Coconut oil, the darling of the natural foods world, has fallen from grace. According to a new report by the American Heart Association, the sweet, solid-at-room-temperature fat puts people at risk for cardiovascular disease and should not be used for culinary purposes. (What?!)
Back in the 1990s, coconut oil was condemned as “the devil himself in liquid form, with more poisonous artery-clogging, cholesterol-raising, heart-attack-causing saturated fat than butter, lard or beef tallow.” Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, once said that “theater popcorn ought to be the Snow White of snack foods, but it’s been turned into Godzilla by being popped in highly saturated coconut oil.” Then, coconut oil got a rebrand.
Scientists argued that coconut oil, though high in saturated fat, was redeemed by its high lauric acid content. (Lauric acid, which makes up about half of coconut oil’s fatty acid profile, is believed to raise good HDL cholesterol and lower the ratio of bad LDL cholesterol.) Vegans liked that the sweet veggie fat served as a solid (in all senses of the word) butter substitute, especially in terms of baking.
Now, the AHA holds that coconut oil’s purported HDL cholesterol-raising properties do not counterweigh the negative health effects of ingesting an oil that high in saturated fat. “Changes in HDL cholesterol caused by diet or drug treatments can no longer be directly linked to changes in cardiovascular disease (CVD) and therefore, the LDL cholesterol–raising effect should be considered on its own,” states the report. In other words, the fact that coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol levels, and thus the risk of heart disease, is reason enough to keep it out of your cupboard.
On the hunt for alternatives? A series of “carefully controlled experiments” comparing the effects of various fats found that olive oil and safflower oil have significantly less impact on LDL cholesterol levels than coconut oil. Not to mention, olive oil contains far less saturated fat than coconut oil (14 percent versus 82 percent). All hail the Mediterranean diet.
The AHA begins its hard look at coconut oil with the following statement: “A recent survey reported that 72% of the American public rated coconut oil as a ‘healthy food’ compared with 37% of nutritionists. This disconnect between lay and expert opinion can be attributed to the marketing of coconut oil in the popular press.” Looks like that figure is about to change.
On the bright side, those who choose to abstain from the stuff can use their leftover oil for hair masks and oil pulling, so there’s that.