Coconut oil health claims not all they're cracked up to be, says report

If you’ve been stirring coconut oil into your coffee or cooking with it every day, a Calgary nutritionist says you should heed a new warning by the American Heart Association.

‘Hype is ahead of the evidence,’ says Calgary dietitian, discussing American Heart Association review

Coconut oil is high in saturated fats and should be avoided, advises the American Heart Association after a review of several studies. (Shutterstock)

If you've been stirring coconut oil into your coffee or cooking with it every day, a Calgary nutritionist says you should heed a new warning by the American Heart Association (AHA).

After a review by the AHA of four major studies, it issued a presidential advisory stating saturated fats, including coconut oil, is not a healthy fat and should be avoided. 

According to the AHA, coconut oil is one of the highest in saturated fats at 82 per cent and the advisory shows it raises LDL, or "bad" cholesterol just as much as butter, beef fat and palm kernel oil, which can cause cardiovascular disease, including heart disease. 

Cheryl Strachan, a registered dietitian and owner of Sweet Spot Nutrition in Calgary, is on side with the new warning.

"I would have to agree with the heart association on this," Strachan told the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday.

"The hype is way ahead of the evidence. If you look on the internet, you'll see it's a cure for everything from Alzheimer's disease to heart disease. But the evidence to support that is just not there."

Strachan, however, says she doesn't agree that coconut oil should never be eaten.

"If you've got a good reason to use coconut oil because it makes your curry taste great, use it occasionally."

The idea, says Strachan, is to steer people away from using it as their primary fat, including slipping it into your coffee.

"You've been told about all these health benefits for which the evidence is slim to none," she says.

Unsupported science

The study calls the use of coconut oil as a healthy primary source of fat as a trend based on unsupported science. 

"I just don't know who is pushing it, but it's not scientists," said Dr. Frank Sachs, lead author the heart association's review.

The research found 72 per cent of Americans rate coconut oil as a healthy fat.

"It was never a healthy food," says Strachan.

The topic of saturated fat consumption has been studied many times, including from Cochrane collaborations, which looked at 15 studies, involving 59,000 people. It found that "cutting down on saturated fat led to a 17 per cent reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease (including heart disease and strokes), but found no effects on the risk of dying."

Strachan says like most superfood trends such as coconut oil, it comes from a "kernel of truth," such as studies that have shown small reductions in waist circumference when someone uses it compared to safflower oil.

Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow have endorsed the use of coconut oil for just about anything, from cooking to skin care to gargling with it to make her teeth whiter. (Credit: Getty Images)

Food trends like coconut oil often begin with a celebrity endorsement from people such as actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who has a website dedicated to health and wellness, or Dr. Oz, who regularly touts miracle cures on his afternoon television show.

"Then the makers of the products say 'hey we can sell this stuff,' and before you know it, it's off to the races while science is still trying to replicate those results," says Strachan.

Another nuance of the report, she says, is that it underscores the importance of steering clear of saturated fats.

"They're talking about not just reducing saturated fats but replacing it with other healthy fats — not replacing it with carbohydrates."

Strachan's recommends using olive oil (14 grams of saturated fat per 100 grams) or canola oil (seven grams) regularly, and butter (51 grams) and coconut oil (87 grams) only occasionally if it makes certain dishes taste better.