What They’re Saying
Many of you have heard the latest news from the American Heart Association (AHA) about coconut oil. If you haven’t, here it is:
According to a June 2017 report by the AHA, "Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD [cardiovascular disease], and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.” (Source: http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/early/2017/06/15/CIR.0000000000000510)
I, like many of you, was very confused when I read this. I happened to stumble upon it in a story printed by the USA Today called “Coconut Oil Is Not Healthy. It’s Never Been Healthy.” In the story, coconut oil is labeled as worse for you than lard or beef fat (which is not stated in the AHA report at all, by the way).
Don’t get me wrong, the AHA report is partially correct. Coconut oil is a saturated fat, and consuming too much saturated fat is bad for your cholesterol, which can put you at risk for cardiovascular disease. A adult male should consume no more than 2 tablespoons of coconut oil per day and an adult woman should consume no more than 1.333 tablespoons per day. These findings are nothing new; scientists have known the dangers of gratuitous saturated fat intake for quite a while. It is important, however, to note other saturated fat sources such as dairy fat (butter), lard (pork), beef tallow, palm oil, and palm kernel oil are not singled out in the report.
What is new is what the AHA is recommending: replacing coconut oil completely with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat sources. Sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat include, but are not limited to, canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, walnut oil, whole milk, olive oil, avocado oil, macadamia nut oil, grapeseed oil, hemp oil, and tea-oil Camellia.
The AHA report only cites studies that single out a few unsaturated fats; namely, olive oil, soybean oil, and corn oil. The report cites two different studies in which replacing olive oil with corn oil significantly lowered the concentrations of the total LDL cholesterol concentration in test subjects. Uh, what? I thought coconut oil was on trial here. Now olive oil is on trial too?
The AHA report also cites a British Medical Research Council study where they replaced animal fat with soybean oil in the diets of 194 men who had suffered a myocardial infarction in the past. The experimental group was given a diet consisting of animal fat being the only saturated fat in their diets. The control group of 199 men received soybean oil, but was told it was animal fat to eliminate a placebo effect. The results showed the animal fat diet lowered serum cholesterol by 16% when compared to soybean oil. It was also reported that 62 of the 199 men who consumed soybean oil instead of saturated fats suffered another cardiac event within 4 years of the study, compared to 74 of the 192 in the animal fats group.
Of course, since this result flew in the face of their recommendations on saturated fats, the AHA deemed the result of the British Medical Research Council study “statistically insignificant.”
There is another problem with using this study to make their recommendation on coconut oil: they are saying the saturated fat in animal fat can be compared to the saturated fat in coconut oil. This kind of equating may have been where USA Today got their idea of coconut oil being worse for you than beef and lard.
If you really look at this particular study, it is saying saturated animal fat can reduce cholesterol by 16%, a result that the soybean oil group was not able to achieve. So if saturated animal fat and coconut oil can be considered the same, then shouldn’t coconut oil also be shown to reduce cholesterol by 16%?
I discovered more outright promotion of soybean oil as healthy. A study known as the Finnish Mental Hospital Study showed that lowering saturated fat and replacing it with vegetable oil rich in polyunsaturated fat, primarily soybean oil, lowered CHD by 29%.
What I Found
I immediately sensed the bovine manure coming from this whole situation. Something just didn’t seem quite right about a food with so many health benefits being labeled as a health risk with “no known offsetting favorable effects”.
I decided to dig deeper.
In the AHA report, many of the studies cited did not specify what kind of saturated fat was used in comparison to the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. They often got specific on what kind of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, but they often referred to the other as “saturated fat” or “animal fat.” If coconut oil is truly on trial here, wouldn’t they cite studies that specifically used coconut oil in their experiments?
Second, I tackled the claim of “has no known offsetting favorable effects.”
In a 2015 study published in Nutricion Hospitalaria, coconut oil raises HDL levels, which is considered “good” cholesterol. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26545671#)
According to research by Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Associate Professor of Nutritional Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, coconut oil has a higher proportion of medium-chain triglycerides than most other fats or oils. Marie-Pierre St-Onge’s research goes on to show consuming medium-chain triglycerides may increase the rate of metabolism more than eating long-chain triglycerides. As we know, increased metabolism equals weight loss.
Even Frank M. Sacks, MD, Chairman of the FAHA and author of the report, says it has benefits as a moisturizer. Coconut oil is great for your skin, your hair, and nails. Sacks’ exact quote of, "You can put it on your body, but don’t put it in your body," when referring to coconut oil shows either a misunderstanding of the health necessity of saturated fats or a bias against coconut oil versus other saturated fats.
A 2016 review study not cited in the AHA report but published in the British Medical Journal found that replacing saturated fat with corn oil (a polyunsaturated fat) actually increased a person’s risk of coronary heart disease and death from all causes. (Source: http://www.bmj.com/content/353/bmj.i1246)
Coconut oil contains lauric acid, which has been shown to have antibacterial and antifungal properties (Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11403145). It can be used as a treatment for acne as well. Acne is believed to be caused by the bacteria strain Propionibacterium acnes, and the lauric acid in coconut oil kills this bacteria and moisturizes the skin. Well-moisturized skin will produce less oils that serve as breeding grounds for Propionibacterium acnes. (Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19665786)
Coconut oil is a great natural deodorant as well due to its antibacterial properties. Body odor is caused by bacteria on the skin, which coconut oil’s lauric acid can eradicate. (Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11403145)
Just when I had given up trying to refute my theory of olive oil being demonized in the AHA report, I stumbled on evidence in the report seeming to promote olive oil. 605 men with acute myocardial infarction were chosen to begin a Mediterranean diet in which animal fat was replaced with polyunsaturated vegetable oil rich in α-linolenic acid. In this group, intake of meat, butter, and cream (saturated fats) were reduced, and the intake of fish, legumes, bread, fruits and vegetables were increased (to mimic the Mediterranean diet). A control group was merely assigned a low-fat diet. The results were that cardiovascular death or nonfatal myocardial infarction totaled 8 in the Mediterranean group and 33 in the control group. Once again, this study flew in the face of their recommendations so they were quick to note that because so many other dietary changes occurred as part of the Mediterranean diet, it was impossible to determine to what extent α-linolenic acid contributed to the reduction of cardiovascular episodes.
What is even more significant than this unprecedented war on coconut oil with the promotion of corn and soybean oils is how the mainstream media has been framing the findings of the report.
In USA Today’s story, FAHA Chairman Frank Sacks is paraphrased as saying said he has no idea why people think coconut oil is healthy and that past weight loss studies may be responsible for this misconception.
The article then states a quote from Marie-Pierre St-Onge talking about her research on medium-chain triglycerides, which is used out of context to, more or less, say that her research wrong.
The USA Today then adds this paragraph after her quote: “The problem is St-Onge's research used a "designer oil" packed with 100% MCTs. Traditional coconut oil only contains about 13 to 15%. Another study she published showed smaller doses of MCTs doesn't help with weight loss in overweight adolescents.”
I don’t get it. Weight loss isn’t the issue here, cholesterol is. It seems the aim is to discredit other research on coconut oil to paint the picture of science being wrong on more than one aspect of the oil. Uncertainty creates more fear.
IFLSCIENCE.COM also took the story and ran with it, stating “Coconut Oil Is Actually As Unhealthy As Beef Fat.”
BusinessInsider.com focuses on the error of St-Onge's research as well, painting the picture that misconceptions gave coconut oil its rise to fame as being healthy. Everyone seems so focused on St-Onge’s research, but no one is willing to talk about its non-digestion properties as being part of coconut oil’s rise to popularity.
Follow The Money
For me, personally, the coincidence of specifically bashing coconut oil while promoting soybean and corn oil as healthy was too much. I began to wonder, what could the agenda be here?
Let’s start by talking about how Monsanto Corporation owns 80 percent of the world’s genetically-modified corn market, and 93 percent of the world’s genetically-modified soy market. In 2012, 88 percent of all corn crops and 94 percent of all soy crops were genetically-modified, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Both by swallowing up smaller farms and allowing their patented pollen to spread to neighboring farms, Monsanto continues to amass their corn and soy holdings.
If you owned that much corn and soy, you’d probably want people to eat more of it, right?
It is no secret Monsanto and The American Heart Association work together often. In October of 2016, it was reported that with funding provided by Monsanto Fund, the American Heart Association and Nemours Children's Health System (Nemours), launched a Healthy Food Alliance for Early Education. I’m not saying helping children to eat healthy is a bad thing, I’m saying the largest food company in the world teaming up with an association that leads the guidelines and research on how food affects your heart is risky business.
The American Heart Association stamp of approval you often see on cereal boxes and other products can be added to any product if they pay an annual fee to the AHA. Generals Mills and many other companies that are subsidiaries of Monsanto Corp., employ this technique.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) estimates that “in 2002, with over 630 products certified, the AHA received over $2 million dollars from its food certification program.”
Coconut oil should be treated like any other saturated fat; consume it in moderation. Don’t shy away from its plethora of other topical uses though. Don’t trade it for other saturated fats thinking you’re saving your heart from certain death. Don’t replace your saturated fats with unsaturated corn and soy oils. There are health risks with increasing intake of these oils while decreasing saturated fats, they’re just not being talked about in this report (Source: http://www.foodnavigator.com/Science/Low-saturated-fat-intake-associated-with-higher-stroke-mortality).
Regardless of whether this is a conspiracy to shape public opinion on coconut oil while promoting corn and soy, remember than this AHA report could have just passed us by routinely if it wasn’t for the mainstream media’s framing of the report’s findings.
Basically, don’t buy into the fear mongering. Coconut oil is just as magical as it has always been.