A jar of coconut oil on a table next to some coconutsiStock

According to one Harvard professor, coconut oil, is actually like 'pure poison'

Everything you've been told is a lie...apparently

Ashitha Nagesh

If you’ve been anywhere on the internet this week, you’ll have seen that coconut oil is apparently now “pure poison” and not a cure-all superfood.

Seems like a bit of an exaggeration – it’s not cyanide, after all.

But the warning in question came from Karin Michels, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard who delivered a speech in Freiburg, Germany, which was later uploaded to YouTube (and translated from German by Business Insider Deutschland). 

As Prof Michels says in the talk, which has now been watched more than a million times, coconut oil “is one of the worst foods you can eat”. A diet high in the white stuff could mean you're getting way too much saturated fat, which can eventually put a strain on your internal organs. 

Now we’re no strangers to being told the food we’re eating is actually killing us. Remember when we found out that bacon causes cancer? Or that red wine isn’t good for us after all? And it was only last week we found out that - despite years of being told otherwise - low-carb diets can actually shorten your life.

But there’s a big difference here – no matter how hard you looked, you were unlikely to ever find bacon on the shelves of health food shops, or to see Gwyneth Paltrow chowing down on a rasher on Goop.

Gwyneth is big on coconut oilGetty Images
Gwyneth is big on coconut oil

Of course, Prof Michels is far from the first person to point out that coconut oil = loads of saturated fat = bad.

In 2005 - 13 years ago - the World Health Organisation had already included coconut oil in its list of foods you should 'restrict your use of' if you didn't want to have a heart attack.

And as far back as the 90s, in fact, there was a health scare in the US when a study claimed that cinema popcorn was much more fatty than people realised - because it was being popped in (surprise!) coconut oil.

At the same time, however, it has been wholeheartedly marketed to us as a health food.

According to a study from the American Heart Association last year, about 72% of the US public believed coconut oil was healthy – even though, at that point, only 37% of nutritionists agreed.

A lot of this disconnect, they said, was down to clever marketing campaigns from coconut oil companies who paint it as a healthy alternative to butter and vegetable oil, as well as endorsements from celebrities like Gwyneth – who has not only advocated eating it, but also moisturising your face with it, putting it in your hair, and, erm, using it as lube (though before you grab it for that purpose, they do also point out it could have some drawbacks).

Using coconut oil as a moisturiser and as hair oil are common beauty practices in countries including India (although we’re not sure about the lube) – a fact which may have contributed to the oil’s holistic, healthy image.

Again, this is nothing new. It’s the same marketing magic that’s currently at work with ghee – the famously unhealthy Indian clarified butter that apparently Kourtney Kardashian has, inexplicably, said she drinks straight-up first thing in the morning (eugh).

It’s also happening with turmeric – a common spice used in Indian cooking for years that, now classed as a “superfood”, is available in shot, latte and even (potentially fatal) injection form.

In fact, it's now pretty standard for ingredients commonly used in Asian cultures to be imported, given a lick of paint and pushed as the west's shiny new superfood - any link to Ayurvedic medicine is a massive bonus. 

Ghee is a health food nowiStock
Ghee is a health food now

Victoria Taylor, a senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation, tells BBC Three Prof Michels is right – that despite these big marketing pushes, at the end of the day, coconut oil is the emperor (and he’s naked).

“Coconut oil is about 86% saturated fat - about one-third more saturated fat than butter,” Victoria says.

Healthier, unsaturated alternatives include rapeseed oil, vegetable oil, and good old reliable olive oil.

Ghee, however, is not a good substitute - despite its new, superfood image.

"Ghee is clarified butter so the same advice would apply as for any other saturated fat," Victoria adds. "When it comes to heart and circulatory diseases, switching from saturated to unsaturated fats is recommended to lower risk. That’s not to say you can never eat ghee, just keep it to small amounts when you do have it - but use healthier fats for everyday eating."

But not everyone is totally on board with Prof Michel's comments.

Some pointed out coconut oil has been used as an ingredient in some cultures (especially the continents Africa, Asia and South America) for centuries:

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While others said the issue was a bit more complex than just fat = bad:

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And some reckon it's a conspiracy to sell us, erm, more coconut oil:

At the end of the day, none of this should matter too much.

If you really like coconut oil - whether that's slathering it on your toast or just full-on bathing in it - then the old adage 'everything in proportion' probably rings true. Even if it's not the superfood you thought it was.