In Defense of Coconut Oil

Last week, a recent American Heart Association Presidential Advisory report released its findings “advising against the use of coconut oil”. The press, ever eager to latch on to a story, started generating headlines such as “Coconut oil isn’t healthy. It’s never been healthy” or another classic, “American Heart Association says Coconut Oil is Bad”. The report, written by the Fellows of the American Heart Association (F.A.H.A.), concluded that “coconut oil significantly increased LDL cholesterol (the bad kind of cholesterol) compared with olive oil” and that “the disconnect between lay and expert opinion can be attributed to the marketing of coconut oil in the popular press”. Okay, so before you go and throw away all of your coconut oil, relax. Take a deep breath, coconut oil isn’t going to kill you. But on the flip side, if you are eating 16oz of coconut oil a day, I would reconsider. 

Okay- I have several complaints regarding this report. I’ll start with number one, which is that all foods can potentially be harmful when over consumed. Like all things, coconut oil should be consumed in moderation. After all, it is an oil and it does have saturated fat. I actually agree with the report’s point about coconut oil being manipulated by overenthusiastic companies. Regarding coconut oil being touted as a “superfood”, “healthy”, or “good for you”, this is nonsense, and classic over-marketing. It’s equivalent to saying, “diet pop doesn’t have sugar. Ergo, it must be healthier and I can drink more of it”. Temper the expectation of what coconut oil is. Yes, its multifunctional. You can cook with it, you can put it in coffee and smoothies, you can even use it as a facial and body moisturizer. But don’t let the marketing craze convince you that it’s a magic bullet and that you can eat unlimited amounts of it. 

Secondly, as I’ve written before, there are many types of coconut oil. There is hydrogenated coconut oil, RBD (refined, bleached, deodorized), there is virgin coconut oil (which has not been chemically altered or treated). The blanket statement put out by the American Heart Association that “we advise against the use of coconut oil” is just that. It’s an over generalization that fails to take into account the different types of coconut oil, If coconut oil has been hydrogenated, of course it’s going to have more saturated fat. In their clinical trials, are researchers testing with hydrogenated coconut oil or virgin coconut oil that has not been chemically altered to have more saturated fats? 

Third, take a step back and look at historical context. We’ve seen this overblowing of the dangers of coconut oil in the early 90’s. This New York Times article from 2011 illustrates the vilification of coconut oil after the 1994 Center for Science in the Public Interest's report that condemned coconut oil at the time. In the aftermath of the report, demand for coconut oil flatlined and it was forgotten about as an ingredient. 

Years later, scientists began backtracking on these accusations leveled at coconut oil, and in fact in 2016 Walter Willett, MD of the Harvard School of Public Health writes that “coconut is a wonderful flavor and there's no problem using coconut oil occasionally.” Now, to be fair, he also writes, "Coconut oil's special HDL-boosting (the so-called good cholesterol) effect may make it "less bad" than the high saturated fat content would indicate, but it's still probably not the best choice among the many available oils to reduce the risk of heart disease.” Again, is coconut oil a magic food? No it’s not. Is it as bad for you as the Center for Science in the Public’s Interest would have you believe? Absolutely not. 

Finally, when reading studies like this, always keep an eye out for who seeks to gain from this report being put out. I would also continue to question your assumptions. True, the AHA is an well-respected organization, and the fellows that wrote the report have dedicated their lives to science and cardiology. But who are the major benefactors of the American Heart Association, and who funded this research experiment. Do you believe that this report is looking out for my best interest, or could there be an agenda behind the report. Do any of the major donors have anything to gain from a report like this being put out? This isn’t to call the report out, or to advocate that there is some great coconut conspiracy. But a report like this needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and in fact the report creates more questions than it sought to answer. 

Frederic Zhang