Spoiler alert: No.
Recently, the American Heart Association (AHA) opened an attack on coconut oil.
The basis of AHA’s criticism is the claim that “randomized controlled trials that lowered intake of dietary saturated fat and replaced it with polyunsaturated vegetable oil reduced cardiovascular disease by around 30 percent,” as stated in the advisory’s abstract.
But this message from the AHA is not only false, it is dangerous.
False Claims—None of Cited Studies Involved Coconut Oil
The advisory cites four key clinical trials in support of their position. However, these four clinical trials do not in fact compare the health effects of coconut oil to vegetable oil—instead, the trials analyze certain health effects of standard diets of the 1960s and ’70s, which included large amounts of vegetable oil and margarine, along with butter, eggs, and other foods containing natural fats. As such, few—if any—of the study participants were actually eating coconut oil.
Why then do most doctors—who certainly believe science is an evidence-based practice—accept this argument against coconut oil, despite the lack of evidence?
This is because the advisory (and other organizations like it) conceals truth by misleading the public about the source of the saturated fats used in the studies they cite.
Coconut Oil Is Not a Saturated Fat
Saturated fat is not a food, it’s a kind of fatty acid. Therefore, coconut oil cannot be labeled as such. Coconut oil is, however, high in saturated fatty acids. It also contains monounsaturated fatty acids and even some polyunsaturated fatty acids (or PUFAs). Vegetable oils also contain a blend of all three, but they contain far lower quantities of saturated fatty acids.
Why does this subtle distinction matter? Because when the AHA says that “participants cut their intake of saturated fat,” they’re making a true statement. But what they imply is that participants cut foods that naturally contain saturated fatty acids, like butter and eggs. However, what the AHA fails to disclose is that participants also removed from their diets products like margarine and shortening—foods high in saturated fatty acids indeed, but also high in toxic trans fat.
Though saturated-fat-intake data used in these trials are absent from most of the publications, historical data do show that the average person’s diet was higher in margarine and shortening than it was in butter, lard, and tallow. One must consider that most, or possibly all, of the 1970s-era studies showing a supposed benefit of adding PUFAs are actually evidencing the benefit of cutting out trans fat.
A Dangerous, Nationwide Experiment With Vegetable Oil
Anyone who seriously studies nutrition and its connection to disease comes to the same conclusion: The modern diet is making us sick. Diseases like obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer were far less common in years past, not because we’re living longer now (just consider that what we thought were age-related diseases are now showing up in kids), but because we eat very different foods—that is, processed foods.
Few foods better fit the description of a processed food than does vegetable oil. It is a main ingredient in everything from Twinkies to “healthy” salad dressings. Since the 1950s, the AHA has steadily promoted vegetable oils over saturated fat. And in that time, according to the statistics on fat consumption, we have followed their orders. Soy-oil consumption—the most common vegetable oil—increased by roughly 600 percent. Canola did not exist in the 1950s, but is today the second-most commonly consumed vegetable oil after soy. Meanwhile lard, tallow, and butter consumption have all declined by half, or more.
At the subcellular level, the effects of vegetable oil are sobering. According to Dr. Sanjoy Ghosh at the University of British Columbia, Canada, our bodies cannot easily burn PUFAs. Meaning that when we eat as much vegetable oil as we now do, some of it gets deposited in our omental fat, some in our liver (where it eventually causes fatty liver), and some in our arteries (causing atherosclerosis). And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
This field of study is new, and it’s difficult for scientists to acquire funding to pursue it—still, we do have animal research clearly showing that eating these oils causes uncontrolled weight gains (exceeding the oils’ caloric content), promotes diabetes and fatty liver, and initiates a reluctance to exercise. Plus there is ample human research suggesting that getting off these oils reduces chronic pain, migraines, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.
Our Answer Is Biochemistry, Not Statistics
Biochemistry is at play from one end of the food chain to the other: In the processing plants where the oils are refined, in the frying pans of restaurant chains and Big Food manufacturers, and eventually in our bodies where they deregulate our natural homeostasis.
Consumption of processed PUFAs leads to uncontrolled reactions between those polyunsaturated fats and oxygen in your body. One consequence of this disruption is inflammation, a factor causing arterial plaque and heart attacks.
The AHA claims that it is the saturated fat that is pro-inflammatory and as such is the cause of heart attacks, but there is no biochemically plausible explanation for their argument. Saturated fat is very stable, and will not react with oxygen the way PUFAs do.
Unfortunately, most people—including doctors—are not familiar enough with the biochemical issues at hand to confidently dismiss the rhetoric we’ve all heard about saturated fat clogging our arteries. The biochemistry involved in imputing PUFAs as the true cause is beyond the scope of this article, but not beyond the scope of a proper medical education.
Vegetable Oils Cause Oxidative Stress
One of the breakdown products of PUFA oxidation is 4-hydroxynonanol. This toxic compound forms inside vegetable-oil bottles during the refining process,1 surfaces in the oils when we cook with them,2 and once the oils are consumed, saturates every tissue inside our bodies.3The more we eat, the more our tissues experience oxidative stress, and effectively the sicker we get.
You could rightly dub oxidative stress the “great disease maker” of our time. We now know that the underlying cause of cardiovascular disease—along with just about every other chronic and degenerative disease under the sun—involves some form of oxidative stress. And because vegetable oil increases oxidative stress the more we consume it, you could rightly call canola, corn, cottonseed, soy, sunflower, safflower (and a few other oils) “death in a bottle.”
The link between PUFA consumption and oxidative stress is not esoteric science. It is a result of basic reactions between molecules. These well-documented molecular processes are as irrefutable and immutable as algebraic equations—just ask the next organic chemist you meet on the street.
Unfortunately, organic chemists do not frequently go on to medical school, so during our education we don’t learn that understanding the oxidation of PUFAs is critical to the practice of preventative and curative medicine.
Without this insight, during our years at medical school most of us do our best to completely forget the organic chemistry reactions that we worked so hard to memorize back in college, in an effort of clearing space in our brain for more relevant knowledge. The nutrition science we do learn involves nonbiochemistry-based strategies—statistical correlations, clinical trials, and physiologic mechanisms.
Since the bulk of these kinds of studies are flawed by some missing piece of biochemical knowledge, this leads to confounding by variables not controlled for, and the churning out of inconsistent and conflicting results.
That’s why one week you hear that eggs are part of a healthy breakfast, and the next week it’s back to the “eggs clog arteries” verdict. That is also why nutrition science has become a team sport, with one side flinging not-so-well-done studies at the other side. We can only settle the debate once and for all by bringing the discussion back to a place where there’s fundamental agreement—namely, basic science.
And when your head is spinning from all the conflicting headlines, news reports, and advisories, just remember: Nature doesn’t make bad fats—factories do.
- Hua, Hongying, et al. “Impact of reﬁning on the levels of 4-hydroxy-trans-alkenals, parent and oxygenated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in soybean and rapeseed oils.” Food Control 67 (2016): 82-9. Web: researchgate.net/publication/313880604_Impact_of_refining_on_the_levels_of_4-hydroxy-trans-alkenals_parent_and_oxygenated_polycyclic_aromatic_hydrocarbons_in_soybean_and_rapeseed_oils
- Wang, Lei, et al. “Kinetics of Forming Aldehydes in Frying Oils and Their Distribution in French Fries Revealed by LC–MS-Based Chemometrics.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 64.19 (2016): 3881-9. Web: pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.jafc.6b01127?journalCode=jafcau