Who’s Behind the Claim that Coconut Oil is Pure Poison?
Chances are you’ve seen the recent headlines claiming coconut oil is “pure poison.”1,2,3 That declaration was made in a lecture posted on YouTube by Karin Michels, Ph.D., professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the Institute for Prevention and Tumor Epidemiology at the University of Freiburg in Germany.
In the lecture,4 which is given all in German and was posted on YouTube July 10, 2018, Michels proclaims that coconut oil is “one of the worst foods you can eat.”
Such statements fall right in line with advice from the American Heart Association (AHA), which last year sent out a Presidential Advisory5 to cardiologists around the world, telling them to warn their patients about the dangers of saturated fats such as butter and coconut oil.
According to the AHA, replacing these fats with polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) such as margarine and vegetable oil might cut heart disease risk by as much as 30 percent, which is about the same as statins. Overall for those who need to lower their cholesterol, the AHA recommends limiting daily saturated fat intake to 6 percent of daily calories or less.6
HPV Vaccine Advocate Calls Out Coconut Oil as ‘Pure Poison’
Michels’ statements are near-identical to those of the AHA. While it may be tempting to assume she’s a sock puppet for the processed vegetable oil industry, she does not appear to have any direct industry ties to them. Her work has been almost exclusively funded by the National Institutes of Health,7 an agency of the U.S. Department of Health, and has no readily apparent conflicts of interest.
That said, while Michels supports breastfeeding and has done a number of positive studies on vitamins and general nutrition, she veers sharply out of rational thought with her views on the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, detailed in a 2009 paper8 titled “HPV Vaccine for All,” in which she advocates the use of HPV vaccine not only in young girls and boys, but also in older men and women who test positive for certain HPV types.
It’s also quite clear she’s been against saturated fats for a long time. This is not uncommon, considering how deeply ingrained that myth has been. The clincher and most direct explanation for her views on coconut oil is her clear and direct ties to professor Frank Sacks at Harvard School of Public Health.
Sacks was in fact the lead author of that 2017 AHA Presidential Advisory against saturated fats. In a 1995 joint letter to the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, Michels and Sacks noted that:9
“The content of trans fatty acids in our foods has been causing concern because of reported adverse effects on serum lipid levels and coronary heart disease. Even a typical Western diet can have enough of these trans isomers to elevate the risk of coronary heart disease considerably …
To achieve the solid consistency of the diet margarines, manufacturers are permitted to blend the unmodified liquid oils with a small amount of ‘hardstock,’ which are naturally solid fats … thereby producing a fat richer in stearic acid, a saturated fatty acid that does not raise serum levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol.
These products have a favorable composition of fatty acids: the trans-fatty-acid content is negligible, and the saturated-fatty-acid content is low … Margarines can be produced that appeal to the consumer and do not contain either trans fatty acids or high levels of saturated fatty acids.”
Michels Promotes AHA’s Outdated Views
In other words, while Michels and Sacks correctly identify the dangers of trans fats, they incorrectly claim that margarines that contain saturated fats are a health hazard as well. Last year, when AHA warned against coconut oil and butter, a number of experts spoke out, highlighting the severe errors of the AHA’s review.
So, it really seems as though Michels is simply promoting the AHA’s views — a stance she and Sacks have held for decades. A basis for this view is that if a fat is solid at room temperature, it must clog your arteries. But that’s the kind of thinking that brought us trans fats in the first place, which has been proven to be the real poison.
The most interesting part of this is that her lecture was far too obscure to be found and picked up by English-speaking major media to the extent that it has, and this makes me wonder whether the vegetable oil industry had a hand in promoting it and turning it into “big news.”
The AHA, with its strong ties to the processed food industry, would also have a keen interest in promoting the circulation of this information.
AHA Still Defends Failed Hypothesis
Some six decades ago, the AHA declared saturated fats a danger to heart health, and last year, it reviewed the science and came to the conclusion it’s been right all along. Alas, the science used to support this outdated view is as old as the misguided stance toward saturated fats itself. As noted by American science writer Gary Taubes in his extensive rebuttal to the AHA’s advisory:10
“The history of science is littered with failed hypotheses based on selective interpretation of the evidence … Today’s Presidential Advisory … may be the most egregious example of Bing Crosby epidemiology [‘accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative’] that I’ve ever seen …
[T]hey methodically eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive until they can make the case that they are surely, clearly and unequivocally right …
[T]he AHA concludes that only four clinical trials have ever been done with sufficiently reliable methodology to allow them to assess the value of replacing SFAs with PUFAs (in practice replacing animal fats [with] vegetable oils) and concludes that this replacement will reduce heart attacks by 30 percent …
These four trials are the ones that are left after the AHA experts have systematically picked through the others and found reasons to reject all that didn’t find such a large positive effect, including a significant number that happened to suggest the opposite …
They do this for every trial but the four, including among the rejections the largest trials ever done: the Minnesota Coronary Survey, the Sydney Heart Study and, most notably, the Women’s Health Initiative, which was the single largest and most expensive clinical trial ever done.
All of these resulted in evidence that refuted the hypothesis. All are rejected from the analysis.”
Taubes, an investigative science and health journalist who has written three books on obesity and diet, points out that the AHA’s advisory document actually reveals the AHA’s longstanding prejudice, and the very method by which it reaches its conclusions.
In 2013, the AHA released a report11 claiming “the strongest possible evidence” supported the recommendation to replace saturated fat with PUFAs. Yet several meta-analyses, produced by independent researchers, concluded the evidence for restricting saturated fats was in fact weak or lacking.
The 2017 advisory document reveals how the AHA could conclude they had the “strongest possible evidence.” In short, they methodically came up with justifications to simply exclude any evidence to the contrary. All that was left — then and now — were a small number of studies that support the preconceived view of what the AHA wants the truth to be.
Studies Included in AHA’s Advisory Are Based on Outdated Science
The low-fat myth was born and grew to take hold in the 1960s and early ’70s, and it is studies from these very eras that the AHA uses as the basis for its recommendation to avoid saturated fats — and as noted by Taubes, there are less than a handful of these studies: four to be precise.
A lot of nutritional science has been published since the early ’70s, yet AHA chooses to hold on to outdated science. The reason why is anyone’s guess. One of the studies included in the AHA’s review was the Oslo Diet-Heart Study,12 published in 1970.
In this study, 412 patients who’d had a heart attack or were at high risk of heart disease were randomized into two groups: One group got a low-saturated fat, high-PUFA diet along with ongoing, long-term “instruction and supervision” while the other group ate whatever they wanted and received no nutritional counseling whatsoever. As explained by Taubes:13
“This is technically called performance bias and it’s the equivalent of doing an unblinded drug trial without a placebo. It is literally an uncontrolled trial, despite the randomization.
([A]ll the physicians involved also knew whether their patients were assigned to the intervention group or the control, which makes investigator bias all that much more likely.) We would never accept such a trial as a valid test of a drug. Why do it for diet? Well, maybe because it can be used to support our preconceptions.”
Taubes goes on to state that he was so curious about this Oslo study he bought a monograph published by the original author. In it, the author describes in more detail how he went about conducting his trial.
Interestingly, this monograph reveals that the sugar consumption in the treatment group was only about 50 grams a day — an amount Taubes estimates may be about half the per capita consumption in Norway at that time, based on extrapolated data.14
“In this trial, the variable that’s supposed to be different is the [saturated fat]/PUFA ratio, but the performance bias introduces another one. One group gets continuous counseling to eat healthy, one group doesn’t. Now how can that continuous counseling influence health status?
One way is that apparently, the group that got it decided to eat a hell of lot less sugar. This unintended consequence now gives another possible explanation for why these folks had so many fewer heart attacks.
I don’t know if this is true. The point is neither did Leren. And neither do our AHA authorities,”Taubes writes. “All of the four studies used to support the 30 percent number had significant flaws, often this very same performance bias. Reason to reject them.”
AHA Makes False Claims About Coconut Oil
What’s more, the AHA actually makes false claims when specifying coconut oil as a source of dangerous saturated fat since none of the four studies they included in their analysis involved coconut oil. This was brought up last year by Dr. Cate Shanahan,15 a family physician and author of “Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food.”
In an email to me, she pointed out that “This message from the AHA is not only false, it is dangerous.” While it’s true that most early studies on coconut oil had less than favorable results, it’s important to recognize that those studies were done using partially hydrogenated coconut oil, not unrefined virgin coconut oil.16
As always, the devil’s in the details, and hydrogenated oil is not the same as unrefined oil, even when you’re talking about something as healthy as coconut. This small but crucial detail is what led to the undeserved vilification of coconut oil in the first place. Shanahan went on to state:
“Most doctors don’t notice that the medical leadership is making unfounded claims, and the reason they don’t notice is because … articles asserting the existence of human clinical trial evidence against coconut as well as all other foods high in saturated fat, conflate the sources of saturated fat with the saturated fat itself.
Saturated fat does not actually exist in the food chain; what they’re talking about are saturated fatty acids, the components of triglyceride fat, the substance chefs call simply ‘fat.’ We often say things like ‘coconut oil is a saturated fat’ and ‘butter is a saturated fat.’ But it would be more correct to say ‘coconut oil is high in saturated fatty acids.’
Coconut oil, butter, lard, tallow and every other animal fat also contain monounsaturated and even some polyunsaturated fatty acids in addition to saturated fatty acids … The idea is foods contain blends of fatty acids in varying proportion.”
Put another way, most foods contain a blend of fatty acids, not just one. Margarine and shortening also contain saturated fatty acids, yet the AHA makes no mention of this. The harder the margarine, the more saturated fat it tends to contain, in some cases more than butter or lard.
“So, when people eat margarine and shortening, in addition to toxic trans fatty acids they’re also eating saturated fatty acids. And that means that when a study says it’s swapping out saturated fat for vegetable oils, that does not equate to swapping out butter and lard.
It could very well be the case that margarine and shortenings were among the foods that got eliminated,” Shanahan says.
“And because most doctors don’t realize that margarine and shortenings contain saturated fatty acids, they also don’t consider it particularly important to wonder whether or not studies like the four core citations mentioned in the Advisory are actually confounded by the fact that the baseline, high-saturated fat diet included a significant amount of margarines and shortenings that contain toxic trans fat.
Because if they did, then that means whatever health benefits were observed in the studies may have nothing to do with the reductions in saturated fat. It’s cutting back on trans fat that makes the difference to health.”
Cutting Saturated Fat Has Had Disastrous Consequences for Public Health
Since the 1950s, when vegetable oils began being promoted over saturated fats like butter, Americans have dutifully followed this advice, dramatically increasing consumption of vegetable oil. Soy oil, for example, has risen by 600 percent (10,000 percent from 1900) while butter, tallow and lard consumption has been halved. We’ve also dramatically increased sugar consumption.17
Alas, heart disease rates have not improved even though people have been following the AHA’s dietary recommendations. Common sense tells us if the AHA’s advice hasn’t worked in the last 65 years, it’s not likely to start working now.
As noted by Shanahan, technology that allows us to study molecular reactions is relatively recent, and certainly was not available back in the ’60s and ’70s. Modern research is just now starting to reveal what actually happens at the molecular level when you consume vegetable oil and margarine, and it’s not good.
How Vegetable Oils Turn Toxic
For example, Dr. Sanjoy Ghosh,18 a biologist at the University of British Columbia, has shown your mitochondria cannot easily use PUFAs or fuel due to the fats’ unique molecular structure.
Other researchers have shown the PUFA linoleic acid can cause cell death in addition to hindering mitochondrial function.19 PUFAs are also not readily stored in subcutaneous fat. Instead, they tend to get deposited in your liver, where they contribute to fatty liver disease,20 and in your arteries, where they contribute to atherosclerosis. Animal and human research has also found vegetable oils promote:
|Prediabetic symptoms23||Chronic pain/idiopathic pain syndromes (pain with no discernible cause)24|
|Ulcerative colitis27||Early death28|
According to Frances Sladek,29 Ph.D., a toxicologist and professor of cell biology at UC Riverside, PUFAs behave like a toxin that builds up in tissues because your body cannot easily rid itself of it.
When processed vegetable oils like sunflower oil and corn oil are heated, cancer-causing chemicals like aldehydes are also produced in quantities that are in stark contrast to the low levels produced by coconut oil, which has far less double bonds to be damaged by the heat.30
Biochemistry Versus Statistics
According to Shanahan, the idea that PUFAs are healthier than saturated fats fall flat when you enter the field of biochemistry, because it’s “biochemically implausible.”
In other words, the molecular structure of PUFA is such that it’s prone to react with oxygen, and these reactions disrupt cellular activity and cause inflammation.31 Oxidative stress and inflammation, in turn, are hallmarks not only of heart disease and heart attacks but of most chronic diseases.32,33
“Meanwhile, the folks at the AHA claim saturated fat is proinflammatory and causes arterial plaque and heart attacks — but there is no biochemically plausible explanation for their argument.
Saturated fat is very stable, and will not react with oxygen the way PUFA fat does, not until the fundamental laws of the universe are altered,” Shanahan writes.
“Our bodies do need some PUFA fat, but we need it to come from food like walnuts and salmon or gently processed (as in cold pressed, unrefined) oils like flax and artisanal grapeseed, not from vegetable oils because these are refined, bleached and deodorized, and the PUFA fats are molecularly mangled into toxins our body cannot use.”
High Cholesterol Does Not Lead to Heart Disease
Researchers have also laid waste to the notion that having high cholesterol is a primary contributor to heart disease in the first place, and this is the core premise upon which Michels and the AHA build their conclusion that coconut oil and other saturated fats are bad for you.
For example, a 2016 study34 published in The BMJ reanalyzed data from the Minnesota Coronary Experiment that took place between 1968 and 1973, after gaining access to previously unpublished data.
This was a double-blind, randomized controlled trial to test whether replacing saturated fat with vegetable oil (high in linoleic acid) would lower cholesterol levels, thus reducing heart disease and related deaths. Interestingly, while the treatment group did significantly lower their cholesterol, no mortality benefit could be found.
In fact, for each 30 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) reduction in serum cholesterol, the risk of death actually increased by 22 percent. Swapping saturated fat for vegetable oil also had no effect on atherosclerosis rates or heart attacks. As noted by the authors:
“Available evidence … shows that replacement of saturated fat in the diet with linoleic acid effectively lowers serum cholesterol but does not support the hypothesis that this translates to a lower risk of death from coronary heart disease or all causes.
Findings … add to growing evidence that incomplete publication has contributed to overestimation of the benefits of replacing saturated fat with vegetable oils …”
The AHA also does not take LDL particle number into consideration. There are large, fluffy LDL particles and small, dense ones. We didn’t have this information in the 1960s, but we sure have it now. This is yet another crucial detail, as large LDL particles have been shown to be harmless and do not raise your risk for heart disease.
And guess what? Sugar promotes harmful small, dense LDLs while saturated fats found in butter and coconut oil promotes harmless large, fluffy LDLs.35
Is Coconut Oil Healthy or Not?
The short answer is yes, organic unrefined virgin coconut oil is a healthy choice. It’s been a dietary staple for millennia, providing you with high-quality fat that is important for optimal health. Coconut oil:
- Supports thyroid function (Unlike many other oils, coconut oil does not interfere with T4 to T3 conversion, and T4 must be converted to T3 in order to create the enzymes needed to convert fats to energy)
- Normalizes insulin and leptin sensitivity
- Boosts metabolism
- Provides excellent and readily available fuel for your body in lieu of carbohydrates (which you need to avoid if you want to lose weight)
A really important benefit of coconut oil is related to the fact that it contains medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). The smaller particle size of MCTs helps them penetrate your cell membranes more easily. MCTs also do not require special enzymes, and they can be utilized more effectively by your body, thus putting less strain on your digestive system.
Most importantly, however, MCTs bypass the bile and fat storage process and go directly to your liver, where they are converted into ketones. Your liver quickly releases the ketones into your bloodstream where they are transported around your body to be used as fuel. Ketones are in fact the preferred fuel for your body, especially your heart and brain, and may be key for the prevention of heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
By being immediately converted into energy rather than being stored as fat, MCTs stimulate your body’s metabolism and help promote weight loss. So, yes, coconut oil truly is a healthy staple that belongs in everyone’s kitchen.
(For clarification, while coconut oil contains MCTs, straight MCT oil has a far higher concentration of shorter chain fats that are more efficiently converted to ketones; C8 or caprylic acid has the best ability to convert to ketones.)
Coconut Oil May Be Contraindicated if You Have Leaky Gut
For all its benefits, there is at least one instance where coconut oil is contraindicated due to its lauric acid content. In his book, “The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in ‘Healthy’ Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain,” Dr. Steven Gundry explains how coconut oil may be problematic if you have leaky gut.
As it turns out, lipopolysaccharide (LPS), an endotoxin, attaches to lauric acid, facilitating its transport past your gut lining into your blood stream. Interestingly, MCT oil does not do this. So, if you have leaky gut, or unless you’re healthy and eating a lectin-free diet, it may be best to avoid coconut oil and use MCT oil instead. Caprylic acid would be best, but neither of these will allow LPS to piggyback into your blood stream.
Flawed 60-Year-Old Research on Saturated Fat Does Not ‘Debunk’ Coconut Oil Benefits
So, to summarize, Michels is advocating decades’ old recommendations that are still upheld by the AHA. Again, she has a professional connection to Sacks, who was lead author for the AHA’s advisory on saturated fats, and in that advisory Sacks specifically targeted coconut oil — even though coconut oil was not involved in any of the studies they included in their scientific review.
When considering recommendations for heart health, it’s important to remember that heart disease is primarily caused by chronic inflammation, which is caused by excessive amounts of omega-6 (unbalanced omega-6 to omega-336), dangerous trans fats, processed vegetable oils and excessive sugar.
Saturated fats, on the other hand, have been repeatedly exonerated, with studies showing they do not contribute to heart disease and are in fact a very important source of fuel for your body.
Granted, it’s tough to admit you’ve been wrong for 65-plus years. Such an admission can mar an organization’s reputation. But in trying to turn back the clock to 1960 and promote margarine and vegetable oils over butter and coconut oil, the AHA has proven itself professionally irresponsible and obsolete, and a lecture by one of its ideological supporters cannot change that. To learn more about how coconut oil benefits your health, and why, see “Why Coconut Oil Is So Good for You.”