Coconut oil health claims are again being challenged as another legal complaint was filed, this time on Jan. 24 in California. Testone et al v. Barlean’s Organic Oils says the company's coconut oil contains high levels of saturated fat and is not a healthy option for consumers, Food Navigator reported.
"Barlean’s misleadingly markets its coconut oil products as inherently healthy, and a healthy alternative to butter and various cooking oils, despite that coconut oil is actually inherently unhealthy [on the grounds that it is very high in saturated fat, which increases LDL cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease], and a less healthy option to these alternatives," the lawsuit states. Barlean's told Food Navigator it was still reviewing the complaint and does not comment on pending litigation.
The complaint against Barlean's joins several other recent lawsuits raising questions about coconut oil's health credentials. Similar cases have been filed against Costco regarding its Kirkland organic coconut oil — the company settled in 2017 for $775,000 — as well as against Nature's Way, Nutiva and Carrington Farms, among others.
This latest legal challenge involving coconut oil takes issue with Barlean's labeling claims. According to Food Navigator, the company calls its products "raw whole food," "harvested at the peak of flavor and nutrition," "cholesterol-free," the "ultimate cooking oil for health-conscious gourmets" and a "healthy alternative to butter." It also says a "natural source of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), coconut oil boosts the metabolism, supports the heart and immune system and provides quick energy." The plaintiffs claim none of these labeling claims is supported by scientific evidence.
Bruce Silverglade, a principal at OFW Law in Washington, D.C., whose practice includes resolution of competitive disputes involving food labeling and advertising claims, told Food Navigator that there may be legitimate issues.
"The defendants in this case would be wise to settle quickly. Many of their claims are over the top," he said.
Research has often supported the view that coconut oil isn't a particularly healthy food choice. In 2017, the American Heart Association recommended consumers not use it because of its high saturated fat content and tendency to raise LDL, or so-called "bad" cholesterol. Coconut oil contains 82% saturated fat, which is higher than butter, palm oil or lard. Sales of culinary coconut oil dropped nearly 26% in 2017 compared to 38.8% growth in 2015, according to SPINS data.
However, Food Navigator noted a 2010 study found "no significant evidence" linking dietary saturated fat to increased risk of coronary heart disease. And a 2015 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that current evidence "does not clearly support" guidelines encouraging consumption of high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low levels of total saturated fats.
Coconut oil is used for stir-frying, baking, for fried foods such as potato chips and for whipped topping used to flavor coffee. Olive, sunflower, canola or other oils could be healthier and potentially lower-calorie choices.
The Costco coconut oil lawsuit eventually arrived at a class-action settlement in which consumers who bought Kirkland organic coconut oil could apply for reimbursement from a $775,000 fund established by the company. The fund also covered plaintiffs' court costs, attorneys' fees and the costs of administering the settlement. As part of the settlement, Costco also agreed to remove the terms "healthy" and "healthful" from its coconut oil products labels.
This latest coconut oil labeling complaint will have to work its way through the legal system. It's possible Barlean's could complete the discovery process and defend its labeling claims in court, but it may eventually settle as Costco and others have done. It may be less expensive — in terms of both money and reputation — for companies facing label claims litigation to gracefully withdraw and change the wording than fight and end up losing the case.