A Harvard academic recently claimed in a German YouTube video that coconut oil is “pure poison”. Here’s why Professor Karin Michels’ talk, titled “Coconut oil and other nutritional errors” got it all wrong.
Professor Michels said that coconut oil has a lot of saturated fat. And because saturated fat is known to raise LDL-C, coconut oil causes cardiovascular disease. In other words, she says all saturated fats are the same, and they all poison you. But she hasn’t presented any evidence for some of these leaps.
Let’s ignore for a moment that natural saturated fats may not even be unhealthy anyway. The main thing is that each type of saturated fat is made from differing combinations of fatty acids. For instance, the profile of coconut oil is predominantly lauric acid, while for butter, it is palmitic and stearic acids.
Recent research by Cambridge University also found that neither coconut oil (90% saturated fat) nor olive oil (monounsaturated) raised LDL-C, while butter (66% saturated fat) increased LDL-C significantly. The study also found that coconut oil significantly increased HDL-C (good cholesterol, which counterbalances LDL-C) in a way that was not present for olive oil or butter. This directly contradicts the American Heart Association, which said last year “Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD, and has no known offsetting favourable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.”
This study had randomisation, but it was not large (around 30 English Caucasians aged 50-75 for each fat), and there are limits to its scientific relevance. However, it is important as it both provides grounds for more research and demonstrated that for these people and at that level of consumption, a hyperbolic label of “pure poison” for coconut oil is bad science and simply false.
Since the participants in the study did not record or limit the rest of their diet, the effect of coconut oil in isolation was not measured. But it may have captured an interactive effect on diet choices caused by coconut oil, which could be significant.
Overall, if the results are replicated in larger, better controlled circumstances, then this study has very important ramifications for our understanding of how fats interact with our bodies.
But additionally, two more significant meta studies  have found that dietary saturated fats are not associated with a higher risk for cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes. These studies suggest that it is not the natural saturated fats that are the bad guys, but the trans fats used in ultra-processed foods that do the damage.
None of this changes my advice, which is that in limited quantities, these natural fats aren’t going to do you any harm, and in fact are probably beneficial. You can, however, have too much of a good thing and a varied diet is always a good idea.
References: BMJ Open Randomised trial of coconut oil, olive oil or butter on blood lipids and other cardiovascular risk factors in healthy men and women.  Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease.  Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies.