Why a Harvard Professor Is Calling This Everyday Food “Pure Poison”

It has been called a miracle food by some, capable of preventing heart disease, boosting metabolism, and melting fat. But now a scientist from Harvard is calling it "pure poison." What gives? And what are we supposed to believe?

coconut oil poisonJose Luis Stephens/shutterstock

It’s “pure poison.”

That’s what Karin Michels, PhD, ScD, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently said about coconut oil in a lecture. Dr. Michels’ unequivocal dis of what for years had been regarded as a miracle food rocked trend followers to their terrified cores because, at the height of its popularity, coconut oil could do no wrong. “Model Miranda Kerr spoons it over salads or into cups of green tea, actress Suki Waterhouse slathers her face in it … and Gwyneth Paltrow uses it for everything,” the Financial Times reported about the coconut oil trend in 2015.

So, pure poison? Or miracle food? The answer is (spoiler alert) somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. Here’s the why and the how (as in, how the confusion arose):

Four years before trendsetters like Paltrow jumped on board, food writer Melissa Clark had given coconut oil—the solid-at-room-temperature, highly saturated fat—a significant, if lukewarm, boost in an article she wrote for the New York Times. “The last time I checked, coconut oil was supposed to be the devil himself in liquid form, with more poisonous artery-clogging, cholesterol-raising, heart-attack-causing saturated fat than butter, lard, or beef tallow,” Clark wrote, tracing the anti-coconut-oil sentiment to a 1994 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest bashing movie-theater popcorn that had been popped in “highly saturated coconut oil.”

But after Clark began seeing coconut oil on health food shelves, she did a bit of research and discovered that some scientists had begun walking back the anti-coconut-oil sentiment because the oil contains lauric acid, which may raise “good cholesterol” (while also raising bad), and because it could be used as a butter alternative for those with dairy allergies.

“Coconut oil … maybe isn’t so bad for you” is how nutritional scientist Thomas Brenna put it to Clark.

Not exactly a rave review, but the floodgates were now open, and suddenly, scientific studies from the past were being trotted out in support of coconut oil as a miracle food capable of preventing heart disease, boosting metabolism, and melting fat. And the groundswell of love for coconut oil began putting it in the medicine cabinets of many.

What no one seemed to notice, Live Science points out, was that these studies had been taken out of context or otherwise misinterpreted. For example, a 1985 study in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health cited by some relied solely on animal research, was never intended to test coconut oil in the human diet, and didn’t even involve actual coconut oil. Rather, it involved a synthetic version of one isolated component of coconut oil. And a 2003 Columbia University study that supposedly showed that coconut oil boosts metabolism didn’t actually involve coconut oil (at least not the kind you can get off the shelf). In fact, when the researchers “tested standard coconut oil versus corn oil in a study published in the journal Insights in Nutrition and Metabolism in July 2017, they found no evidence that coconut oil was better for feelings of being satiated, insulin levels, glucose levels, or resting energy expenditure,” Live Science reports.

Fast-forward to Dr. Michel’s comments, which weren’t exactly news to us, and which Live Science maintains are “a lot closer to what the scientific evidence has to say about the fat than what acolytes claim—though ‘poison’ may be a bit of stretch.” Coconut oil is on the American Heart Association’s (AHA) list of foods that are best avoided for a reason: It’s 82 percent saturated fat, which, as Live Science notes, “just isn’t that good for you.” In fact, the AHA recommends keeping saturated fats to less than 6 percent of your daily calories. And that doesn’t leave much room for coconut oil.

But it does leave some. In a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, it accounts for 120 calories, which is about one tablespoon of coconut oil. If that’s how you choose to spend your saturated fat calories, then no, coconut oil is not poison. But once you start spooning it into your tea and all over your salads, you’re probably heading down a less-than-healthy road.

Of course, using it on your skin and hair can still do wonders and won’t harm your heart health in any way, so feel free to explore all of these surprising nonfood uses for coconut oil. And did you know that coconut oil can be super helpful around your house? Just beware of this other health advice from the Internet that you shouldn’t follow.

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Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers health, fitness, yoga, and lifestyle, among other topics. An author of crime fiction, Lauren's book The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.