Harvard professor and epidemiologist Karin Michels has singled out fan-favourite coconut oil as “one of the worst things you can eat”. During a recent lecture she gave at the University of Freiburg, where she holds a second academic position as director of the Institute for Prevention and Tumour Epidemiology, she listed many items she believed to be nutritional errors. The German-language speech has been viewed nearly a million times on YouTube.
Michels went on to call superfoods like acai and goji ineffective, as we are already sufficiently supplied with the nutrients they provide.
Most researchers agree that oil can form part of a healthy diet. Oils like linseed and olive can offer some health benefits. Coconut oil is part of a category that’s still hotly-contested in the world of nutritional science: saturated fats.
Saturated fats raise levels of LDL cholesterol, and therefore the risk of cardiovascular disease. Michel’s warning is based on the high proportion of saturated fat in coconut oil, which contains more than 80% saturated fat. That’s more than twice the amount found in lard, and 60% more than beef dripping.
However, saturated fats have also been shown to raise levels of HDL cholesterol, which decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Other foods high in saturated fat include high-fat dairy products and fatty meats. While potentially harmful in large amounts, these products can be part of a healthy diet.
The American Heart Association last year reviewed the evidence and opinion on coconut oil. While three-quarters of the US public considered coconut oil to be healthy, only 37% of nutritionists agreed.
Coconut oil is one-third more saturated fat than butter, another form of oil that’s continually flipping between praise and put-downs from the health science sphere.
Ultimately, “not healthy” isn’t the same as “poison.” Although using unsaturated fats (like vegetable and olive oil) would be a better everyday choice, coconut oil and butter aren’t fatal.