Which Poisons More: Coconut Oil or Nutrition Hyperbole?

Professor Karin Michels is presenting us with a dilemma today. On one hand, we’ve written before about the absurdity of the coconut oil fad. People have been swallowing tablespoonfuls of this fat, chasing bogus health claims they’ve been reading in social media feeds. Cures everything from obesity to Alzheimer’s. Gwyneth Paltrow recommends swishing it in your mouth for 20 minutes a day.

So now Professor Michels gives us a bookend at the other extreme. “Coconut oil is pure poison,” she told an audience at the University of Freiburg. In a little more than a month, her lecture has attracted almost a million viewers on YouTube. It’s in German. “Kokosnussöl ist das reine Gift.”

Pure Poison?

The full context of Michels’ lecture was to caution against hyperbolic claims made for superfoods. She questioned “superfood” claims for acai, chia seeds, and matcha. But she didn’t call them poison. She reserved that word for coconut oil. That’s because it’s loaded with saturated fats.

Clearly, the American Heart Association recommends people avoid too much saturated fat. One tablespoon of coconut oil has 11 grams. AHA recommends no more than 13 grams a day. But nowhere will you find the AHA saying that coconut oil is poison.

The Complexity of Fatty Acids

Unfortunately, the truth of fats and health is complex. For popular consumption, AHA and other expert groups have boiled it down to a few simple messages. Trans fats are very bad. Saturated fats are bad, too. Unsaturated fats are good.

The story on trans fats is indeed simple. We don’t need them. Any amount can be harmful. But for other fats, it gets complicated very quickly. For instance, the fat in dairy foods is mostly saturated fat. So guidelines have been favoring low-fat dairy for some time now.

But more and more evidence suggests that the saturated fat in dairy foods might, in fact, be good for you. And yet, guidelines are slow to change.

Such caution is generally wise. So incautious statements about “superfoods” or “pure poison” strike us as unwise. In our way of thinking, moderation beats hyperbole every time.

Click here and here for more on the controversy Michels has stirred. For a new randomized study of coconut oil, butter, and olive oil, click here. And finally, for perspective on superfood nonsense, click here.

Taking Coconuts to Market, photograph © Sam Antonio Photography / flickr

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August 22, 2018

One Response to “Which Poisons More: Coconut Oil or Nutrition Hyperbole?”

  1. August 22, 2018 at 4:34 pm, David Brown said:

    In its comment submitted to the USDA and HHS on the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics said this about saturated fat: “In the spirit of the 2015 DGAC’s commendable revision of previous DGAC recommendations to limit dietary cholesterol, the Academy suggests that HHS and USDA support a similar revision deemphasizing saturated fat as a nutrient of concern. While the body of research linking saturated fat intake to the modulation of LDL and other circulating lipoprotein concentrations is significant, this evidence is essentially irrelevant to the question of the relationship between diet and risk for cardiovascular disease. The 2010 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report on the use of biomarkers as surrogates for disease outcomes examined LDL and HDL as case studies and concluded unequivocally that they were not suitable for use as surrogates for the impact of diet on heart disease.” https://www.eatrightpro.org/news-center/on-the-pulse-of-public-policy/regulatory-comments/dgac-scientific-report

    Despite the lack of evidence linking saturated fat intake to clogged arteries, the American Heart Association continues to demonize saturated fats. The public, however, is no longer buying the message. Excerpt from a Credit Suisse Report entitled Fat: The New Health Paradigm: “Over the last 50 years, general nutritional wisdom has recommended a moderate consumption of fat. We have been told to dramatically lower our consumption of saturated fats (contained in butter, lard, milk, red meat, coconut oil…) and cholesterol (found in eggs, poultry, beef…). We have also been advised to increase our intake of polyunsaturated fats (contained in soybean, sunflower, corn, cottonseed oil…) and carbohydrates (found in pasta, bread, sugar…). But fat is a complex topic and these recommendations have been debated and questioned over the past 30 years. Some experts believe that these dietary recommendations – closely followed by the US population – are the main cause behind the country’s high obesity levels and the rapidly growing number of people suffering from metabolic syndrome.” https://www.credit-suisse.com/corporate/en/articles/news-and-expertise/fat-the-new-health-paradigm-201509.html

    Then there’s this research that shows that increased saturated fat intake has little impact on the levels of saturated fat circulating in the bloodstream. https://news.osu.edu/study-doubling-saturated-fat-in-the-diet-does-not-increase-saturated-fat-in-blood/

    You’d think that at some point the anti-saturated fat enthusiasts would admit to themselves and to the rest of us that the original assumptions were incorrect. But no. They continue to refer to a narrow slice of the research evidence pie as justification for recommending that saturated fats be replaced with mono- and polyunsaturated fats. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/No-need-to-avoid-healthy-omega-6-fats