The Non-Linear Career; celebrate diversity

A lot of people ask me how does it work to have a career that seems to have major dog-legs every few years, and even some massive career changes along the way.

The secret is “the non-linear career”.

Don’t get me wrong. It is neither easy, nor for everyone. It is, for example, not the type that headhunters and executive search firms go for because they dogmatically follow criteria that are all geared to find one person who has done one thing their entire professional lives. It is also not the one that fits into the boxes of, for example, UN employment forms with the multiple choice paths. It is not for the risk-averse. It is not the professional life for those who think about their pension.

So, then, what is a non-linear career? What does this dog-leg CV look like?

Allow me to describe mine as an example. I started my full-time professional life as a soldier, then a Federal Agent, I served in Australia, China, and Mongolia. That’s the first dozen or so years of my career.

But before that even, at uni and high school from the age of about 14, I was sales staff and sales management for the family book store, unloader of freight from semi-trailers, kitchen hand at Pizza Hut, stacker of shelves at Woolworths, touch rugby referee, puller of beer at the Newmarket Hotel…you name it.

The last dozen or so years of my career, since the start of the Noughties, the rollercoaster ride gets wild: human rights expert, human trafficking expert, policing advisor, business developer, organised crime advisor, intelligence advisor, international development professional, non-profit advisor. In that time, titles came and went, including Chief Operating Officer, Managing Director, Director, Technical Director, Team Leader, Principal Consultant, Advisor, Principal Advisor, Strategy Advisor, Planning Expert, Founder, Partner, Evaluator etc. The list goes on.

And yet, despite working experience in more than 45 countries, having lived for long periods in 9, recruiters don’t see a thing.

In contrast, the linear path – the one that works for HR people – looks like this: work hard, don’t make waves, stay on the boss’ good side, wait for promotions, go to company picnics, and look to change employer only when necessary, and only after putting in enough time right where you are.

This is not a secret career path, and of course this path, even if formulaic, works fine for some people. Indeed, it is the one many people take. But it is not the only path, and not the best path for all.

For many, including me, the non-linear career offers an opportunity to explore. There is wide world of professional experience out there, and some of us want to taste it. Just as some people want to travel and some don’t.

For the successful non-linear, it is important not to worry about each job leading seamlessly and successfully to the other on paper. If you are the explorer, seeking experiences the world over, you will have a dog-leg CV; no doubt about it. Accept it. Relish it. And be ready for the hard bumps and surprising turns that sometimes come with rollercoaster rides.

The non-linear career path can be recommended for those who have a spirit for adventure, a high threshold for risk, and relish living without much of a safety net.

By way of encouragement, providing some ideas for the red threads in your career, including some of the most important features the non-linear bring to each role, are:

  • As the original finder of the waters of opportunity in the professional desert, you see opportunities where others might only identify problems.
  • As a ranging problem-solver and overcomer of obstacles the world over, you tend to intuit where the obstacles are. And instead of focusing on the dimensions of the obstacles, your glass-half-full style causes you to focus on how to get past them in ways that don’t burn bridges behind you. But, if someone forces you to burn a bridge, you do it.
  • Your strong sense of independence and self-reliance means that you (most of the time) believe in yourself and your ability to handle and learn new things based on what you’ve been able to accomplish in the past. The key is to communicate this well-founded inner confidence naturally and effectively.
  • You always have been, and will remain, the path-finder.
  • You are not risk averse. The non-linear is not afraid to take on calculated risk and fail. But when the non-linear does fail, as everyone does who ever took a chance, you know how to take it in perspective, brush it off, and move on.
  • Your lack of fear gives you freedom. When a boss doesn’t see your qualities, or fails to reward you, you quite easily look for ways to move forward and even grow, and you don’t take offence at not being seen for what you could bring. Your inner freedom lets you move on; no regrets.
  • Having had to compromise and solve problems in dozens of contexts, you look for often inspiring ways to make things better without blaming others. You are the definition of the solutions-oriented individual.
  • As an expert in blending into a range of cross-cultural situations and making it work, you are a communicator. And you learn to publicise yourself effectively. You don’t sit back and wait for someone to notice you. You know that just won’t happen. You let people know about things you’re working on by making it part of an interesting story. As a classy communicator you share your experiences without bragging.
  • You know that in all jobs, in all work places, in all countries, there are things to enjoy. You can find those little acorns and relish them, even if you don’t like the job, the workplace, or the country. You are a survivor, and survivors survive on the acorns. Do your work well and with a great attitude, but also keep your eyes and ears open for something else you could suggest to take on that might do more to float your boat.
  • As the experienced communicator, you know how to connect to people in a trusting way and build relationships that are mutually beneficial.
  • You are decisive, so you usually know when it is time for you to pack up and move on. And you do it without fuss or apology.
  • You work without a safety net, and usually don’t even think about whether there should be one or not. You know in your heart that you will always find a way, even if you cannot see a picture of it in your head. Yet.

One of the greatest challenges to a non-linear career is recruitment and ‘the HR people’. When someone with a non-linear career gets into a room with the hiring manager, things start to happen. Their sense of adventure, initiative, spirit, passion, and ingenuity makes them shine. But until then, HR people reign. And they usually screen the non-linears out of the field. On the rare occasion the non-linear candidate gets an interview, often they are on the other wide of the world precisely because their careers take them places, so they will still not get in the room. They will often be relegated to the dreadful, death-affirming, non-dimensional Skype interview.

The approach for the non-linear is to showcase in your CV, the cover letter, and in words (if you land an interview), that you really understand what the employer needs, and by emphasising what you bring to the job, including the non-linear features of resilience, adventure, ingenuity, good humour; i.e. your transferable skills and values. You might not have been in the one place for 20 years, but you know how to work in 20 cross-cultural contexts!

Don’t worry too much about what you don’t have. Role criteria are checklists designed to find a 5-legged sheep in a field of 4-legged sheep and, eventually, they end up employing a 3-legged one. If you meet the criteria, then fine, but if you don’t, there is always a chance a hiring manager will see through the HR checklist mentality, so go for it anyway. Remember that when you go beyond the criteria and define what it is the hiring manager wants, they are often recruiting because they need to change it up. Something hasn’t worked in how they did things before. And the non-linear knows all about changing it up.

Looks for ways of getting the attention of the hiring manager first; circumventing HR. The hiring manager often carries a pocket veto; if someone in the field intrigues them enough, they can overrule HR and push for shortlisting the non-linear. This has happened to me when I seriously diverged from the advertised criteria, but conceptually offered a solution to the hiring manager’s very real problems.

Identify and intrigue the hiring manager; it pays off. Early in the recruitment process, try to find out who the hiring manager is, and approach them with a brief message about your claims, and ask whether despite having these strong experiences you should apply. A good hiring manager will look well at the broader nature of your experience, and the candour of the approach, and help you get shortlisted.

Another of the great obstacles in non-linear careers is self-doubt. I have to say frankly, every time a change is coming on, doubt sneaks in, like shadows creeping in on your peripheral vision. When re-writing your CV, something non-linears have to do frequently, the point is to identify those things that have carried through your career; roles, titles, and locations might have changed, but there are ‘red threads’ running through your career, those transferrable values and skills mentioned above. Highlight those red threads and that will help banish your self-doubt.

You’ve got game. And you know it. So just bring it.

The third great challenge to be overcome is the tendency, especially when considering the next big thing, to drift back to the norm. My advice is to celebrate your very own diversity. When you follow a career path based on things you loved doing, things you felt strongly about, or undertook risky journeys to get new experience, and put to good use those skills you most enjoy, and when you make an effort along the way to manage the obstacles and next steps, at the end of it you will be surprised when you look back.

I often get great praise on, and quite some satisfaction from, my dog-leg career path; people look at it and see a book or a TV series (even if, to me, it looks like a boat built by committee and held together by gaffer tape!). Without being melodramatic, the non-linear is exciting to outsiders; the trick is to get your non-linear CV past the HR munchkins and into the hands of people who really want to hire top talent.

In the non-linear career, you need to celebrate your very own diversity if you are going to feel contentment and find success.

In all long, non-linear careers, if you draw a line backwards, you can actually see a path. It is called the road less travelled.


Male Trailing Spouse Interview: Expat Survival Guide

For those interested, here is a very brief interview for the Expat Survival Guide; the views from male trailing spouses

The Male Trailing Spouse series – Brian in Iran

No Shame: The Science Behind Why Most Australians Feel Okay About Tormenting Asylum Seekers | Junkee

Are you an Australian wondering how such a large number of your country-folk can be so hard-hearted to asylum seekers?

Are you a Border Force member wondering where the soul of organisations such as Customs and Immigration went?

For me, it is bewildering to see Australians talk about sending those fleeing war back to the nothing that there is for them in those warzones. More than 95% of those arriving to Australia by boat are found to be genuine refugees. As someone involved in stopping the boats back in the late 90s from China, dealing with genuine economic migrants, not refugees, the differences are stark. Stop the boats as intended in the earlier China case has nothing whatever to do with stopping those fleeing war to find safe haven; the governments since have adopted the slogan without any sense of what it means.

Linked is a very interesting read on the application of Stanford University Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology Albert Bandura’s theory of moral disengagement

via No Shame: The Science Behind Why Most Australians Feel Okay About Tormenting Asylum Seekers | Junkee.

Expat Guide to Living in Tehran

UPDATE 20 January 2016: Bread, Sourdough Bread!! 🙂 Thanks to information from reliable informant, Hanna Takemoto, Palladium now stocks great (better than Iran-good) sourdough bread. It looks the real deal, weighs the real deal, and IS the real deal. Located in the breadstore outside the supermarket entrance, near the shopping trolleys and the foot of the escalators. Highly recommended for those longing for luxury bread!


For those of you living in Tehran, or visiting for a good while, you might like a list of good places to go and do things, and some help finding things. Tehran is confusing for the visiting foreigner; you have to find or know a place for every last thing. So, let me try to steer you in the right direction for things like eating, shopping, drinking coffee etc. I will start with the categories:

  • Shopping (where to buy stuff);
  • Eating (where to get decent nosh);
  • Out and About (some ideas for places to go to in Tehran and surrounds); and
  • Kids-friendly (some tips on places that are kid-friendly, kid-suitable, or family-friendly).

You will note some are not yet completed – it is a work-in-progress and will be updated with more information, reviews etc as we go on. I will also put up a list of useful telephone numbers, vets, dentists, doctors etc. with the disclaimer that they have worked for me, but I don’t stand behind their services (nor, sadly, have any kickbacks been offered or received). Caveat emptor!

This posting will change often as I update it, and so it will be a good idea for you to bookmark it for checking back regularly.

Also happy to take tips, and answer questions, if there is something specific you are looking for.

  • Shopping (where to buy stuff):
    • Basiji Market (or Meisam Bazaar), also called the Farmaniyeh Shopping Centre (which REALLY overstates its size!) located on the corner of Farmanieh Street and Ariya Street in Farmaniyeh is a nice little shopping corner with a few fruit and veg places, a ceramics shop for your cheap dinnerware, and a very decent corner store. This corner store in particular is useful for western goods, including ‘pickled chicken‘ (if you have to ask what that is, you don’t eat it). You can get Nespresso capsules, western breakfast cereals, burrito and taco kits, imported cheeses and sauces, and much more. A good spot! Where on the map:
    • Palladium Mall, located on Moqadas Ardabili Street, (best accessed from Aref Street), Zafaraniyeh is a new mall with a great supermarket in the basement floor. A food court, children’s playroom, and very good toy shop are some of the other features. The supermarket has rare features such as passable croissant, mighty good rucola, the best sparkling water in Iran (VIP) and a wide assortment of other goodies. A great fruit and veg section with things you won’t find anywhere else including a good array of herbs and spices. And VERY good quality fish (but stick to the Persian Gulf fish, not the toxic Caspian fish). And they have genuine (Italian) Parmesan cheese! Where on the map:
    • Miiv – A fabulous ice-cream maker. They are the best in Iran for sure, and probably rate up there with the best in Europe. They only deliver, making seasonal products – blood orange sorbet, for example – and great quality old favourites like French Vanilla, the quality is superb. Home delivery only. Tel: 0910 1180357
    • Hyperstar – see my earlier blog posting on this as a shopping place operated a la Carrefour. This mall is located off the Bakeri Expressway in the far southwest of the city in Kooy E-eram. Inferior to Palladium for the range and quality of their products, it is larger still and has a broad selection of department-store products including TVs, DVDs, electricals, sporting goods etc. Where on the map:
    • Ilio – Situated in the Modern Elahiyeh complex, corner of Afriqa Blvd and Bihar Street, Elahiyeh (just off the Chamran Expressway). While ostensibly a chocolatier (and their chocolates are by far the very best in Iran) (a la Belgian chocs), this is a great place to go for a superb coffee and also for excellent ice-cream. Premium ice-creams, such as their pistachio, are sublime – but be warned, the explosion of roast pistachios in this ice-cream makes it very rich indeed. They also have an ice-cream only outlet in the food court at Palladium Mall (see above). Where on the map:
  • Eating (where to get decent nosh):
    • Eclipse (Fresh bagels, burgers, and sandwiches) – Situated in North Dibaji Street, Kamraniyeh, close to the south-eastern side of the Italian Residence, this is a new place and a VERY welcome addition (start?) to good eats around Kamraniyeh/Farmaniyeh. The bagels, panini, and burger rolls are all freshly baked on the premises. It is possible to buy just the bagels – par-baked – also to take home. They deliver pretty much anywhere in the north. It is a branch of the same award-winning sandwich store in Copenhagen (Soren Norbys Alle 2, 2300, Kobenhavn S). I can highly recommend the Pulled Lam (sic) bagel, and La Bomba (La Bomba was the Danish award-winner)! They do burgers, baguette, and steak sandwiches. Ask for the owner, Shayan! Tel: 021 26450450.  Where on the map:
    • Sam Cafe (coffee and sandwiches) – located on the 2nd floor of the Sam Centre in Fereshteh Street, Elahiyeh, this is a very cool spot for a GREAT coffee and some pretty agreeable foods like croissant, sandwiches, terrific little cakes, and waffles with strawberries, this place looks and feels like a cafe from San Francisco or Soho. Brilliantly friendly (and hip) staff. Excellent fresh juices as well. A top spot to sit with or without friends and just relax. I highly recommend one juice in particular they have, called Sharbat-e Tokhme Sharbati (for more on this great drink, see: which is a traditional Iranian-Style Summer Drink; super refreshing. Where on the map:
    • Ilio (coffee and ice-cream) – see above.
    • Monsoon (Asian fusion – trendy) – Located in the Gandhi Centre, Gandhi Street, in north Tehran (another location in Goldan seems to have closed down now), this trendy lounge/cafe serves something different from the usual Iranian restaurant. It is principally Asian food with some slight western touches, one might say. The food is quite good for Iran, but expensive. Eat there, by all means, but don’t expect to be wowed by the food despite the stiff price. Decor is cool, soundtrack is usually uber-cool. Service in English is certainly possible. Tel: 021 8879 1982. Where on the map:
    • Parkway (Asian – elegant trendy) – Situated on the 8th floor of the Sam Centre in Fereshteh Street, Elahiyeh, Parkway is a nice change of flavours from Iranian food. Asian trendy, looking and sounding (great soundtrack!) like something from cool New York, a little reminiscent of the wine bar at New York’s MOMA, it is very nicely decorated and a relaxing place to eat away from the hustle and bustle of the nearby Valiyasr area. Expensive, of course (maybe to make sure the place is kept pretty much only for the well-healed in the city!), the service is quite good with a number of staff circling at any one time and some speaking English; one or two speaking very well. Try the Mongolian beef, or the chicken or shrimp dumplings. The Beijing Duck, while not especially close to the real deal in China, is more than Iran-good and well worth having for the great change of flavour from kebab. Parking on-site is free (access from the rear of the centre, Bahar Street). Where on the map:
    • The Terrace (international – trendy) – located in very leafy East Maryam Street, Elahiyeh, The Terrace is a cafe that has groovy music, and a nice ambience, at least if you sit upstairs and outside on the actual terrace. Inside feels like an ice-cream shop for atmosphere and colours. Parking is impossible (Maryam is a very busy but tiny street); take a taxi. The menu is a little pedestrian; pizzas, paninis, pastas etc are the order of the day. Pretty good drinks with fresh juices and mocktails available. Expensive, again aiming for the more well-healed Tehranis. Where on the map:
    • Diwan (Fine dining) – Situated on the 8th floor of the Sam Centre in Fereshteh Street, Elahiyeh, this is arguably the premier restaurant in Tehran. You can expect beautiful decor (lots of works by modern Tehran artists are on the wall), a great soundtrack, nice ambiance, a good percentage – but not all – of the staff speak some English. The menu is ‘western fusion’, and pretty good, although in my view not actually worth the very steep price. Friends say it used to be better; that the food quality has gone downhill. But if you have visitors, or are a visitor, and you want to see where all the rich go to dinner in Tehran, this is the likeliest place. You will not get out for under 80USD a head, and likely much more. Thank goodness you don’t have to add wine to the bill! Where on the map:
    • Cafe du Reza Golaie (Traditional Persian food, cool music cafe) – This music cafe at number 172, in 30th Tir Street, close to the Glass and Ceramic Museum, and the Chaim Synagogue, and due north of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The walls are festooned with old photos of rockers and stars, the soundtrack for the place is all western and variable, including my daughter’s favourite Michael Jackson. And the food is pretty darn good, really simple stuff and, well, at least Iran-good. The menu is Iranian food, with some western touches, like an Iranian roast chicken with English-style roast veggies. The borsht is far better than its Russian namesake, and very good on a cold day. A tiny hole-in-the-wall kind of place, it is easily missed except for the crowd of locals lining up for a scarce table. It is possible to book, although I understand answering the phone is not their strength. Possible even, for a large enough group, to book the whole thing and close the curtains. A well-worthwhile place to take western visitors to show that some touches of western style exist. Tel: 09124430694 (ask for the owner, Shervin). Where on the map:
    • Burgerland (burgers – home delivery and eat-in) – This burger bar located in Andarzgu Blvd, in the north, not to be confused with the nearby Home Burger, is a good spot for a good quality western style hamburger. With just a few burgers on their menu, they do them well; juicy burger, double burger, farm burger and a few others. They do pretty passable chips too. Beware that the burgers, when loaded up with sauces, get a bit sloppy after delivery, although their home-delivery is very fast. And those answering the phone for your order always speak English and are pleasant to deal with. Tel: 021 2239 8600. Where on the map:
    • Murano (Italian – home delivery) – Anyone here for long realises that the vast majority of take-away pizza in Tehran are simply crap, and not at all calorie-worthy. But with a handful of outlets around Tehran, including Gheytarieh and Pasdaran in the north, and one at Gandhi I believe, Murano is about the best home delivery pizza in Tehran. Suitably tasty thin-crust pizzas, the Inferno is what everyone orders when they want some spice. The vegetariana, parmigiana, and margerita are all Iran-good. You can very often get English-speakers answering the phone if you persevere, and delivery is fast (usually have it in half an hour or so).  Tel: 021 2207 7639
    • Taj Mahal (Indian – home delivery) – located in the Taj Mahal Hotel, near the Hemmat Expressway, this Indian Restaurant delivers. Allow a good couple of hours for delivery; so call around 7pm and you will be able to eat around 9pm. The phone number is for the hotel, so just ask to be connected to the restaurant. Delivery is in the final price, and usually comes hot and fresh by taxi with one of the staff. The food is pretty good, and favourites include palak paneer and aloo ghobi. The chicken tikka masaala is also more than Iran-good. Tel: 021 8803 5444
    • Chai Bar (cafe and sandwiches) – located in Salimi Street, (I think the area is called Hekmat, near Karimi Street), this cute garden cafe is situated in the grounds of what is a calligraphy museum these days. Parking is not especially easy; taxi is better. It is a lovely peaceful garden for sitting for a coffee, or a good fresh juice, but also good to eat. Sandwiches are the main fare; try the Cheese steak sandwich. They are not international standard, but Iran-good, but it is a really nice place to sit and chew the fat with friends. Where on the map:
    • Leon 1960 (western, trendy, brunch speciality) – open all hours, but a real favourite for brunch, Leon 1960 is, liked several other places listed, located on the 8th floor of the Sam Centre in Elahiyeh. A lovely view of the mountains, and open terrace if the air is not too chunky that day, it is actually a lovely place to sit and enjoy a big plate of bacon and eggs, or panini, or fruits. Fresh juices and mocktails are as good as you might expect, and the coffee is very agreeable. Where on the map:
    • Saboos (bakery, cafe, breakfast, sandwiches) – located in Elahiyeh, on the corners of Alef Street and Javanan – it is the first northern exit off the west-bound Chamran after the Parkway Bridge. The surroundings are cool, Seattle chic, I guess might sum it up. The crowd is also pleasantly modern. The food is very good, as is the coffee. Omelettes, baguettes, and burgers are the things to order. The bread from the bakery also more than passable, but not sourdough last time I looked. Where on the map:
    • Yas Restaurant (elegant Iranian food, lunch and dinner) – located on val Yasr Blvd 2627, adjacent to the entrance to Melat Park (opposite the bronze umbrella-man statue. Is it an elegant place to have lunch and dinner (not especially family-friendly, but possible). Some English from the staff, and menus in English. Very good for things such as lentil soup, kebab of course, and the stews and khoresh. A bit pricey for Iranian food, but worth it for the nice surroundings and linen. Where on the map:
    • Stay tuned – always more to come…..
  • Out and About (some ideas for places to go to in Tehran and surrounds);
    • Carpet Museum
    • Glass and Ceramic Museum
    • Golestan Palace
    • Niavaran Palace
    • Saad Abad
  • Kids-friendly (some tips on places that are kid-friendly, kid-suitable, or family-friendly).
    • Niavaran Park
    • Qeitarieh Park
    • Fire and Water Park
    • Melat Park
  • Handy Phone Numbers
    • Vet: Dr Ibrahim Abdehou (speaks some English, but less crossed wires if you have some Farsi help). Does house calls, and can source good quality pet food and cat litter (surprisingly hard to find in Iran). Tel: 09122171071.
    • General Practitioner: Dr Jamshid Ansari – A very friendly Iranian-German GP, he speaks English and German fluently, does house calls, with strong network of specialists for anything particular that needs attention. Tel: 09123707812.
    • Dentist: Dr Keyhani – a very friendly fluent English and Danish speaking dentist, he operates from his clinic in Farmaniyeh, beside the Farmaniyeh Hospital. Tel: 021 26110052.

Palm Oil Scandal in Iran’s Milk; Much Ado About Nothing?

Well, I had hoped for more rosy messages about life in Iran, it has to be said. But what with carcinogenic tap water and toxic fish, oh, and earthquakes, it seems there are also some warnings to be attached to life here.
The latest one is milk; a recent scandal has seen milk sales across the country plummet.

This blog posting asks ‘why?’.

Happy enough until now with what seemed like a dairy industry of international standard (the Iranian yoghurt is bloody good), we recently discovered that the dairy industry in Iran suffers, as with all private enterprise concerns the world over, from greed and shortcuts. There really are a lot of activities that cannot be trusted to the private sector and, in Iran, where quality and health checking are below par, that is proved so again.

In early August 2014, the news was broken that the Iranian Health Ministry had uncovered a nationwide scandal. Involving most major dairy producers in Iran, the scandal entails the addition of palm oil to dairy milk to boost its fat content. What is being sold as full fat milk, is only full fat if you don’t expect that fat to come from the cow.

The palm oil debate rages around the world; Google or Bing it and you will soon see.

In this debate, there seem to be two major areas of concern, health and environmental, and of course numerous defenders of the oil against both concerns. The adding of palm oil to milk, and not advising it, is serious on several levels; environmental, health, regulatory failure, and dishonesty. Let’s walk through these areas one by one.

But first, what is palm oil? And how is it used?

Palm oil is a vegetable oil widely used by food manufacturers globally across an extensive range of products. It is used in some products to enhance texture and to bond (emulsify) the ingredients or, as in the case of the Iranian dairy industry, to provide more fat content.

It has been used for centuries in food preparation, particularly in the tropics where palms grow naturally. The oil, extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree, enjoys widespread popularity in processed foods because it is free of artery-clogging trans fats and rich in natural antioxidants, including vitamins A and E.

The politics of palm oil are also a complication, as it is something of a north-south issue. While there is major usage in areas that naturally grow palm, in Southeast Asia for example, most major palm oil suppliers are in the developing world (Malaysia and Indonesia together produce some 85% of the world’s palm oil). These developing countries, strongly reliant on this post-2006 boom in sales, then ship to food producers worldwide, notably in developed countries.

The world is ravenous for palm oil, and demand rises continually despite any health and environmental concerns. One source mentioned that one day quite soon, 10% of Indonesia’s land will be oil palm plantations.
Global production of palm oil doubled in the 2000s and is expected to double again by the end of this decade. While in Asia palm oil is used for cooking, in a number of places it is used – not without serious concerns as well – as feedstock for bio-fuel. In the developed world more broadly, however, the burgeoning demand can be put down to two things; it is used EVERYWHERE, and the trans-fats debate in the west sent everyone scurrying for a substitute. And that substitute was palm oil.

When I say it is found everywhere, this is so literally true. It is used as an ingredient not just in foods and health and beauty products, but in the ingredients that make up those products — vitamin A palmitate, sodium laurel sulfate (as an aside, called SLS, sodium lauryl sulfate is a detergent and MAJOR cause of chronic mouth ulcers – if you suffer like I do, check your toothpaste for SLS!), stearic acid and so on. Indeed, if you use a product that has palm oil derivatives in it, and that is the vast majority of households, you will not even know you are using palm oil; it will say Vitamin A, for example, not palm oil.

So, there are countless ways in which palm oil sneaks into your house. Margarine, peanut butter, crackers, cookies, ice cream, lipstick, toothpaste, soap, pretty much all candy, contain palm oil. It is so pervasive in the products we put in and on our bodies that it’s virtually impossible to avoid it, no matter how hard we might try.

It is very often found in products labeled ‘fresh milk’ – as is the problem in Iran where the milk being boosted is still labelled pure, fresh milk; check the labels closely and you might find milk fats added. There is your palm oil.It is added instead of cream. Why? Because cream is expensive, and palm oil is not. Adding palm oil in place of fresh cream is, in a word, cheating you.

In many other places, such as the UK, the palm oil gets into the system as supplements (Mulac, etc) in the feed of the cow, boosting fat production in the animal. Either way, the palm oil is there.

Even soy milk, I hear vegans asking? Yes, even pretty much all brands of soy milk contain palm oil to bulk up the fats.

So, it is everywhere. Does that make it good? As I said, there are concerns.

Let’s walk through them.

Environmental Concerns

Much concern over palm oil and its burgeoning use is environmental. Chocolate maker Cadbury, for example, removed palm oil from its Dairy Milk recipe in New Zealand in response to environmental complaints from consumers. (Cadbury did not, you should note, remove it anywhere else they produce chocolate; only in local response to local complaints).

Palm oil is one of the planet’s most destructive ingredients. It is largely responsible for the massive deforestation of Borneo, and threatens habitats that include those of endangered and threatened species including orangutans and tigers. Companies slash, burn and bulldoze rainforest to plant uniform rows of oil palm trees, reducing biodiversity, threatening species, driving up greenhouse gas emissions, and destroying the livelihoods of local subsistence farmers.

On the environmental issues associated with palm oil, there is an industry has grown up around the ‘sustainable’ oil palm business, and many major food brands are now crowing about the rainforest-friendly palm oil sources they use, such as Fonterra’s claim that where possible they now use certified sustainable palm oil through the Green Palm™ scheme. How much of that is true, and how much simple PR, nobody can really answer reliably.

One thing is logically certain; if milk producers in Iran are adding palm oil underhandedly, the odds they are using ‘green’ palm oil are microscopic. The palm oil being used in Iran’s milk industry is – because its use is illicit in the first place – is pretty close to certainly environmentally damaging palm oil, not the ‘eco-friendly’ stuff.

But, if it is so all-pervasive in our lives, is the addition of palm oil to the milk supply a real health concern? What impact does palm oil have on our health?

Health Concerns

Heart Disease Risk – Could Increase Cholesterol Levels
While palm oil has no trans-fats (and so the food industry giants jumped on it as a substitute), it does contain high levels of saturated fats, which increases your risk of heart disease as it encourages the buildup of plaque in your arterial walls.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that palm oil is second only to soybean oil in terms of worldwide popularity as a food oil. The use of palm oil in processed foods, its most widespread application in the United States, jumped sharply after government authorities took aggressive steps to reduce the trans fat content in processed foods.

In a 2005 report entitled “Cruel Oil: How Palm Oil Harms Health, Rainforest & Wildlife,” the Center conceded that palm oil is less harmful than partially hydrogenated soybean oil, but it points out that it “is still considerably less healthful than other vegetable oils.” In support of its warnings about the dangers of palm oil, the center cites two meta-analyses that show that palm oil raises blood cholesterol levels. Further, a 1997 British analysis evaluated 147 human trials and concluded that palmitic acid, an active ingredient in palm oil, raised total blood cholesterol levels. A Dutch analysis, released in 2003, weighed data from 35 clinical studies and found that palmitic acid significantly increased the ratio of total cholesterol to so-called “good cholesterol,” a widely recognized risk factor for heart disease.

And sadly, more recent studies find that the jump to palm oil by the food industry was a little kneejerk and not very well founded. It was not necessarily better than trans fats – it was just really, really cheap, and free from criticism.

In 2006, the US’ FDA started requiring that trans-fats be listed on nutrition labels. Because of that requirement — and outright bans on trans-fats — many food manufacturers and restaurants have stopped using trans-fat and sought alternatives. One of them is palm oil. It’s less saturated than butter and contains no trans-fat per se. But just because it’s not as bad as trans-fat does not make it good.

A 2009 study by the USDA/Agricultural Research Service examined the impact on heart disease risk from trans-fats, palm oil, canola oil, and soybean oil. The findings suggest that consuming any diets enriched with equivalent high amounts of palm oil or partially hydrogenated soybean oil would result in similar (to trans-fats) unfavorable levels of LDL cholesterol and apolipoprotein B (a protein, attached to fat particles, that carries bad cholesterol throughout the bloodstream). That’s when compared to consuming either of the diets enriched with canola and soybean oils high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, respectively. The results suggest – some 7-8 years after the food industry jumped to using it – that palm oil would not be a good substitute for trans-fats by the food industry, the USDA authors wrote.

According to Harvard nutrition experts, however, palm oil is better than trans-fat shortenings and probably even a better choice than butter — but vegetable oils that are naturally liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil and canola oil, should still be your first choice.

So, palm oil is not good for you for any  number of reasons, but in particular for heart disease.

Can Cause Weight Gain
Palm oil naturally contains palmitic acid, a fatty acid that may increase your chances of weight gain and obesity. A 2005 issue of the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” included a study on the overall effects of a diet high in palmitic acid in healthy young adults. The study found that an increase in palmitic acid intake led to lower fat oxidation rates and a decrease in metabolism. As a result, researchers concluded that a diet high in palmitic acid may increase the chances of obesity and insulin resistance.

Can Cause Toxicity
In a study published in a 1999 issue of “Plant Foods for Human Nutrition,” three Nigerian biochemistry researchers extol some of the nutrients found in fresh palm oil, but point out that the oil in an oxidized state can threaten physiological and biochemical functions of the body. They acknowledge that manufacturers of processed foods oxidize palm oil in their products for a variety of culinary purposes, meaning that much of the palm oil consumers eat is in an oxidized state. The dangers of oxidized palm oil include organotoxicity of the heart, kidney, liver and lungs, as well as reproductive toxicity, the researchers claim. Additionally, they note, oxidized palm oil can cause an increase in free fatty acids, phospholipids and cerebrosides. Now, I do not know what all of that means, but it looks bad for palm oil.

Despite the health issues related to palm oil, and saturated fats, if you want to read more about the technical (read: scientific) reasons the milk industry might defend adding palm oil to milk, read this:

The milk industry does, in many places, argue for palm oil as a necessary additive. If you want to pursue the reasons for that, read this:

Regulatory failure

The health authorities in Iran have announced the scandal. While falling short of announcing what they will do about it, they have said they have taken it to the President. What comes of that nobody can answer, but one hopes action follows.
In the failure of regulation, the price is initially paid by the consumer through health and safety. However, long term the price for failure is paid by the industry guilty of the breaches, in this case the dairy industry. People need and want dairy, but as the complete sinking of milk sales this last fortnight demonstrates, people will look elsewhere for their milk if they cannot trust the ‘Made in Iran’ on the milk bottle.

As the Iranian Health Ministry itself points out, serious health concerns in Iran at present include osteoporosis, calcium deficiency in children, and vitamin D deficiency. Half the women and girls in Iran, and a third of Iranian men, are suffering these ailments).

These are not societal health problems – and societal health costs – that can easily be solved without complete faith in the dairy industry.

Dishonesty in the Food Industry

Truth in labeling is something that has come up in this blog before, notably in relation to bottled water where almost all suppliers in Iran were found to be dishonest – or at least inaccurate – in their labeling as to mineral content.
And of course, I hear you say, milk already has saturated fats as does palm oil. Naturally, this is why it is used as an additive.

But not making consumers aware that they are drinking palm oil-boosted milk is where there is fault. It is one of honesty.

What this new milk scandal says about food quality and standards in Iran is that neither labeling, nor the regulatory agencies, can be trusted to provide guarantees about food quality and safety. While the Health Ministry has blamed sanctions for the dairies adding palm oil to boost fat content, it is hard to see this as anything other than deflection away from serial dishonesty. Up to 50% of the fat in milk comes from the diet of the cows. The rest are made by the cow itself. So, looking for causes and apportioning blame for adding palm oil, we need first to look at cow diets, cow health, and the number of milk-producing cows, not at sanctions.

Moreover, Iran does not have the advantage of having civil society engaged, or enabled to act, on issues of consumer safety.

The upshot is clearly that food quality and safety regulators in Iran need to lift their game if they are to ensure consumer safety, and restore consumer faith in the products on the shelf in the local.


So, overall, palm oil is not a happy additive to the milk in Iran for several reasons, but not – as announced – because they are trans-fats. Rather, they do – like all oils which are heavy in saturated fats – have adverse health impacts and, in fairness, consumers should be given the right to choose how they get their saturated fats in their diets.

Consumers should also be able to trust ‘pure, fresh milk’ as distinct from those fortified with other sources of fat, and thus vote with their wallets.

In short, consume low-fat milk, not the full-fat milk, in Iran quite simply because the makers and the labels cannot be trusted to be delivering whole milk to you.

If you have young children, because low-fat milk does not really provide the nutrients (including fats) of whole milk, consider the powdered milk alternatives from Milupa and Danone etc, which will almost certainly (says he with some risk of being proved wrong in time) does not contain palm oil.

The consumers of Iran pay a health price for the additive. Iran’s dairy producers now face a crisis of faith, and Iran’s regulators now face a crisis of oversight. Whether it clogs arteries or not, everyone is worse off for the malfeasance of milk producers in Iran and we can only keep watching to see what action gets taken to make the milk in Iran safer, better labeled, and more clearly healthy.

PS: If, prompted by health or any other concerns over palm oil, you are serious about wanting to avoid palm oil in products as much as you can, here is a neat list of possibilities for you:

Selected Sources:
“Cruel Oil: How Palm Oil Harms Health, Rainforest & Wildlife”; Center for Science in the Public Interest; 2005
“Cooking for Healthy Healing: The Healing Diets, Book One”; Linda Page; 2002
“Plant Foods for Human Nutrition”; Influence of Palm Oil (Elaesis Guineensis ) on Health; P.E. Ebong, D.U. Owu and E.U. Isong; 1999
“Effects of palm oil on cardiovascular risk”, Chong YH, Ng TK, Medical Journal of Malaysia. 1991 Mar; 46(1):41-50.
“Palm Oil Not A Healthy Substitute For Trans Fats, Study Finds.” USDA/Agricultural Research Service, ScienceDaily. (accessed August 25, 2014).