The American Heart Association has advised against using coconut oil due to its high saturated fat content and tendency to raise LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, reports NYMag.
The AHA released a report last week reviewing years of evidence linking saturated fat and heart disease. It singled out coconut oil in particular, concluding “We advise against the use of coconut oil.” It contains more saturated fat — 82% — than butter, palm oil or lard.
Coconut oil fans hit back at the report online, but consumers’ opinion is not in line with scientific opinion. Seventy-two percent of Americans consider it a healthy food, compared to just 37% of nutritionists. Its health halo stems from two studies linking medium-chain fatty acids with fat burning, but coconut oil contains just 14% medium-chain fatty acids, and the professor behind the studies has condemned the coconut industry’s liberal interpretation of her research.
Much of coconut oil’s increasing popularity can be attributed to direct-to-consumer sales of the oil itself. Products that include it as an ingredient range from potato chips fried in coconut oil to a coconut-based whipped topping for coffee.
The AHA’s advice doesn’t mean that companies will need to stop using it. Just as real butter can be a selling point for certain products, coconut oil benefits from a natural halo, as well as a delicious flavor.
As the NYMag article points out, saturated fat is fine in moderation, including when it comes from coconut oil. The AHA recommends limiting saturated fats to about 5% to 6% of total calories, or about 13 grams for a person who needs 2,000 calories a day.
However, if the message about limiting coconut oil hits a nerve with health-conscious consumers, other oils could benefit. Consumer awareness of healthy oils is on the rise, and olive oil in particular has seen a huge surge in interest in recent years. American consumption of olive oil has increased by 250% since 1990.
Aside from health concerns, the growing popularity of coconut — including coconut oil and coconut sugar — has hit ingredient costs. Coconut oil prices climbed 20% in a month at the beginning of last year as suppliers in India, Indonesia and the Philippines struggled to keep up with demand. From October 2016 to January this year, prices soared another 27%.
This isn’t the first time that coconut’s health credentials have been called into question. Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal warned that the health benefits of unprocessed coconut did not necessarily translate into healthy products, as the oil is still high in calories and saturated fat.