Last month, Karin Michels, an epidemiologist at the Harvard TH Chan school of public health, called out coconut oil—deemed a “superfood” by the wellness industry—for being “pure poison.” Yes, this is the same coconut oil that health blogs and Gwyneth Paltrow taught us was a miracle replacement for butter, a natural teeth whitener and a great way to cook spaghetti squash. But, as it turns out, claims that coconut oil is a magical cure-all have little research to back them up—a harsh reminder that maybe we shouldn’t believe everything we read on the internet.
Michels made her comments during a lecture called “coconut oil and other nutritional errors” at the University of Freiberg, which was originally delivered in German and later translated by Business Inside Deutschland. Her presentation criticized the “superfood movement” and coconut oil specifically, claiming that the substance is “one of the worst things you can eat,” referring to it as “poisonous” multiple times throughout her lecture.
Is coconut oil bad for you?
Though experts say that consuming coconut oil is not “poisonous” in a literal sense, dietitians have been vocal about the fact that the substance is not necessarily good for you since its popularity began to rise a few years ago. In June 2017, the American Heart Association published a report advising against the consumption of coconut oil due to its high concentration of saturated fat, which is linked to high cholesterol and increased risk of heart disease. At 82% saturated fat, the study found that coconut oil surpasses both beef fat (50%) and butter (39%) by a large margin—making it clear that the substance is a far cry from being a healthier alternative.
However, there has been recent debate surrounding the link between saturated fats and heart disease. “It’s still a bit of a controversial and conflicting area of research,” says Abbey Sharp, registered dietitian and blogger at Abbey’s Kitchen. “While we might not be 100% clear of the impact of saturated fats on health, the research does seem more consistent in the finding and recommendation that replacing some of the saturated fat in our diet with unsaturated fat (think nuts, avocados and olive oil) does improve heart health.”
Overall, Sharp states that coconut oil isn’t exactly the worst food you can eat, but it’s not exactly a superfood, either. “I don’t recommend people go taking shots of the stuff or smearing it on everything thinking the weight will just melt off,” Sharp says. But like all foods high in saturated fat, coconut oil can be OK in moderation. While coconut oil can be a good vegan alternative to butter and virgin coconut oil can add a nice “mild tropical flavour” to recipes, “any oil in excess is going to contribute significant calories to your diet,” says Sharp, noting that a single tablespoon of coconut oil contains 117 calories.
If it’s not healthier, then why the hype?
Coconut oil’s rep as a cure-all health food began in 2003, when Marie-Pierre St-Onge, a professor of nutrition at Columbia University, published two papers about how fatty acids (which are found in coconut oil) can help dieting adults burn fat. However, St-Onge acknowledged that she’s “never done one study on coconut oil” and her data on the substance was “extrapolated very liberally.” What really earned coconut oil its superfood status was when health food marketers and dieting blogs started to praise the substance as a “fat-burning miracle” following St-Onge’s report. “I think everyone is always looking for some of these alleged ‘fat-burning’ foods, and the prospects of an oil having these properties due to their MCTs [a medium chain triglyceride found in coconut oil that is metabolized differently than other fats and is suggested to have mild fat-burning potential] was alluring,” Sharp says of what fuelled the oil’s popularity, specifically online.
With the popularity of the health and wellness category online and on social media, there are many influencers talking about nutrition without having the education to back up their claims. Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand GOOP, for example, is notorious for its controversial health tips that aren’t exactly backed up by fact. (It is worth noting that she will be hiring a full-time fact checker for the first time this September). “The reality is that nutrition research is very complex, especially as it pertains to saturated fat,” says Sharp. “[Unless they are] Registered Dietitians, health bloggers are just not qualified to be able to interpret research (and even identify what is considered good quality research).”
According to CBC, many health professionals are frustrated by online platforms that are “not only used to spread false information, but also allow like-minded people to reinforce each other’s unsubstantiated beliefs.” And with more young people expressing that they are primarily getting their health information online because of a “distrust” of medical professionals and an increased trust in their favourite influencers, this leads to potentially harmful—or just plain useless—claims being spread.
In a nutshell: It’s probably best to trust the experts on this one and stop spooning coconut oil into your smoothie every morning.