Coconut oil is 'pure poison' claims Harvard professor, but is it really true?

Coconut oil is 80 percent saturated fat, according to the AHA, more than butter or beef fat

From keeping skin, hair and gums healthy to being the go-to, all-natural makeup remover, coconut oil has a barrage of different roles in the context of India.

This controversial fat — a panacea of health and well being for many — has been put under a scanner ever since Professor Karin Michels, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health referred to as "pure poison" at a conference earlier this year.

There are other experts — Dr Leigh Erin Connealy, Founder and Director of the Center for New Medicine & Cancer Center for Healing, for instance – that beg to differ. Dr Connealy describes coconut oil among other healthy oils as a ‘vital component of any anticancer food plan’, according to a recent Hindu report.

The controversy

In her talk titled “Coconut Oil and Other Nutritional Errors”, Professor Michels called coconut oil "poison" thrice, attributing most of its ill-effects to its high saturated fat content. Objecting to its status as a widely-used superfood and a staple in health food stores worldwide, Dr Karin singled out coconut oil over others and called it "one of the worst things you can eat" and "pure poison" in those that consume it.

The video on YouTube crossed a million views as of late August, and was picked up by the German Business Insider to clarify her claims with nutritional experts.

“Coconut oil can be included in the diet, but as it is high in saturated fats, it should only be included in small amounts and as part of a healthy balanced diet,” states the British Nutrition Foundation.

Representational image. Flickr

Representational image. Flickr

The debate

Coconut oil is largely saturated fat, nearly 80 percent of it, according to the American Heart Association. This is far more saturated fat that in some of the better-known fats that have questionable reputations — 63 percent in butter and 50 percent in beef fat.

Saturated fats in the body cause levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or 'bad cholesterol' in the blood to rise, along with higher risk of heart disease, coronary heart disease, and strokes — risks that already run high in the Indian population.

In a nutritional study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it was shown that foods like cheese, milk and other high-fat dairy products that are inherently high in saturated fatty acids, don't particularly increase the risk of heart attacks or strokes.

Another extensive report in Lancet studied 135,000 people across 18 different countries that sustained on a high-fat, low-carb diet. The study reports that the high-fat group showed 23 percent lower risk of death from heart-related illnesses compared to their low-fat-consuming peers.

There isn't yet any conclusive evidence of the harm coconut oil poses to heart health; its health benefits too, are merely from empirical observations and preliminary data.

The verdict

Most international guidelines for health do not identify coconut oil as detrimental, and instead recommend enjoying it and other saturated fats, in moderation.

"The dose makes the poison" goes a popular adage in nutritional science, which very well extends to coconut oil as well.

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