Coconut Oil – On Your Body, Not in It

June 20, 2017 in Food Economics, Foodland Chronicles, Health, Health Claims, Mediterranean, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

This is one of those days that I need a little extra motivation to get to writing on the subject that I’ve chosen. It’s a little de-motivating to realize that 72 percent of the American public consider coconut oil a health food; after all the effort that nutritionists/dietitians like myself have spent for decades trying to get the word out about coconut oil. I’m not delusional; I realized that I’m a teeny, weenie pawn, compared to the giant queen agriculture/big food and their vast advertizing budget. I know that they have a humongous interest in perpetuating the myth that coconut oil is a health food. That’s not going to change easily; note: the representatives of the futures and commodities markets presently call it the coconut craze. After all these years of spreading this myth, they are still growing at just under 10% annually.

What gave me the little incentive that I have to dip my toe back into the coconut oil problem was the announcement that the American Heart Association (AHA) who published their Statement on Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease on June 15, 2017; it FINALLY included unambiguous advice on coconut oil. It seemed like it took forever for the AHA to come out with clear guidance on fats, including coconut oil; with all the numbers and all the well-controlled studies – no confusion should be left. Don’t take my word for it – read it yourself. There’s a reason that nutritionists don’t go for coconut oil.

Besides me, thousands of other dietitians/nutritionists and the AHA, the World Health Organization; the United States Food and Drug Administration (USDA); the International College of Nutrition; the United State Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS); the British Nutrition Foundation; and the Dietitians of Canada all advise that coconut oil consumption be limited or avoided due to its high levels of saturated fat. Coconut oil is shockingly high in saturated fat; 82 percent is saturated. Compare that with olive oil at 14 percent and canola at 7 percent. Even butter (63 percent saturated); beef fat (50 percent saturated) and pork lard (39 percent saturated) have a lower percentage of saturated fat than coconut oil.

Why should we care? The fact is that cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading global cause of death. The AHA review includes randomized controlled trials that lowered intake of dietary saturated fat and replaced it with polyunsaturated vegetable oil. The result? – CVD was reduced by about 30 percent. That is equivalent to the reduction achieved by statin treatment. Don’t forget that if you can reduce your CVD without the side effects of statin drugs, some of us would call that a win/win; not only do you not have to pay for the drugs; but you also don’t have to bother with the risk of the statin’s side effects. The AHA’s panel says that they concluded “strongly” that lowering intake of saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fats would lower the incidence of CVD.

One potentially confusing fact is that coconut oil not only increases LDL (bad) cholesterol; but can also increase the HDL (good) cholesterol. To help end the confusion this may bring to many people, the Harvard School of Public Health made it clear that “special HDL-boosting 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.”

To help people make optimal health decisions, the panel supported an overall healthful dietary pattern such as DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) or the Mediterranean diet and the lifestyle guidelines in the 2015 to 2020 Dietary guidelines for Americans. The point is that it’s not just a single nutrient like saturated fat; cardiovascular health is a result of the entire diet and lifestyle.

There are some really practical reasons that coconut oil came to be so popular. Among them are that it is really slow to oxidize and become rancid. When fat is already filled up with hydrogen (saturated), like coconut oil is, it can last up to six months at 75 degrees F without spoiling. That’s amazing! In addition, to that, its high smoke point (351 degrees F) means that you can cook at high temperatures without it “burning” and breaking down. Because of this attribute, the fat can be used over and over without being replaced. If you add to that the fact that it is relatively cheap to produce; you can see why there is so much impetus for using coconut oil – it has some advantages to reducing frying costs and, when coupled with its inexpensive production and long shelf life, its use facilitates a larger profit margin – but at the expense of public health.

If you’re choosing processed foods – keep your eyes open to the ingredient list. If one of the possible oils in the food is coconut or palm oil – pass on that choice.

The fact is that coconut oil never was a health food. If you’ve got a bucket load of it; try it on your hair or skin; but not in your food.