Breaking down the coconut oil controversy
Last month, a doctor from one of the country’s leading health institutions sparked a tsunami of debate on the oil’s health benefits by uttering those words.
Karin Michels, PhD, ScD, professor at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and director of the Institute for Prevention and Tumour Epidemiology at the University of Freiburg in Germany, made the declaration at a conference in late August. Her speech quickly went viral and the backlash was fierce and pointed, particularly on Twitter.
The hashtag #coconutoilcontroversy quickly sprouted up with many people tweeting about the benefits of coconut oil, while disparaging the doctor for making such a blanket statement.
The long history of coconut oil
The general argument in favor of coconut oil is that it’s been used for centuries in Southeast Asian countries without detriment to those cultures. Many took offense that a Western doctor was imposing her beliefs on a product that non-Western countries have used for decades.
It’s true that coconut oil is a staple cooking ingredient in India, the Philippines, and Indonesia. In India, the oil is also popular for hair and skin care regiments.
What’s changed though, is that in the past five years or so, people in the United States and other areas of the Western world have come to embrace the use of coconut oil with a fervent passion. So much so that coconut oil has moved into the rarefied world of “health-halo” status.
Meaning, its health benefits tend to be viewed as a cure for a host of ills.
So, is it superfood or poison?
Melissa Majumdar, RD, is the senior bariatric dietitian at Brigham and Women’s Center for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery. She is also a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She told Healthline that coconut oil isn’t poison, but it also doesn’t deserve superfood status either.
“I don’t like to call food good or bad, let alone poison,” she said, “but coconut oil is not the saving grace that we think it is.”
Coconut oil is derived from the white flesh of the tropical fruit. Once pressed, the oil can last up to six months without spoiling. That’s because it holds a low oxidation rate and therefore doesn’t become rancid as quickly as other oils.
Coconut oil is high in saturated fats, about 80 percent. Red meat contains 50 percent saturated fat, while butter holds about 65 percent of saturated fat.
Studies have shown that consuming too much saturated fats can cause to rise in the blood stream. This is the bad fat that can ultimate lead to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and heart disease.
How did a highly saturated fat such as coconut oil transition to superfood status?
According to a story from Business Insider, the buzz about coconut oil stems from a study published in 2003 on the health benefits of medium-chain triglycerides. The report showed that these types of fatty acids can help people boost their metabolism.
It appears food bloggers and influencers, and food marketers caught wind of the report and extrapolated that information on to coconut oil — which also contains medium-chain triglycerides.
But according to Majumdar, people may not be aware that medium-chain triglycerides only make up about 14 percent of coconut oil. The rest are long-chain triglycerides — the ones that can cause heart disease.
What’s more, the author of the medium-chain fatty acid study told Time magazine that her report was done with so-called designer oil, which contained 100 percent medium-chain triglycerides (fatty acids). The study found that a person would need to consume 15 to 20 grams of the designer oil to boost their metabolism, according to the magazine.
Other studies have tried to answer this ongoing public debate about the benefits of coconut oil, but so far, research hasn’t provided a clear answer. A 2016 meta-analysis of coconut oil research published in Nutrition Reviews looked at 21 studies. The report said there aren’t enough well-designed studies yet for any real meaningful conclusions to be determined.
“Coconut oil generally raised total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol to a greater extent than cis unsaturated plant oils, but to a lesser extent than butter. The effect of coconut consumption on the ratio of total cholesterol to high-density lipoprotein cholesterol was often not examined… Given the limited number of intervention studies in this area, along with the methodological flaws evident in existing studies, further well-designed randomized trials that include appropriate controls, are adequately powered, and examine a range of CVD risk factors are required,” according to the report.
Majumdar said despite inconclusive evidence, the health benefits of coconut oil continue to linger in the public’s collective mind. A New York Times survey showed that 72 percent of the public view coconut oil as healthy, compared to just 37 percent of nutritionists.
She noted that people also believe that coconut can help cure diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome, among many others.
Majumdar said it’s challenging to fight the healthy narrative that now defines coconut oil. She doesn’t want to make people afraid of food, but she’s committed to making sure the public has the correct information about the oil.
Her main takeaway is that people should keep their saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of total calories consumed, which includes coconut oil.
“It needs to be put into perspective,” she said.