We tend to think of animal-derived fats—butter, beef fat, pork lard—as dangerous, and consider vegetable-derived fats such as olive oil and canola oil perfectly healthy. But a new report from the American Heart Association reveals that coconut oil, often touted as a super food, may be the least healthy of them all. The report notes that saturated fats, a source of high cholesterol that has been linked to numerous health problems, account for 39 percent of the fat in lard and 63 percent of the fat in butter.
But coconut oil? An artery-clenching 82 percent.
Scientists have known that coconut oil was actually terrible for you for quite some time, but it never quite caught on with a public raving about the healing powers within the humble coconut. In one embarrassing 2016 analysis of how little Americans know about healthy eating, researchers found that 70 percent of those surveyed thought coconut oil was healthy. Even though they’d have been better off eating lard.
STAT traces the coconut oil craze back to Marie-Pierre St-Onge of Columbia University, who innocently published research in 2003 showing that oils containing medium-chain fatty acids can burn fat. Coconut oil has these specific fatty acids in abundance, so health food marketers jumped on the gravy (coconut) train. What they failed to realize is that St-Onge’s study involved feeding participants a specially-prepared concoction that contained 100 percent medium chain fatty acids. She didn’t even study coconut oil.
“I think the data that we’ve shown with medium chain fatty acids have been extrapolated very liberally,” the reluctant scientist behind the coconut oil craze told STAT. “I’ve never done one study on coconut oil.”
Had eager dieters asked St-Onge (or, for that matter, anyone with a scientific background) they would have likely discovered that coconut oil, for all its value as a source of medium-chain fatty acids, also happens to be a saturated fat reservoir. The American Heart Association officially recommends limiting your saturated fat intake, as numerous studies dating back to the 1950s have consistently demonstrated that these fats raise “bad” cholesterol and dramatically increase the risk of heart disease. Although one study recently cast some doubt on the dangers of saturated fat, the authors have since issue numerous corrections, clarifying their position. Suffice it to say that no scientist thinks coconut oil is good for you.
The good news is that there are plenty of fats out there less likely to kill you than coconut oil. Olive oil is among the healthiest choices—it’s rich in monounsaturated fats and studies suggest that diets high in olive oil may actually decrease the risk of heart disease. And breast cancer, apparently. Avocado oil, corn oil, soybean oil, canola and peanut oil are also good choices. Frankly, lard and butter aren’t even that bad.
Pretty much anything but coconut oil.