The Coconut Oil Marketing Spin

June 28, 2016 in Food Economics, Foodland, General, Health Claims, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

Just yesterday, I copied a smoothie recipe from an online source. One of the ingredients was coconut oil; I asked; “Why would I add this to my smoothie?” A week or two before that I was in a conversation with a young woman who is studying nutrition at a holistic health establishment and she shared with me what she was learning about the great benefits of saturated fats in the diet. It got me to thinking that maybe it’s time for yet another effort to bring to memory, past assessments of coconut oil. Also, time again to show that the preponderance of evidence has not validated this latest resurgence of coconut oil as health food.

Let me begin by saying that there was a massive commercial production of coconut oil a decade or two ago. When people learned that saturated fat contributed to cardiovascular disease, they demanded less saturated fat in their processed foods. That massive commercial production mechanism was in place for a long time. The negative evidence brought a screeching slowdown to the production of coconut oil for some time. But think about it; the coconut trees still grow. The supply still exists. Marketers who believe they can sell refrigerators to Eskimos are marshaled by the proprietors of the cheap product to try to sell it again as healthy. As I’ve written many times, whenever commercial interests are at stake, you need to be especially vigilant in getting to the bottom of the marketing and evaluating the ‘science’ that is cited. There are big commercial rewards in selling coconut oil. So the public needs to beware.

To resurrect old myths, new “science” is needed. A meta-analysis, influenced by what sources we know not, was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in March 2014, led by Rajiv Chowdhury, MD, PhD, of the University of Cambridge, and a team of international researchers. This study’s exoneration of coconut oil became popular, and subsequently, coconut oil use has continued to climb in popularity. But the established experts objected to the so-called “science”. Experts like Walter Willet, MD, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and David L. Katz MD, from Yale School of Public Health all decried the deeply flawed Chowdhury-led work and called the findings into question. Some of the findings were immediately revised, but it seems as though those promoting coconut oil, have not noticed. Or they’ve chosen to turn a blind eye.

This is part of what Willet said: "Chowdhury's analysis was deeply flawed due to omission of important studies, extraction of incorrect data from some studies, incorrect interpretation of their own findings, and failure to mention results of other, superior analyses," says Walter Willett, MD, DrPH, chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, who recommended a retraction of the study. "The analysis missed the important benefits from both omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats due to those problems, and therefore also missed the important benefits of replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats."

Coconut oil has the dubious distinction of containing the highest amount of saturated fat (91%) among all oils; that includes butter, which contains about 68 percent.

The point is that there is an extremely large evidence base showing that saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol and risk of coronary heart disease. In addition, there is a lot of evidence showing that decreasing LDL cholesterol reduces heart disease and mortality.

The American Heart Association recommends reducing saturated fat to below 5% to 6% of calories for people who will benefit from lowering LDL cholesterol and to less that 7% of calories for the rest of the population. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics advises to get no more than 7% to 10% of calories from saturated fat. If you’re trying to keep your saturated fat at or below the recommendations; note that one-tablespoon of coconut oil has 12 grams of saturated fat. Let’s just do a calculation for a 2000-calorie daily diet to illustrate what this means. One tablespoon of coconut oil in your smoothie would translate to 5.4% of your daily calories, if you need 2000 calories a day. There are saturated fats in cheese, meat, poultry, butter, olive oil, and processed foods. So you understand, if you’re planning on eating any of the other foods during the day, it’s easy to go well over the line.

Coconut oil is comprised of highly saturated fatty acids; 44% lauric acid and 16% myristic acid, which both raise cholesterol. These fatty acids raise both HDL and LDL cholesterol, but the verdict is still out on how harmful coconut oil is for specific conditions. For now, the experts advise us to use coconut oil sparingly.

So a little coconut oil will not likely be a problem. Eating some coconut is not a problem. Where the potential for a problem may exist is in adding it to foods, indiscriminately. First, think if you really need the calories (nine calories for each gram of fat)? Rather than focus on one super food (and remember, only advertisers define what is a super food); I’d advise you to focus on an improved dietary pattern. I like the way David L. Katz explains the benefits of dietary pattern. The logic of David L. Katz, MD and public health researchers and advocate at the Yale School of Public Health said: "There is no one nutrient that's responsible for all health ills, and there is no one nutrient that will make us healthy. It really is the overall dietary pattern. Dietary patterns consistently associated with good health tend to be low in saturated fat—but not because they focus on saturated fat—rather, it's because they're made up of the most nutritious foods preferentially. Those foods tend to be low in saturated fat just as they are low in salt and sugar and free of trans fat and so forth. Those foods are also minimally processed and close to nature, including vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. There is no pixie dust involved. There is no magic formula, and there is no scapegoat. Wholesome foods in sensible combinations could be our salvation." If you really want to read good advice for an improved dietary pattern, you may want to consider reading some, or the entire Katz link above.

It’s challenging to a healthy dietary pattern to start adding saturated fat (coconut oil) to your diet. Do you really need it? Or are you only being persuaded by the latest advertised resurgence of coconut oil, linked to bad science and phony health claims? Keep coconut oil where is belongs, in the whole coconut where you won’t get too much of it, and out of unwise use as a potentially dangerous supplement.