In an online video that has gone viral, a Harvard professor takes on the popular food coconut oil, calling it “pure poison.”
Is it really that bad for you?
The lecture, by Karin Michels, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was delivered in German and is called “Coconut Oil and Other Nutritional Errors.” While not everyone takes such a harsh view against coconut oil, many experts are skeptical about its rising popularity as a purported health food. The New York Times health writer Roni Rabin and food writer Sophie Egan both answered readers’ questions about the health benefits of coconut oil. Here’s what they had to say.
Q. Why is coconut oil suddenly considered healthy after being declared unhealthy for three decades?
A. Coconut oil’s image has gotten a makeover in recent years, and many natural food stores stock the product. But despite “a lot of hype about it,” said Dr. Alice H. Lichtenstein, a Tufts University professor of nutrition science and policy who is vice chair of the federal government’s dietary guidelines advisory committee, “there’s virtually no data to support the hype.”
Coconut oil is high in saturated fatty acids, and saturated fat has been linked to high cholesterol levels and heart disease. Though critics have recently raised questions about the scientific evidence for the link, longstanding dietary guidelines urge Americans to reduce saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of daily calories, or about 20 grams for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.
There is little research on the health effects in people of coconut oil, Dr. Lichtenstein said, but “there appears to be no independent benefit of consuming it.”
That said, there are different kinds of coconut oil, and virgin coconut oil, which is gently processed, may not have the same harmful effects as highly processed oils, even though the fatty acid composition is similar, said Dr. Tom Brenna, a professor of human nutrition at Cornell University. Refined, bleached and deodorized, or R.B.D., coconut oil, which has been treated with solvents and subjected to intense heat, raises cholesterol so reliably that scientists have used it as a control when running experiments on different fats. The harsh processing may destroy some of the good essential fatty acids and antioxidants, such as lauric acid, a medium chain fatty acid believed to raise good H.D.L. cholesterol.
“If you’re going to use coconut oil, make sure you get virgin oil,” Dr. Brenna said. “And, of course, everything in moderation.”
By Roni Caryn Rabin. Originally published Dec. 24, 2015
Q. Is it better to cook with coconut oil or olive oil?
A. In terms of health impacts, it is better to cook with olive oil.
Compared to a tablespoon of olive oil, a tablespoon of coconut oil contains about six times the amount of saturated fat, nearly meeting the daily limit of about 13 grams that the American Heart Association recommends. High saturated fat intake has been tied to increased levels of LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, which raises the risk of heart disease.
Furthermore, olive oil, a main component of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, contains beneficial polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.
“Between the two, olive oil is a better choice, since monounsaturated fats can have a beneficial effect on your heart when eaten in moderation and when used to replace saturated and trans fats in your diet,” said Annessa Chumbley, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the A.H.A., in an email. Earlier this year, the organization issued an advisory that firmly reiterated its guidance to consumers to replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats to help prevent heart disease. Consumers were also urged to keep in mind the bigger picture of an overall healthy eating pattern.
While some research has linked the main type of saturated fatty acid in coconut oil, lauric acid, to increased levels of HDL, or “good,” cholesterol, it still appears to raise LDL cholesterol. Yet, coconut oil may be a better choice than some other sources of saturated fat. A large, recent study found that lauric acid didn’t appear to raise heart disease risk quite as much as other types of saturated fatty acids, such as palmitic acid, which is substantial in butter.
Proponents of coconut oil point out that it is rich in phytochemicals that have healthful antioxidant properties. While it’s true that extra-virgin coconut oil, like extra-virgin olive oil, contains phytochemicals, most of the coconut oil on the market is refined and provides few of those antioxidants, said Dr. Qi Sun, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. But even if the coconut oil you are using is extra-virgin, “the saturated fat effects outweigh any beneficial effects of the antioxidants,” he said.
But of course, we don’t eat fats or cholesterol or antioxidants — we eat food. So while coconut oil certainly isn’t the magic bullet some claim, there’s no need to avoid it completely, especially if it is used instead of butter or shortening in baked goods or to impart flavor in something like a curry dish. As a general rule, though, cooking with olive oil is the better choice for overall health.
By Sophie Egan. Originally published Dec. 22, 2017
Sophie Egan is the author of the book “Devoured: How What We Eat Defines Who We Are”. Based in San Francisco, she has written about food and health for Time, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appétit, WIRED, Forbes and more.