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Coconut oil is not a poison

Pornographic exaggerated claims against healthy food pseudoscience are healthy food pseudoscience, too

Devil is in the details about the cholesterol types, roles, and processes

In recent years, the coconut oil became increasingly popular throughout the world. I only discovered the coconut oil, along with a few other, more important discoveries (especially the oregano oil), six years ago when I was fighting the yeast overgrowth.

Coconut oil may be used for pretty much anything. Below 25 °C, it's a white wax-like substance. Above it, it melts and is transparent. It smells wonderfully exotic. Virgin coconut oil tends to be more expensive, like $15 per liter – but recently, the olive oil tends to be almost equally expensive so it's not too big a change. Refined coconut oil is stripped of some of the flavors which makes it dull, it costs below $10 per liter, and it's (even) better for cooking things because its smoking point (smoke is when dangerous substances are made by high temperatures) is higher.

Coconut oil has at least 77 applications. It may replace butter, other oils on your pan, sunscreen (the protective factor of the coconut oil is about 5 so don't expect some strong protection). It's great for the lubrication of your dry skin, hair, and even the lubrication of bikes, as I tried. It never gets sticky. Coconut oil is being research as the futuristic replacement for toothpastes, too.

You should simply try to buy coconut oil and use it instead of other oily things if you have never done so.

Coconut oil is almost entirely (95%) composed of saturated fatty acids, like lard is. The lauric acid makes a whopping 48%, the only well-known food that has so much lauric acid. The human body converts much of this acid to monolaurins, pretty nice monoglyceride. There's also the caprylic acid named after Latin goats – the same acid contained in goat milk.

The presence of the saturated fats is the reason why the coconut oil does't get rancid and doesn't oxidize too easily which is a good thing. To compare, sunflower oil is only 11% composed of saturated fats. The rest is monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats.

Now, it's been the lore that fats similar to lard – the pigs' fats – are unhealthy because they jam your cardiovascular system and cause heart attacks and similar diseases. Some of you may have noticed that Harvard's Dr Karin Michels, a rather achieved expert on public health, gave a talk in German in which she called coconut oil "pure poison". Check Google News for echoes.

Even though it's in German, the video has accumulated 1.3 million views which is not bad. The high interest shows that lots of people care about such claims. What's more irrational is that people care disproportionately about the views of one particular public health instructor: almost every person on Earth (7.5 billion), including almost all health and biology professionals (millions), has some opinion about the benefits or harms caused by fats. Clearly, the huge interest has something to do with the pornography of the strong words she has chosen.

Aside from the strong words, one may say that she basically repeats and overstates the old lore that "saturated fats in food cause heart attacks". The lore is really old, seemingly natural as the default expectation, and still influential among the bureaucrats in cardiovascular organizations. So we may read on Wikipedia:

Due to its high levels of saturated fat, the World Health Organization, the United States Department of Health and Human Services, United States Food and Drug Administration, American Heart Association, American Dietetic Association, British National Health Service, British Nutrition Foundation, and Dietitians of Canada advise that coconut oil consumption should be limited or avoided.
In fact, a stupid and dogmatic FDA rule – enforced especially in California, what a surprise – "bans" the promotion of a food as "healthy" if it contains saturated fats – even if there were evidence that the food actually is healthy. Despite these strong words by the officials, the statistics shows that 1/3 of the nutritionists and 2/3 of the public believe that the coconut oil is healthy.

Well, there's a reason why I find it unsurprising that this kind of a popularization of a bureaucratic recommendation was presented by a woman. This "kind of science" (the bureaucrats' science) isn't quite the same thing as science and the women are overrepresented in that kind of pseudoscience. Men are better at science, women are better in spreading rumors, and those two things aren't quite the same. Scientists measure and compute coefficients in linear regression; public health "experts" repeat the views of similar authorities in order to protect children and adults, with little attention to the question whether the recommendations actually work.

But such a claim about the "poison" is just ludicrous. You simply shouldn't use the term "poison" let alone "pure poison" for an essential part of the diet that has been OK and continues to be OK for whole huge regions of the world. In fact, the life expectancy of many of the countries where the coconut oil is absolutely fundamental for their diets almost matches the life expectancy of much richer Western countries. So if it is a poison, it just cannot be too effective at killing people.

The insanely exaggerated (and I would say universally incorrect) label "poison" has also been used for carbon dioxide. These are lies that certain people believe to be "allowed". But they are unquestionable lies, lies about rather important things, and it is simply wrong to say lies.

You should look at the life expectancy of the nations from which the coconut oil is mostly exported here. When I buy it, it's either from South India or (more characteristically) Sri Lanka, Indonesia, or the Philippines (Brazil and Vietnam are the other in top 6 but I've never had coconut oil from them). Some of these countries have the life expectancy at 80 years, I forgot which one. Sri Lanka has had the world's lowest rate of heart attacks (similarly these tribes), until recently – probably because they started to eat non-coconut oils. Michels says that it's because those countries don't eat meat. But that's just a lame excuse. They eat meat and many of us don't eat too much meat, either. It's very likely that many Westerners simply eat some coconut oil which is still much less than the typical coconut oil countries. Their diet is a convex linear combination somewhere in between the classical Western diet and the Indonesian diet. So they just can't be poisoned too much more than either Westerners or the Indonesians.

But there's something more technical that is wrong about her view. The problem is that view that "saturated fats in the diet generally cause cardiovascular diseases" is largely outdated and known to be incorrect. I recommend you e.g. this review of various good and bad cholesterols etc. All these claims boil down to some really serious papers, true scientific research that has updated the details, and sadly enough, the bureaucrats in the cardiovascular organizations – and even whole departments of public health which are far enough from proper biology – don't really follow the scientific research.

OK, how does it work?

Cholesterol is an essential compound that is included in the membrane of each human (or another animal's) cell. It is also crucial for the production of vitamin D and hormones in our body. We obviously couldn't live without cholesterol. Our body gets some of it from the diet but it can also produce its own. Generally, the body does a great job in compensating. When you eat lots of fat, the body produces less, when you don't eat enough fats, the body produces more. Only about 25% of the people are "hyperresponders" and for those people, the cholesterol in the blood tends to respond positively to the fats in the diet.

So for 75% of the people, the saturated fats in the diet are a non-issue. But even for the 25% of the people, the hyperresponders, the saturated fats in their diet is basically a non-issue. Why? Because there are different "kinds of cholesterol", not all of them are bad, and their correlation with the fats in the diet is more complicated.

In particular, the thing called "blood cholesterol" (which is usually measured and said to be a bad sign) isn't really pure cholesterol. What goes in the blood is a lipoprotein, namely cholesterol in a protein package. We distinguish low- and high-density lipoproteins, LDL and HDL, and those are called bad and good cholesterol, respectively. Only LDL is jamming the bloodstream. HDL actually helps to remove excess cholesterol from the blood – to the liver etc. And even not all LDL is bad. Only the small LDL particles tend to be a problem.

And the dietary fat only increases the number of relatively larger LDL particles in the blood and those are pretty much safe. So if you measure your cholesterol blood content, you will get a higher number if you eat coconut oil etc. and by the usual instinctive reactions, you could get worried. But this higher number will not translate to a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases because these two quantities, amount of LDL and risk of diseases, aren't the same. They differ because the size of the LDL particles matters, much like the difference between LDL and HDL itself, and the dietary fat only increases the "harmless [large size] type of the bad cholesterol [LDL]".

So the claim that coconut oil – and indeed, even eggs or lard – is very dangerous for cardiovascular diseases boils down to sloppy reasoning, confusion of correlation and causation, and overlooking of the numerous subtleties that imply that the apparent correlations don't really imply what the "haters of fat" say that they should imply. Instead, there are signs that the coconut oil and saturated fats are improving the cardiovascular health because they also increase the good, HDL in the blood.

I've seen sufficiently many articles in the scientific journals to be confident that the coconut oil, and especially the caprylic acid, is healthy e.g. for the dissolution of the yeast cells which I need. The caprylic acid seems to be healthy for other reasons – goats never get some kinds of cancer, it seems. But otherwise, coconut oil is just another oil or fat. Most of the differences don't matter. Most of the stuff is easily converted from one form to another. The body gets energy from sugars, fats, proteins and it is basically irrelevant which of them is consumed.

I prefer saturated facts because they don't oxidize, they don't get rancid easily, and oxidized or sticky oil is what is actually a main risk for cardiovascular diseases or even cancer. But there are advantages and disadvantages of both and most of the food is just equivalent with any other food.

So interestingly enough, Dr Karin Michels became a perfect new example of my previous blog post about healthy food – where I pointed out that non-physicists overestimate the diversity of food. Her pornographic exaggeration, "coconut oil is pure poison", is a textbook example of what I had in mind three weeks ago. Although she should be an expert, she imagines that there is some miraculously bad concentrated evil in some very particular type of food – despite the fact that the food has been a huge part of the diet of nations that have survived very well for a very long time.

I think that Michels' screaming is actually driven by her opposition to some "science about healthy food" that includes lots of fake experts – most of the authors of books about healthy food die younger (often substantially younger) than the average person ;-). So I sympathize with this apparent motivation of hers. But by countering the pseudoscience about the healthy superfood in this exaggerated way, she became a "healthy food pseudoscientist" herself. That fact can't really be invalidated by her degree or her job at a famous institution. The actual point is that the precise choice of the food doesn't really matter much and the people who make this conclusion using the obvious empirical evidence are really more sensible – and more scientifically thinking people – than she is. If you avoid substances that are genuine "pure poisons", like plutonium and arsenic ;-), and if you eat stuff that has been eaten by whole nations for decades, you may expect to be at least about as safe as those nations.

It's just plain stupid to be hysterical about coconut oil – and indeed, even about eggs and lard. Coconut oil is a great substance but don't expect "super positive miracles", either. It's just a nice type of oil. Lots of the new users of coconut oils have good reasons to agree that the oil from the coconuts, a tropical plant, are superior relatively to our mundane plants such as sunflower from the moderate climatic zone.

I only saw this amusing yet insightful video after I posted the blog post above. It's clearly more or less equivalent to my text. There are numerous people who know that basic biochemistry rather well. It's really more detailed, more technical than the superficial claims and superstitions that Ms Karen Michels' warnings seem to boil down to. This science isn't too complicated but it's not quite obvious and trivial, either. We're really facing a clash between sometimes unaffiliated people who do the proper science and those who are affiliated with some public health organizations and who think that they don't need to do any science carefully – using the political clout of their organizations seems enough for them.

By the way, there are claims that there are some big business interests between Michels' attack on the coconut oil etc. I don't know for sure because there's no canonical choice what they are and what the evidence could be. On the other hand, it seems common sense that sides are naturally biased when it comes to such questions. You may imagine that the Philippines' Coconut Association PCA (like the Principal Component Analysis) has attacked Ms Michels' claims vigorously. The competing side may do such things less transparently but I find it likely that it's happening.

Also, the APCC (Asian Pacific Coconut Community) has demanded an apology from Ms Michels, otherwise the claims will remain a proof that Harvard – an ex-employer of mine – is just a pile of šit. Those Asian and Pacific folks should be less scientific and rational than a Harvard public health professor but they are clearly more scientific and more rational. Sad. Strangely enough, very similar claims to the APCC (about Harvard's becoming a pile of šit) were made by Dr Aseem Malhotra, a U.K. cardiologist [the name is Indian, his similarity to Rajesh Koothrapali is obvious] and champion of saturated fats.

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