Is Coconut Oil 'Pure Poison'? Here's What Studies Actually Say

A Harvard professor recently went on a rant against coconut oil that's got everyone spooked. Don't fret just yet.
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If you add coconut oil to your morning smoothie, stir fry your veggies in it, or swish it around in your mouth in the name of your oral hygiene, you’re probably not thrilled by Harvard professor Dr. Karin Michels’ recent declaration that coconut oil is “pure poison.”

Thanks to its high levels of saturated fat, Michels argued, coconut oil is “one of the worst foods you can eat.” She added that coconut oil is actually more unhealthy than traditional lard. While Michels isn’t wrong about the whole saturated fat thing — coconut oil contains 12 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon — the coconut oil conversation is more nuanced than Michels’ statement is leading people to believe. Let’s take a closer look.

The Conflicting Science Around Coconut Oil

During the low-fat craze a few decades back, coconut oil was something dieters wouldn’t touch in a million years. Why would they cook their vegetables and meat in pure fat? But as doctors and nutritionists came to understand that simple carbohydrates and sugar are more likely to lead to weight gain than fat is, researchers began studying coconut oil, and people started giving it another chance.

While scientists never reached any conclusions that should have elevated coconut to its extreme superfood status, what they found wasn’t all bad — and it certainly wasn’t poison.

Coconut oil is is packed with phytochemicals that have beneficial antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties. In other words, coconut oil consumption could help prevent disease. Another study found that coconut oil raises the body’s levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol, or “good” cholesterol.

These findings are helpful, but a lot of the information floating around about coconut oil and its fat-burning properties is a bit skewed.

For example, a 2008 study out of Columbia University found that regularly consuming 100 percent medium-chain fatty acids causes the body to burn fat and leads to weight loss. This became one of the most commonly cited coconut oil studies, but here’s the thing: Coconut oil only contains 14 percent medium chain fatty acids. In other words, coconut oil is not necessarily a magical fat-burning oil. Study co-author Marie-Pierre St-Onge went on to say, “I think the data that we’ve shown with medium chain fatty acids have been extrapolated very liberally. ... I’ve never done one study on coconut oil.”

How Much Coconut Oil Should You Actually Eat?

In 2017, the American Heart Association analyzed years of research and data on the link between saturated fat and heart disease and released a report stating that there was an alarmingly strong link between the two.

Coconut oil is 82 percent saturated fat, and this word of warning caused people all over the country to swear off their coconut oil smoothies and stir-fries. And while there’s no question that downing spoonfuls of coconut oil on a daily basis is a bad idea, if you like the taste, there’s no reason to ditch it altogether.

But it’s probably best to stick to one tablespoon a day, and pay attention to what kind of coconut oil you’re consuming. One study found that virgin coconut oil doesn’t seem to have the same harmful effects as highly processed oils, so become more of a label detective the next time you go grocery shopping and stick with virgin.

At The End Of The Day, It’s All About Balance

Max Lugavere, author of the book Genius Foods, posted a Facebook video on Tuesday to help combat the hysteria surrounding Michels’ comments. He also told HuffPost that calling coconut oil poisonous is “hyperbolic, click-baity and not supported by any good evidence.”

“The most recent meta-analysis of fat consumption, cardiovascular disease and early mortality has not defined any clear association between saturated fat consumption and risk for heart disease or early death,” he said. “On the other hand, coconut oil is also not the miracle food most health gurus will make it out to be. Although, it does contain medium chain triglycerides, which can be beneficial in certain contexts. But in terms of the healthy oil that is most supported from an evidence standpoint, that trophy must go to extra-virgin olive oil, which is the hallmark of the Mediterranean dietary pattern, adherence to which is associated with a risk reduction for a broad array of conditions.”

So no, coconut oil isn’t poison. In fact, it probably has some solid health benefits. It only becomes dangerous when you consume too much of it, so as long as you moderate your consumption, feel free to keep drinking those mouth-watering pineapple-coconut oil smoothies that taste suspiciously like a piña colada.

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