By Marika Sboros
Harvard epidemiology professor Karen Michels has sent social media into overdrive with her claim that coconut oil is “pure poison”. She also called it “one of the worst foods you can eat”.
Cardiologists have called her comments “unscientific” and ignorant. Others have rather rudely dismissed them as total ‘BS’. Michels is facing calls to apologise publicly and retract her claims.
Michels made the startling claims in a recent talk titled Coconut oil and other nutritional errors at the University of Freiburg in Germany. She has a second academic position as director of the university’s Institute for Prevention and Tumour Epidemiology.
A video of her talk in German on Coconut oil and other nutritional errors has gone viral on YouTube. At last count, it had close to 1,4million views.
Her Harvard colleagues are also facing calls for retraction of their study in The Lancet Public Health journal that takes special aim at low-carb diets. The authors suggest that low-carb diets can be life-threatening. They say that’s even more so if the low-carb diets contain animal foods.
In the talk, Michels derides health claims for superfoods in general and coconut oil in particular. She calls them “quatsch” (pronounced “kvatch”). That’s the German word for rubbish or nonsense. She says coconut oil is pure poison and one of the “worst” foods to eat. It is worse even than lard, she says.
Top British consultant cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra says that the only one talking absolute nonsense about coconut oil is Michels.
Michels ‘drags Harvard into disrepute’
“Her claim (about coconut oil as “poison”) is unscientific,” Malhotra says. Michels is “ignorant and uninformed”. She also drags Harvard further into disrepute by making unscientific claims, he says.
Michels needs to apologise publicly and retract her claims, Malhotra says.
Malhotra is one of the UK’s most vocal opponents of the sugar and processed food industries. He has recently accepted an invitation serve as a visiting professor of evidence-based medicine at the Bahaina School of Public Health in Brazil.
In the most recent post on his website, Malhotra says that “fat (including saturated fat) is medicine“.
Malhotra was equally scathing about an American Heart Association advisory last year. The AHA took aim at coconut oil. It claimed that replacing the oil with other fats, including canola oil, would reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Malhotra memorably tweeted: “Why coconut oil won’t kill you but listening to the AHA might.”
US cardiologist Dr Bret Scher is similarly dismissive of Michels’ claim.
‘Coconut oil a trap for Harvard scientists’
“It’s just another trap that Harvard researchers fall into over saturated fat and heart disease and now coconut oil,” Scher says.
Stanford-trained Scher is a board-certified cardiologist who spent years learning the invasive procedures and the medications used to treat heart disease. Now he wants to do everything in his power to make sure “those multi-billion dollar tools and drugs go unused”.
He was working on math with his son and realized that Harvard researchers could “learn a thing or two from him”.
“If A=B and B=C then A=C. Seems simple enough,” he says. ” But what if A sometimes leads to B, and B in some specific circumstances leads to C. Does that mean unequivocally that A=C?”
Therein lies the trap for Harvard scientists, Scher says.
Coconut oil contains lots of saturated fat – close to 90% saturated fat, as Harvard has noted. Some estimates put it slightly lower at around 82%.
But clearly, coconut oil is mostly saturated fat. Compare that with butter (about 64% saturated fat). And beef fat and even lard (both at around 40%). So, how much of a risk is that?
Click here to read: Have a heart! Will AHA or coconut oil kill you first?
In some people, saturated fat can increase LDL – so-called “bad cholesterol”, says Scher. And that in specific circumstances, elevated LDL can be associated with an increased risk of CVD, he says.
However, to conclude that coconut oil must be poison is simply “simplistic”, he says. Even 5th-grade math “recognizes nuance better than this”, Scher says.
Human body is complex
“The human body is complex. Trying to make it black and white, good and bad, poison and panacea is a misguided approach,” he says.
That is “great for grabbing headlines and awful for actually helping people better their health”.
Click here to read: Why coconut oil really IS good for hearts and minds
Scher poses – and answers – some salient questions that Michel’s comments throw up:
Can saturated fat, when included in a diet low in carbohydrates and devoid of sugar, play a role in reducing diabetes, improving cardiac risk factors, and helping people improve their overall health?
“Yes it can,” Scher says.
Can coconut oil play a role in this scenario to help people improve their health?
“Yes, it can.”
Does that sound like poison to you?
“If so, please pass the poison. I am ready for an extra dose,” Scher says.
Michels shows ‘disrespect for other cultures’
US psychiatrist and nutrition specialist Dr Ann Childers says that Michels’ comments “do not reflect well on her”. She shows “ignorance of, and disrespect for, other cultures”, Childers says.
“As with any mishandled oil, improperly processed coconut oil is a human health hazard,” she says.
However, if the oil really is poison, then people of Hawaii, Philippines and Thailand ate “poison” for generations, Childers says. The same applies to the many other traditional societies, including India, the Maldives, Mauritius and elsewhere that have always eaten it.
“Traditionally prepared coconut oil is good for health,” Childers says. In the Philippines, coconut palm is even referred to as “the tree of life”.
That makes Michels’ comment about coconut oil as poison “all the more stunning and implausible”.