Coconut oil is “pure poison”, warned Harvard professor Karin Michels in her talk on nutritional errors at the University of Freiburg in Germany, and sparked off a heated debate on whether coconut oil should be eaten at all.
Coconut oil is packed with artery-clogging saturated fat, which raises the risk of heart attack and stroke by raising total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and lowering heart-protecting HDL (good) cholesterol, which stimulates the removal of cholesterol from cells to the liver, from where it is secreted in bile and excreted by the body.
There is 82 gm saturated fat in 100 gm of coconut oil, compared to 62 gm in 100 gm of butter and 39 gm in lard (animal fat). In comparison, healthier oils like mustard have 12 gm of saturated fat, Canola has 7 gm, sunflower 12 gm, and safflower (kardi) as 8 gm.
Even the nutritionally shunned red meats have less fat saturated fat. There is 9 gm of saturated fat in 100 gm of mutton and 14 gm of saturated fat in 100 gm pan-fried bacon. Of course, you’re more likely to eat 100 gm of mutton than drink 100 gm of coconut oil, but it’s good to be aware of the vegetable oil’s heart-damaging potential given the erroneous belief that food from plant sources is healthier than dairy and meats.
Adding coconut oil to weight-loss diets became a trend following a 2010 study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition that said medium chain triglyceride oils such as palm and coconut oils were good for weight management and having 18–24 g/day (1.5 to 2 tablespoons) did not raise risk of heart disease. Fad diets such as Ketogenic diet (very low-carb) and Paleo or caveman diet (lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds like hunter-gatherer ancestors) mainstreamed the findings by recommending cold-pressed coconut oil for its alleged anti-inflammatory weight-loss benefits.
These findings were rubbished last year by the American Heart Association, which warned against using coconut oil as it raised LDL (bad) cholesterol levels as much as red meats and animal fat. “A recent systematic review found seven controlled trials that compared coconut oil with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils. Coconut oil raised LDL (bad) cholesterol in all seven of these trials, significantly in six of them. The seven trials did not find a difference in raising LDL cholesterol between coconut oil and other oils high in saturated fat such as butter, beef fat or palm oil. Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD (cardiovascular disease), and has no known offsetting favourable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil,” said the advisory, published in the journal Circulation.
Dietary fat is categorised into bad saturated and good unsaturated fat. While saturated fat raises total cholesterol levels and lowers HDL (good) cholesterol levels, unsaturated fats found in tree nuts, fish and seeds, lower total cholesterol, LDL (or bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels, reduce inflammation and prevent heart disease.
Lowering saturated fat intake and replacing it with polyunsaturated vegetable oils such as canola, mustard, soybean, sunflower and safflower oils lowers heart disease risk by 30%, similar to the reduction achieved by using statin drugs for treatment, said the AHA advisory.
By the rule of thumb, oils that solidify at room temperature (around 20 degrees C) are unhealthy. In the absence of scientific evidence confirming the health benefits of coconut oil, it’s best to limit its use for flavouring food, if at all. For cooking, replacing coconut oil with healthy oils that do less damage is the healthy choice.
Fat’s in the fire: amount of saturated fat in different oils
Oil Saturated fat/ 100 gm
Coconut oil 82
Palm kernel oil 82
Palm oil 49
Lard (pork) 39
Olive oil 14
Sunflower oil 13
Corn oil 13
Mustard oil 12
Canola oil 7