Why nobody can agree whether or not coconut oil is poisonous

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These days it seems pretty dangerous to say with any certainty whether or not something may be good or bad for you. Foods and drinks fall out favour so fast that healthy eating can seem like an almost impossible task. Maybe we’d all better off with bacon sandwiches and burgers - at least with them you know exactly where you stand.

All too often, rising superstars of the clean eating game find themselves under attack from every angle. No sooner does a food become popular, then there are teams of eager scientists waiting to pull it apart. This leave everyone confused about everything and almost every “healthy alternative” mired in controversy. In recent months, we’ve seen one of the biggest names yet get dragged through the gutter.

In July, a Harvard professor launched into a tirade against coconut oil. Despite being for decades lumped in with many other cooking oils as a fatty health hazard, coconut oil has subsequently staged something of a comeback. In America, it’s estimated that the oil generates over $200 million in sales every year. This made it all the more surprising when Professor Karin Michels decided to refer to it as “pure poison” in a speech at the University of Freiburg.

This was the second seriously slanderous assault on the substance this year. As part of its updated guidelines, the American Heart Association warned against the excessive consumption of saturated fats and explicitly placed coconut oil in the crosshairs. All this seems extra strange for a food that’s become the darling of the blogosphere in recent years.

The two attacks have met with stern resistance. This week, a leading British cardiologist called Michels’ claims, “entirely false”, and suggested that her comments were bringing the entire reputation of the prestigious Harvard University Science Department into “disrepute”. For what is essentially less delicious butter, coconut oil seems to have caused quite a stir.

The argument centres over the issue of saturated fats. For years, the common consensus has been that saturated fats are a key cause of cardiovascular disease and other health conditions and should therefore be consumed in extreme moderation. Typical guidelines suggest that they should make up about 20g for a 2000 calorie-a-day diet. Cooking with coconut oil, which is basically all saturated fat, obviously adds to that total.

But there is an increasing schism in the scientific community over whether or not saturated fats are the demons that we’ve made them out to be. Dr Aseem Malhotra, the man who demanded that Michels retract her claims, is a passionate advocate for saturated fats and believes that we have been unfairly critical of the food group since the 1970s. He is not alone. Over the past few years, several prominent dieticians have argued for a reexamination of saturated fat.

Thanks to the connotations of saturated fat, coconut oil promises to be a contentious topic for a while yet. It is made up of an estimated 82% saturated fat, as opposed to butter’s 63% ad lard’s 39%. With figures like that, it’s easy to see why some people are a bit suspicious. However, it’s equally true that our understanding of food and drink is evolving all the time. We’ve come a long way since the 70s, and our ability to predict how different nutrients may affect us has dramatically progressed. At the very least, it’s a debate worth having.

Whichever side of the argument you fall, one thing is clear: we’d all be better off if scientists can reach a consensus sooner rather than later. If it turns out that coconut oil really is slowly killing us, it seems sensible to find out as soon as possible.