BAD RAP: Coconut oil, once hailed, is now being warned against as raising bad cholesterol. Picture: Pixels
BAD RAP: Coconut oil, once hailed, is now being warned against as raising bad cholesterol. Picture: Pixels
BAD RAP: Coconut oil, once hailed, is now being warned against as raising bad cholesterol. Picture: Pixels
BAD RAP: Coconut oil, once hailed, is now being warned against as raising bad cholesterol. Picture: Pixels
Once hailed as a “superfood” and known as a dietary and skin darling, now it seems the health benefits of coconut oil have been flipped upside down.

This after the American Heart Association (AHA) released a jaw-dropping report, warning of the dangers of using the oil as it “raised bad cholesterol” in the same way as other foods high in saturated fats like butter and beef.

The reaction to the report caused a social media frenzy, with some dubbing the raging debate on whether coconut oil was healthy or not, “CoconutGate”.

The controversial “presidential advisory” report has been widely criticised as peddling misinformation and confusion by health experts, as well as being fraught with conflict of interest as some members of the writing panel received grants from giant pharmaceutical companies who produced medications to lower cholesterol.

Locally, dietitian and exercise physiologist at the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Gabriel Eksteen, agreed with the AHA recommendation against regular use of the saturated oil.

“The direct effect of coconut oil on heart health and the many other health benefits claimed have not been studied. Coconut oil is predominantly made up of saturated fats and the limited research available confirms that it increases blood LDL cholesterol,” he said.

“Any oil can deteriorate with long storage and when exposed to high temperatures, resulting in an increase in harmful compounds in the oil. Coconut oil is somewhat more stable, but the impact this may have during regular home cooking and storage, and thereby on human health, has not been properly evaluated,” said Eksteen.

AHA had “thoroughly” reviewed the available evidence to reach its conclusion that substituting saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat reduced LDL cholesterol and the risk of heart disease, he said.

“Our diet should be rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fish, and low fat dairy. Red meat, processed meats, added sugars, refined starchy foods and salt should be limited.”

Others don’t quite agree, citing that the AHA’s main conclusions were based on only four trials, with the latest one done in 1971 - making them “ancient” by the standards of nutritional science. The latest panel of researchers was also criticised as it included members whose research was funded by the California Walnut Commission and Canola Oil Council.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD), said to be caused by saturated fats among others, is the leading global cause of death, accounting for 17.3million deaths per year, in South Africa alone, 210 people die of heart disease a day.

Since 1961, the American Heart Association (AHA) has recommended reduction in dietary saturated fat to reduce the risk of CVD.

The premise of the report is that decreasing saturated fat (often referred to as “bad fat”) was based on “well-established” effects that saturated fats raised low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol - which can build up in blood vessels and lead to clots and heart attacks.

The report said coconut oil is 82% saturated fat.

The AHA advised that consumers ditch cooking with coconut oil, in favour of polyunsaturated fats found in plant and animal foods like salmon, nut and seed oils.

“Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD, and has no known offsetting favourable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil,” the report noted.

Dr Frank Sacks, researcher at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and lead author of the advisory said: “Replacing saturated with polyunsaturated has a two-fold effect because a fat that causes heart disease is lowered and a fat that prevents heart disease is increased.”

Dr. Tania Dempsey, an expert in chronic disease, wrote in the Observer, “It has repeatedly been shown in clinical studies that 50% of patients who have died from a sudden heart attack had normal LDL. On top of that, lowering LDL only reduced the risk of a heart attack by 25%. So there must be more to the story.”

She continued, “LDL is by no means ‘bad’, but can be made bad by the composition of your diet.

“The key to understanding LDL is to understand particle sizes. LDL can be big and fluffy or small and sticky. The big/fluffy LDL is less likely to stick to the walls of blood vessels, and the small/sticky LDL is more likely to cause a build-up of plaque.

“We know that carbohydrates - especially when combined with fats - can cause an increase in small/sticky LDL particles.”