Coconut oil, the health shop panacea, is ‘pure poison’, says Harvard epidemiologist

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Coconut and coconut oil on wooden tableCoconut oil, the health shop and superfood panacea for everything from obesity to haemorrhoids, is ‘pure poison’, says a Harvard epidemiologist.

Karin Michels, an epidemiologist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, poured scorn on the superfood movement and singled out the fad for coconut oil in particular, calling the substance “one of the worst things you can eat” that was as good for wellbeing as “pure poison”.

The report says Michels made her comments in a recent lecture at the University of Freiburg, where she holds a second academic position as director of the Institute for Prevention and Tumour Epidemiology. The speech, delivered in German, has now been watched more than 1.3m times on YouTube.

The report says Michels based her warning on the high proportion of saturated fat in coconut oil, which is known to raise levels of so-called LDL cholesterol, and so the risk of cardiovascular disease. Coconut oil contains more than 80% saturated fat, more than twice the amount found in lard, and 60% more than is found in beef dripping.

Last year, the American Heart Association reviewed the evidence on coconut oil among other foodstuffs. While three quarters of the US public considered coconut oil to be healthy, the review noted that only 37% of nutritionists agreed. The authors attributed the gulf in perception to the marketing of coconut oil in the popular press. “Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD, and has no known offsetting favourable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil,” the review concluded.

The report says other organisations have issued similar warnings. “Coconut oil can be included in the diet, but as it is high in saturated fats should only be included in small amounts and as part of a healthy balanced diet,” the British Nutrition Foundation said. “There is to date no strong scientific evidence to support health benefits from eating coconut oil.”

“Coconut oil is about 86% saturated fat, about one-third more saturated fat than butter,” said Victoria Taylor, a senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation. “We know that diets high in saturated fat are associated with increased non-HDL cholesterol in the blood, and high cholesterol is a risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke.

“There has been speculation that some of the saturated fat present in coconut oil may be better for us than other saturated fats, but so far there is not enough good-quality research to provide us with a definitive answer.

“What we do know is that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats like vegetable oil, olive oil and sunflower oil, and their spreads, has been shown as an effective way to help reduce LDL cholesterol levels, so this would be a healthier choice.

“For the time being, if you like the taste of coconut oil, then, as with butter, it’s fine to use it every now and then. However, it’s best to restrict yourself to small amounts and use unsaturated oils as an everyday choice instead.”

Michels cautioned that coconut oil contains high amounts of saturated fatty acids and said that it poses a greater risk to heart health than lard. A Boston Globe article noted that Michels’ comments sparked a lively debate online and that the American Heart Association issued an advisory last year that recommended against the use of coconut oil.

Frank Sacks, lead author of the advisory and a professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at Harvard Chan School, is quoted as saying that he was surprised by the backlash the AHA faced from this recommendation. He said the fact that coconut oil is not good for you should not be news.

“The coconut industry – or some other industry – is promoting coconut oil,” Sacks said. “People are gullible and will listen to advertising, especially when it comes to foods.”

The Guardian report
Harvard University material
YouTube lecture
Boston Globe report (subscription needed)

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