Brainstorm Health: Coconut Oil, E-Cig Liquids, Glaxo Lung Drug

August 23, 2018, 9:17 PM UTC

Hey there, readers. Sy reporting for duty.

Let’s take a second to chat about… coconut oil. Yes, that coconut oil. The gooey, coconut-y substance that can either, depending on your perspective, be a cure-all for skin and scalp dilemmas, a far healthier alternative to other cooking fuels that may also combat obesity, or, apparently, a death sentence.

What may seem like a fairly innocuous member of your pantry has become the latest villain in the public health wars—largely thanks to a video of Harvard professor and epidemiologist Dr. Karin Michels that’s been making its way around the interwebs this past week.

Michels says that, due to saturated fat content, coconut oil amounts to “pure poison” and should be anathema to the public health campaigns it currently drives. So just how seriously should you take those claims?

It’s… complicated. On the one hand, experts like those at the American Heart Association (AHA) have raised deep concerns about coconut oil’s health profile, especially compared to conventional wisdom. Here’s one damning statement from an AHA presidential advisory published just last year: “A recent survey reported that 72% of the American public rated coconut oil as a “healthy food” compared with 37% of nutritionists. This disconnect between lay and expert opinion can be attributed to the marketing of coconut oil in the popular press. The fatty acid profile of coconut oil is 82% saturated.” This saturated fat is known to increase the amount of “bad” LDL cholesterol in the body.

But, digging a bit deeper, this is one of those issues that gets to the heart of why wide-scale public health studies are so complicated. Nutrition experts overwhelmingly agree that consuming an excess of saturated fats is generally bad for you and increases the chances of heart disease. But the more complicated question is, Where’s the cut-off? And do the conclusions hold true for all demographics?

On an ancillary note, the relationship between LDL cholesterol levels and cardiovascular health is still a bit nuanced. (That’s not to say there isn’t a strong correlation between the two—there is—but there’s still enough ambivalence among the medical community about how effective slashing LDL levels is for combating heart attacks and strokes that uptake of new, pricey drugs that do just that has been underwhelming.)

Saturated fats are almost certainly bad in excess. Coconut oil contains a whole lot of saturated fat. So while wellness guru claims that the product could be a health panacea may very well be overblown, we probably need some more detailed studies before condemning it to the dust bin of pure junk food.

Read on for the day’s news.


The necessity of AI in medicine. A few months back, I had the pleasure of chatting with physician-businessman-extraordinaire Dr. Toby Cosgrove about how digital health technology and artificial intelligence is changing medicine. I highly encourage you to check out our full chat. A notable quote: “When the Cleveland Clinic was formed almost 100 years ago, the total amount of knowledge in health care doubled every 150 years,” Cosgrove told me in March during Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in Laguna Niguel, Calif. “Now, it’s doubling every 73 days. There are now 800,000 journal articles written every year. Every human genome has 3 billion data points in it. How is anybody going keep track of that and be able to use it without help from artificial intelligence, machine learning? So I think there’s a tremendous necessity and opportunity associated with digital health.” (Fortune)


GSK holds advantage on COPD drug over rival AstraZeneca. GlaxoSmithKline scored an unexpected win over rival AstraZeneca on its own therapeutic home turf—COPD, the lung-wasting disease that has the infamous distinction of being the third-leading cause of death in America. AZ's inhaler, in a finding the company says is inconsistent with previous results, proved inferior to GSK's competing Anoro. (Reuters)


E-cig liquids, or juice boxes? 17 companies have voluntarily ceased marketing of e-cigarette liquid boxes after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) admonished them for resembling children's juice boxes. The e-cigarette industry has been at pains to insist that it's not marketing its products to kids, who have become a prime audience for the ostensible tobacco alternatives. (Reuters)

GAO slams Trump administration over Obamacare. An independent government watchdog is calling out the Trump administration for its efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act, which the Government Accountability Office says are likely a significant factor that drove a 5% drop in Obamacare enrollment this year. The GAO made several recommendations to the Department of Health and Human Services, including re-establishing enrollment targets under the health law. (The Hill)


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