.