Coconut oil has long been lauded by healthy eating evangelists as an essential part of every diet. Coconut oil proponents have backed up their claims with research from well-known scientists and institutions touting coconut oil's ability to burn fat, increase heart health and improve digestion.
But now a Harvard professor has labeled coconut oil, “pure poison”. How did coconut oil fall from its perch? When Karin Michels, Ph.D., ScD, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health labeled the oil poison in a recent lecture many health food pundits were shocked to the core.
How had the research got it so wrong?
However, there is more to the coconut oil question than it is either a saintly or a sinful food. With a well-rounded picture and consumption as part of a balanced diet, coconut sits comfortably somewhere between a miracle food and a poison.
It is hard to know when the coconut oil craze began, but many point to a New York Times article in 2011 as a starting place for the beginning of its broader appeal. Times writer Melissa Clark delved into why the white fat had started appearing with regularity in the US’s biggest health food store.
Clark points out that coconut oil had been in the bad books since the mid-1990’s when the Center for Science in the Public Interest put out a study claiming that movie theatre popcorn cooked in coconut oil had as much saturated fat as six Big Macs.
Coconut Oil research needs careful reading
Clark describes that the widely reported study claiming that coconut oil raises cholesterol has actually used partially hydrogenated coconut oil, rather than the virgin coconut oil which is what sits on the grocer's shelf. Also on coconut oil’s side is the fact it contains lauric acid, a medium chain fatty acid that according to some has possible antibacterial, antimicrobial and antiviral properties, though hard data on those claims is hard to come by.
The downside of coconut oil is that it's 82 percent saturated fat, which we all know isn’t good for us. The American Heart Association recommends an average person should keep their consumption of saturated fats to less than 6 percent of their daily calories.
Which rules out most recipes using the oil that call for it to be added to literally everything from your morning coffee to your birthday cakes and everything in between. But if you are following a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet it means you can still safely enjoy about a tablespoon of coconut oil a day.
At this volume, the oil is neither a superfood nor a poison. But like most food fads moderation is always the key to return to.