During a 50-minute lecture held in Germany last month, which has since gone viral on YouTube, a Harvard professor bashed one of millennials’ favorite superfoods — coconut oil. The scientist argued that coconut oil, which is chock-full of saturated fats, is “one of the worst foods you can eat” and even went as far as calling it “pure poison”.
Karin Michels is the director of the Institute for Prevention and Tumor Epidemiology at the University of Freiburg and a professor of the department of epidemiology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. For her lecture, the researcher spoke at length about the many health myths surrounding coconut oil and while it’s basically not healthy at all.
Last year, the American Heart Association (AHA) updated its dietary guidelines, recommending people that they stay away from saturated fats, such as those found abundantly in coconut oil.
It is true that coconut oil has some intriguing qualities that, at first glance, make it seem like it’s a healthy food. The oil is rich in lauric acid, a fatty acid that the body processes slightly differently than it does other saturated fats. Lauric acid is what helps coconut oil raise beneficial HDL cholesterol more than other fats do. However, there’s no evidence suggesting coconut oil lowers the risk of heart disease — on the contrary, it may contribute to heart disease given its saturated fat content.
In a 2016 review of 21 studies, most of which examined the effects of coconut oil or coconut products on cholesterol levels, the authors concluded that coconut oil raised total, HDL, and LDL cholesterol levels more than unsaturated fats (i.e. olive oil), although not as much as butter did.
According to Michels, coconut oil is more dangerous than lard because it almost exclusively contains saturated fatty acids, the kind that can clog the coronary arteries.
The proponents of coconut oil often point to the healthy lifestyles of indigenous populations in India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Polynesia, whose diets include large amounts of coconut. Their diet, however, also contains more fish, fruits, and vegetables than the typical American diet, which would make any direct comparison unfair.
It’s true that coconut oil is rich in medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are the most healthy type of saturated fat. However, most of the commercially available oil has a 13 to 14 percent MCT content, which means you’d have to eat 150 grams, or 10 tablespoons, of coconut oil a day to reap the benefits. At this portion, any benefits could easily be negated by the adverse effects of ingesting so much saturated fat. Each tablespoon of coconut oil provides 130 calories.
In contrast, there are many studies showing that unsaturated fat, especially olive oil, may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Indulging in a bit of coconut oil, of course, won’t kill you. It’s just that you have to be aware that most health claims about this food have been greatly exaggerated.
EDIT: The assertion that coconut oil can be likened to ‘poison’ or that it represents ‘one of the worst foods you can eat’ belongs to Karin Michels. ZME Science presented this as an individual opinion. We recommend following the scientific consensus and the recommendation of national and international public health organizations.