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Who's Behind the Claim That Coconut Oil Is Pure Poison?

Chances are you've seen the recent headlines claiming coconut oil is "pure poison."1,2,3 That declaration was made in a lecture posted on YouTube by Karin Michels, Ph.D., professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the Institute for Prevention and Tumor Epidemiology at the University of Freiburg in Germany.

In the lecture,4 which is given all in German and was posted on YouTube July 10, 2018, Michels proclaims that coconut oil is "one of the worst foods you can eat."

Such statements fall right in line with advice from the American Heart Association (AHA), which last year sent out a Presidential Advisory5 to cardiologists around the world, telling them to warn their patients about the dangers of saturated fats such as butter and coconut oil.

According to the AHA, replacing these fats with polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) such as margarine and vegetable oil might cut heart disease risk by as much as 30 percent, which is about the same as statins. Overall for those who need to lower their cholesterol, the AHA recommends limiting daily saturated fat intake to 6 percent of daily calories or less.6

HPV Vaccine Advocate Calls Out Coconut Oil as 'Pure Poison'

Michels' statements are near-identical to those of the AHA. While it may be tempting to assume she's a sock puppet for the processed vegetable oil industry, she does not appear to have any direct industry ties to them. Her work has been almost exclusively funded by the National Institutes of Health,7 an agency of the U.S. Department of Health, and has no readily apparent conflicts of interest.

That said, while Michels supports breastfeeding and has done a number of positive studies on vitamins and general nutrition, she veers sharply out of rational thought with her views on the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, detailed in a 2009 paper8 titled "HPV Vaccine for All," in which she advocates the use of HPV vaccine not only in young girls and boys, but also in older men and women who test positive for certain HPV types.

It's also quite clear she's been against saturated fats for a long time. This is not uncommon, considering how deeply ingrained that myth has been. The clincher and most direct explanation for her views on coconut oil is her clear and direct ties to professor Frank Sacks at Harvard School of Public Health.

Sacks was in fact the lead author of that 2017 AHA Presidential Advisory against saturated fats. In a 1995 joint letter to the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, Michels and Sacks noted that:9

"The content of trans fatty acids in our foods has been causing concern because of reported adverse effects on serum lipid levels and coronary heart disease. Even a typical Western diet can have enough of these trans isomers to elevate the risk of coronary heart disease considerably …

To achieve the solid consistency of the diet margarines, manufacturers are permitted to blend the unmodified liquid oils with a small amount of 'hardstock,' which are naturally solid fats … thereby producing a fat richer in stearic acid, a saturated fatty acid that does not raise serum levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol.

These products have a favorable composition of fatty acids: the trans-fatty-acid content is negligible, and the saturated-fatty-acid content is low … Margarines can be produced that appeal to the consumer and do not contain either trans fatty acids or high levels of saturated fatty acids."

Michels Promotes AHA's Outdated Views

In other words, while Michels and Sacks correctly identify the dangers of trans fats, they incorrectly claim that margarines that contain saturated fats are a health hazard as well. Last year, when AHA warned against coconut oil and butter, a number of experts spoke out, highlighting the severe errors of the AHA's review.

So, it really seems as though Michels is simply promoting the AHA's views — a stance she and Sacks have held for decades. A basis for this view is that if a fat is solid at room temperature, it must clog your arteries. But that's the kind of thinking that brought us trans fats in the first place, which has been proven to be the real poison.

The most interesting part of this is that her lecture was far too obscure to be found and picked up by English-speaking major media to the extent that it has, and this makes me wonder whether the vegetable oil industry had a hand in promoting it and turning it into "big news."

The AHA, with its strong ties to the processed food industry, would also have a keen interest in promoting the circulation of this information.

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