OK, Let’s Talk About Coconut Oil

August 24, 2018, 7:42 PM UTC

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.

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