Health benefits of 'superfood', coconut oil are being called into question

Like countless other Indians, my grandmother introduced me to the wonders of coconut oil when I was a child. On days that she deemed my scalp needed nourishment, and for the times I fell and bruised myself playing, coconut oil was the panacea. Growing up, I was told that coconut oil was not only good for topical application, it also had various health benefits when consumed in moderation. Eventually, coconut oil made its way into my food.

Which is why, when a recent study by Karin Michels, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, termed coconut oil “pure poison”, it caused bemusement and even outrage among many. Michels gave a lecture at the University of Freiburg in Germany titled “Coconut Oil and Other Nutritional Errors”, which held the high level of saturated fat in the “superfood” responsible for cardiovascular diseases.

In a YouTube video that has now been viewed over a million times, Michels highlights that the high proportion of saturated fat in coconut oil — more than 80 per cent — is known to increase levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL). LDL is known as “bad” cholesterol as high LDL levels can lead to a build-up of cholesterol in the arteries, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

In the West, where the fad for coconut oil has not yet run out of steam, Michels was criticised for her comments by nutritionists, cardiologists and regular consumers of coconut oil. In India, the reaction was, expectedly, more extreme.

Outrage and hurt sentiment seem to come naturally to Indians. BNS Murthy, horticulture commissioner in the ministry of agriculture, wrote a letter to the dean of the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health saying, “I hope that you will take corrective measures by retracting the statement and come out clean by accepting the circumstances that compelled her for the negative statements against the revered crop of billions.”

Shikha Sharma, nutritionist and founder of Delhi-based NutriHealth, a platform that provides personalised health plans, disagrees with Michels’ study. “Coconut oil has been part of the Indian daily diet for more than 1,000 years,” she says. While Sharma acknowledges its high saturated fat content, she emphasises that coconut oil has not been directly linked to heart disease. “It is the inflammatory response of the body that leads to heart disease,” says Sharma. She, in fact, goes on to highlight the benefits of coconut oil for sportspersons: “Sportspersons need energy and not fat, which is why they shift to a protein- and oil-based diet. This is especially true of marathon runners.” Also, MCT, or medium-chain triglyceride oil, is extracted from coconut oil and is used in the treatment of children suffering from epilepsy.

However, not everyone in India is in agreement when it comes to coconut oil. Aparna Jaswal, cardiologist at Fortis Escorts Heart Institute & Research Centre in New Delhi, insists that coconut oil should not be used for cooking. She describes the ability of coconut oil to promote high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol, in the body as being overstated. “Coconut oil contains less than 10 per cent of mono and polyunsaturated fat — the kind of fat that is actually healthy for the body,” says Jaswal. She adds that Indians are prone to coronary diseases, owing to the food we eat and our sedentary lifestyle, and coconut oil is simply not the miracle oil we need, at least not in our food.

The key issue here may be what use the oil is put to. Coconut oil is packed with nutritional properties along with antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. It is a good moisturiser and can be used to treat scars and burns. In Kerala, for instance, a land famous for its abundant coconut trees, the fruit is used in its entirety; its water, milk and oil, all are indeed “revered”, as Murthy put it, for their health benefits. And even my own North Indian household, with not a coconut in sight, venerated its medicinal and nutritional benefits. The blue bottle of Parachute coconut oil, ubiquitous over decades and across the country, made its way into countless 

Indian households like the gods themselves, unquestioningly and in quantities.

“In Kerala, we use coconut oil only for preparing the tadka. Unlike North Indian dishes, we use oil in moderate quantities,” says Sudha Asokan, an Ayurveda practitioner in Delhi. She is clear that any oil consumed in excess will prove to be harmful in the long run and that coconut oil is no exception. Its villainy owes to its high saturated content but the unique structural makeup of saturated fats in coconut oil makes it easy to digest — when consumed in moderation.

A study conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research on the disease burden from 1990 to 2016 shows Kerala topping the list for cardiovascular diseases and the number of deaths due to this disease having increased over the years. 

N N Khanna, cardiologist at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals in Delhi, says these studies should not be looked at in isolation as Kerala also has the highest number of diabetes patients, which is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. “The awareness in Kerala about such diseases is much more than in any part of India, which is why these cases are reported and treated more,” he says.

Khanna suggests consuming coconut oil in raw form or virgin coconut oil in small to moderate quantities. “The presence of MCT allows coconut oil to be metabolised faster than other oils. 

Of course, if you use coconut oil to fry puris, it will be harmful, just like any other oil. But, coconut oil is not a poison by any standard.”

Michels’ study may have stirred up yet another superfoods debate, and there’s no definitive conclusion in sight — not at the moment at least.