The Coconut Oil Debate & Clickbait “Science”

So, after reading the recent clickbait headlines by the mainstream media on the presumed deadly effects of coconut oil, I actually did what most scientists (and people concerned with their health) should do – I read the report and who the authors were funded by.  I also read a number of the underlying supporting scientific papers.  The report analyzes data from other studies to look for (assumption-based) consensus substantiated by statistical analysis. These sort of conclusion-in-search-of-support publications are rampant throughout the medical community.

After a brief introduction, the authors state “We judge the evidence to favor recommending n-6 polyunsaturated fat, that is, linoleic acid … [because of a number of things, including] … the regression of atherosclerosis in nonhuman primates by polyunsaturated but not monounsaturated fat.” They continue, “However, original high-linoleic varieties of safflower and sunflower oils are uncommon”.* The take home point here is that – before showing any data – they’ve already recommended a specific fat (linoleic acid) inside of the general class of polyunsaturated fats (PUFA).

They next proceed to data from seven handpicked studies. They compare the general classes of fats – saturated (SFA), monounsaturated (MUFA) and PUFA. They also include findings on specific SFA’s – lauric acid is of note. They then tell you they are going to exclude findings related to HDL and triglycerides – and only use LDL measurement and cardiovascular disease (CVD) as outcome measures (although they’ve already told you they like linoleic acid because, among other things, of anti-atherosclerotic properties observed in monkeys).



“Clinical trials that compared direct effects on Cardiovascular Disease of coconut oil and other dietary oils have not been reported.”

So now, instead of presenting any data that positively supports their recommendation for the linoleic acid, they begin to demonize SFA and coconut oil. Oddly, the most damaging thing they say against coconut oil is; “Clinical trials that compared direct effects on CVD of coconut oil and other dietary oils have not been reported. However, because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD, and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.” So, no one’s been known to die of a CVD because of coconut oil; and based only on how it influences LDL, you shouldn’t eat it.

By focusing only on LDL the Authors ignore the beneficial effects of coconut oil on HDL and triglycerides.

This statement against coconut oil is ridiculous. Foremost, by their own words, there is no direct linkage between coconut oil and CVD. They advise against coconut oil solely because it raises LDL. They forget to mention that all fats will increase your LDL (when added in on top of your current diet). By this standard, the report should mention that the best way to reduce your total cholesterol is to reduce your wholesale fat intake. Moreover, by focusing only on LDL (their own criteria) they can ignore effects on HDL and triglycerides. The irony here is that also included in the report is the fact the lauric acid (which is a medium-chain SFA) raises HDL and lowers triglyceride levels more than any PUFA. Both of these changes are known to be anti-atherosclerotic in humans, which is beneficial to vein and artery health. Evidently, these beneficial effects are only valid in monkeys fed PUFA, not humans eating coconut oil (which is ~ 50% lauric acid).

Finally, they reach their supporting data for (supposedly) linoleic acid – two studies. Unfortunately, the main study they rely upon has been repeatedly called into question in the literature because it “is neither a pure test of a Mediterranean-style diet nor a pure test of extra-virgin olive oil and nuts” (as quoted in an accompanying editorial).  People were fed variants of the Mediterranean diet with calories from e.g., meat and dairy replaced with olive oil or nuts (note that neither study involved linoleic acid as a pure nutrient). The subject groups exhibited lower CVD incident relative to a control group, however, the “control group did not achieve a low fat intake” (as it was meant to in study design). So, the study begs the question of whether the lower incidence of CVD was due to the type of fats in olive oil and nuts, or simply the overall reduction of fat intake of the subject groups. Lastly, neither coconut oil or linoleic acid (as a pure compound) entered into this study.

So, in summary, in this report, the authors have no data directly supporting the value of linoleic acid. Instead they compare the general classes of fatty acids under chosen criteria where the unsaturated fats win. To further this point they demonize SFA’s as a class, both horizontally (all oils having large amounts of SFA’s) and vertically (all molecular species of SFA’s regardless of their chemical makeup and/or demonstrated value).

This clickbait science is irresponsible…

In all honesty, this type of report pisses me off. Essentially, the authors have no respect for science, or the scientific method – if they did, they would realize that “science is not an argument” (my quote). It is just there for us to try to understand. Instead the authors create an augment (which, by the way they don’t win) by pitting one thing versus another. What pisses me off the most is that they have taken what should be pure chemistry (exact compounds) and generalized it (to classes of compounds (i.e., mixtures)). They then insult every chemist even further by broadening the classes even further to oils (even bigger mixtures). Then they grade everything by their own subjective rules to arrive at conclusions (note that if they had instead correlated based on HDL and/or triglycerides instead of LDL, coconut oil would be the best ). This sort of logic – the continual dilution of specifics, but then trying to tighten up the entire scenario by imposing subjective limiting specifications – never holds true in the long run. It’s not science or the scientific method.

In the end, take the news flashes with a grain of salt and note, according to these authors’ criteria, if you don’t have high-content PUFA/linoleic acid oils in your pantry, lard (at ~70% PUFA) is almost as good.

We suggest that if you think you’re having problems because of your fat intake, just don’t eat as much regardless of the source.  Base your decisions on what oils and how much based on your personal due diligence and your medical situation.

* Oils from “high-linoleic” varieties of these these plants have 66-75 % linoleic acid. Such high-yield varieties are the intellectual property of e.g., BASF under their proprietary Clearfield/Beyond seed/herbicide system. Other natural foods that yield high levels of linoleic acid are nuts, such as walnuts. One of the authors has had self-described “significant” conflict of interest due to research grant support from, and serving as an advisor for, The California Walnut Commission (amongst other food-support organizations).

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