The American Heart Association (AHA) is fighting back on the claim that “butter is back” (started by Time magazine’s cover article “Eat Butter” in 2014) by stating that saturated fat really does contribute to heart disease. And they’re taking it on in a big way – slamming coconuts! Well not coconuts really….coconut oil.
So many people, including dietitians are fired up about this statement. “What do you mean, coconuts are not healthy? Not only do I drink their milk and water and use their oils, but also put coconut creams and makeup on my face. How could this be?”
As a dietitian who reads just about every single label and nutrition fact on food, I never understood what the hoopla was about the coconuts; milk, water or oil anyways. There really isn’t any nutrition in them – except polyphenols, which I will get to in a minute.
The point that AHA is making is that coconut oil raises your LDL or “little devils”, the not so good cholesterol. This tropical fat contains saturated fats, which have been shown to raise LDL levels. We know that saturated fats raise your not so good cholesterol levels more than anything else and are strongly connected to heart disease.
Even Dr. Esselstyn, the renowned cardiologist who promotes eating vegan to prevent heart disease, recommends against coconut oil – or for that matter all oil.
So is the AHA correct in what they are saying? Well maybe…
One of the important items that the AHA didn’t address in their report is how the coconut oil is refined. When it comes to coconut oil, I think this is a critical component to consider. Some of the commercial brands of coconut oil are made by bleaching and deodorizing them. They may be extracted from the skin using a chemical solvent (e.g. hexane) and sodium hydroxide may be added to extend shelf life. This type of processing often kills the beneficial antioxidants in the coconut oil that help prevent heart disease and may contribute to other diseases.
I did wonder about their hasty decision to recommend other highly refined oils instead like soy or canola oil, so decided to dig a bit. One of their panel members receives significant grant money from Ag Canada and the Canola oil council and the AHA itself just received a huge grant ($3.9 million) from the Monsanto (GMO soybean seeds) Fund to reach 120 early care centers. I’m not saying this played a part in their recommendations, but it certainly may have contributed.
What the AHA is missing is that unrefined coconut oil contains polyphenols. Polyphenols are antioxidants found in coconut and other oils (think olive!) that have positive effects on LDL cholesterol – they lower it. They also reduce inflammation, contain antimicrobial components (protect against disease-causing bacteria) and may even protect our bones. A number of studies have shown that when people consume diets high in phenolic compounds it actually reduces their risk of coronary heart disease.
The AHA admits that clinical trials showing a direct relationship between coconut oil and heart disease have not been reported. They are only basing it on the fact that it raises LDL levels.
My point has always been that most food is a combination of nutrients and ingredients that add pluses and minuses to our health. Our bodies do a good job of balancing these out. So focusing on one ingredient in a food (even though it is sky high!), may not be a valid approach until we have evidence that there are no other components that are working to balance it out.
So what do I recommend? As usual, my recommendation is to eat coconut in its whole form. This means coconut meat (the edible white part of a coconut). I read somewhere someone referring to it as “the other white meat.” Coconut meat is extremely high in fiber (excellent source!), and contains polyphenols, both which have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol. As a bonus, it’s high in iron, phosphorus, selenium and is a good source of zinc!