The news rocketed around the internet last week under headlines declaring “Coconut oil is not a magical health food after all,” “Coconut oil ‘as unhealthy as beef fat and butter,’” and “Careful: Coconut oil may not be safe.”

Behind the furor was an innocuous American Heart Association report reviewing the health harms of saturated fats and urging Americans to eat less of them. But the finding that seemed to come as the biggest surprise to the public was the inclusion of coconut oil on the list of the most egregiously unhealthy fats. Coconut oil has more saturated fat than butter or lard, the report pointed out, and studies have shown it increases unhealthy LDL cholesterol.

But those facts have been known for years — and still, a survey conducted last year by the polling firm Morning Consult found, 7 out of every 10 Americans consider coconut oil a healthy food.

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So how did that healthy reputation come to be? The answer traces back in part to the work of Marie-Pierre St-Onge, a professor of nutrition at Columbia University. Two papers published by St-Onge’s group in 2003 showed that eating and cooking with medium chain fatty acids — a type of molecule found in coconut oil — can help dieting adults burn fat. Study participants ate specially prepared meals rich in medium chain fatty acids for four weeks. MRI and metabolic data showed that medium chain fatty acids reduced their overall fat levels and helped dieters burn energy.

But, St-Onge points out, coconut oil is only 14 percent medium chain fatty acids. Participants in her studies received 100 percent medium chain fatty acids, a custom-made concoction.

Still, in subsequent years that research has been seized upon by health food marketers. Dieting blogs praise coconut oil as a “fat-burning diet miracle” and dietary supplements containing the oil advertise their supposed weight-loss benefits on the label.

“I think the data that we’ve shown with medium chain fatty acids have been extrapolated very liberally,” said St-Onge. “I’ve never done one study on coconut oil.”

Cholesterol conflict

Another aura of healthfulness around the oil is in boosting “good” cholesterol. Some studies have found that people who eat more coconut in general have higher healthy HDL cholesterol.

“Fat in the diet, whether it’s saturated or unsaturated, tends to nudge HDL levels up, but coconut oil seems to be especially potent at doing so,” Harvard nutrition professor Dr. Walter C. Willett wrote in a blog post on the subject.

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But, Willett noted, alternatives such as olive oil and soybean oil, which are mainly unsaturated fat, both lower LDL and increase HDL — making them a clearly healthier choice for cholesterol overall.

For those wondering what to cook with, St-Onge suggests healthier options supported by the scientific literature.

“The state of the science right now supports mono-unsaturated fats and poly-unsaturated fats — vegetable oil, olive oil, corn oil — as being healthy options,” she said.

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  • What do you know about mono-unsaturated fat AKA Lipoid acid? How rich is coconut oil with that. Compare it with Avocado and Butter. That says it all.
    Remember: “The size (molecule)that matter” : Roheim&Astzalos 1995

    • Wow. Taubes absolutely destroys the AHA’s conclusion. AHA is still exclusively citing 1960’s studies and ignoring all evidence contrary to their beliefs. How are we supposed to take them seriously?

  • I have heard the use of coconut oil long time ago. I used for my hair. It is good to make my hair softer. However, I did not like the smell. It feel uncomfortable to get closer to people. Lately I learned from TV coconut is good for health and start drinking the coconut milk. I is not as bad as the oil. I liked it. Recommend for my family and they like it!! The milk!

    Now I am thinking to buy coconut oil for cooking. I am not sure how it taste. I am still wondering! I want to eat healthy. But not sure about the smell, if I get bad smell in my food like the one on my hair.

    I wish I get some information to cut the smell that bother me a lot than the benefit.

    Thank you author for putting out the information I am very interested.
    Send more!

    GOOD LUCK.

  • Virgin voconut oil is good for cooking because it is heat stable than any other oils. Who wants to eat food with denatured oil. Plus, the coconut meat is the most organic as it is protected by a thick husk, hence the coconut milkshake is clean harvest.

  • Since the HDL story has now been debunked so should all the stories about how certain oils “beneficially” raise HDL. Lowering LDL cholesterol is still the main goal.

  • Michael Pollen says it best – “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

    It’s oil from a coconut. It’s healthy. It has a very high smoke point so it’s amazing for searing off meats. Coconut oil isn’t going to give you heart disease.

    I love this quote, it really shows how much bull**** is involved in nutrition science.

    “The state of the science right now supports mono-unsaturated fats and poly-unsaturated fats — vegetable oil, olive oil, corn oil — as being healthy options”

    If what’s healthy changes as often as “the state of science”, it’s a good thing that I’m just listening to Michael Pollen instead.

    • Right On, Dan! Love Michael Pollan!! They can keep their heat and chemically processed “vegetable oils” – especially their GMO corn and soybean oil. No thanks!

  • Now that people are trying to eat healthier, you trash coconut oil! I would never eat vegetable oil or soybean oil, this is a conspiracy to line your stupid pockets with cash! The AHA has killed more people then not!!

    • Hey Cathy. I appreciate your sincerity. And it’s great, as you say, that people are trying to make healthy choices in what they eat. So what criteria do you have for who to believe in making these choices? Who do you recommend and why do you recommend them? Obviously you have strong feelings that this article is misleading at best and even an evil conspiracy by American cardiologists at worst. Help me understand.

  • More hysteria about the “science” of nutrition. There is as much reason to have faith in the pronouncements of diet experts as there is psychiatrists and astrologists.

    • I’ve been consuming gobs of meat and cooking with coconut oil and splashing Kerrygold all over my dinners for the past 6 months and im down 30lbs and my lab work is better than my previous draw and my doctor says I’m in good health, no changes.

      So there’s that

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