Is coconut oil 'pure poison'? Here's what studies actually say

If you add coconut oil to your morning smoothie, stir fry your veggies in it, or swish it around in your mouth in the name of your oral hygiene, you’re probably not thrilled by Harvard professor Dr. Karin Michels’ recent declaration that coconut oil is “pure poison.”

Thanks to its high levels of saturated fat, Michels argued, coconut oil is “one of the worst foods you can eat.” She added that coconut oil is actually more unhealthy than traditional lard. While Michels isn’t wrong about the whole saturated fat thing — coconut oil contains 12 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon — the coconut oil conversation is more nuanced than Michels’ statement is leading people to believe. Let’s take a closer look.

The Conflicting Science Around Coconut Oil

During the low-fat craze a few decades back, coconut oil was something dieters wouldn’t touch in a million years. Why would they cook their vegetables and meat in pure fat? But as doctors and nutritionists came to understand that simple carbohydrates and sugar are more likely to lead to weight gain than fat is, researchers began studying coconut oil, and people started giving it another chance.

While scientists never reached any conclusions that should have elevated coconut to its extreme superfood status, what they found wasn’t all bad — and it certainly wasn’t poison.

Coconut oil is is packed with phytochemicals that have beneficial antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties. In other words, coconut oil consumption could help prevent disease. Another study found that coconut oil raises the body’s levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol, or “good” cholesterol.  

RELATED: Coconut oil can be used around the home 

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Unusual uses for coconut oil
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Unusual uses for coconut oil

1. Butter alternative 

It can be used on toast, in a pan or when making cookies! Coconut oil is a healthier alternative to butter.

2. Oil alternative

Coconut oil is a healthier alternative when cooking. Instead of using olive oil, coconut oil can reap the same benefits.  

3. Makeup remover 

At night, simply dab a cotton ball with coconut oil to remove excess makeup. Make sure to wash your face after. 

4. Moisturizer 

Dab coconut oil on rough, dry or chapped skin. 

5. Overnight conditioner 

Pour some oil into hands and rub it through hair before sleeping. Wash it out in the morning. 

6. Soother for split ends

After showering, sprinkle coconut oil on the ends of your hair for smoother and shinier results. 

7. Teeth whitener 

Coconut oil is a great and natural ingredient for oil pulling. Swish in your mouth for 7-10 minutes before brushing for pearly whites! 

8. Cheekbone highlighter

Dab coconut oil on your finger and apply lightly to skin. 

9. Shaving lotion 

Coconut oil helps reduce inflammation and the possibility of ingrown hairs. 

10. Callus remover

Simply sprinkle some coconut oil on your callus and file away! After the callus is gone, coconut oil can reduce the spot's redness and dryness.

11. Energy supplement 

One spoonful of coconut oil can give you a great start to your day. Add a teaspoon of coconut oil to oatmeal, coffee and smoothies (or even by itself) for a boost of energy and a natural ant-inflamatory. 

12. Removes sticky labels 

When you're having a hard time removing barcode labels from glass cups, plastic toys or other items, just add coconut oil! 

13. Makes cleaning pots and pans a breeze 

Having trouble getting rid of grimy and greasy pots and pans? A splash of coconut oil will make your after dinner routine so much easier 

14. Sanitizes wooden cutting boards

When scrubbing cutting boards, drizzle some coconut oil to sanitize and condition them. Then, simply scrub with soap and water. 

14. Cleans leather

16. Remove crayons from walls

Simply dab on a paper towel and cloth and scrub! It will look like it never happened. 

17. Remove gum from hair.

Condition the hair with coconut oil -- it acts as a natural detangler! 

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These findings are helpful, but a lot of the information floating around about coconut oil and its fat-burning properties is a bit skewed.

For example, a 2008 study out of Columbia University found that regularly consuming 100 percent medium-chain fatty acids causes the body to burn fat and leads to weight loss. This became one of the most commonly cited coconut oil studies, but here’s the thing: Coconut oil only contains 14 percent medium chain fatty acids. In other words, coconut oil is not necessarily a magical fat-burning oil. Study co-author Marie-Pierre St-Onge went on to say, “I think the data that we’ve shown with medium chain fatty acids have been extrapolated very liberally. ... I’ve never done one study on coconut oil.”

How Much Coconut Oil Should You Actually Eat?

In 2017, the American Heart Association analyzed years of research and data on the link between saturated fat and heart disease and released a report stating that there was an alarmingly strong link between the two.

Coconut oil is 82 percent saturated fat, and this word of warning caused people all over the country to swear off their coconut oil smoothies and stir-fries. And while there’s no question that downing spoonfuls of coconut oil on a daily basis is a bad idea, if you like the taste, there’s no reason to ditch it altogether.

RELATED: These foods can be poisonous 

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10 Common Foods That Can Be Poisonous
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10 Common Foods That Can Be Poisonous

Check out this slideshow to learn what common edible contains cyanide and which bean could kill you instantly.

Elderberry

While it is a beautiful plant, don't be fooled! This plant, often used in medicinal syrups, sodas and liquors can cause a severely upset stomach if consumed incorrectly.

What to look for:

The flowers are the part of the plant used to make all things elderberry. The stems and various other parts of the plant, when consumed, can cause severe stomach issues. Steer clear!

Mushrooms

Ever heard of toadstools? They are part of the mushroom family, but some toadstools are known for being incredibly poisonous.

What to Look for:

Always stick to mushrooms you can buy at a supermarket.

They should have a flat cap with no bumps, and the gills within the mushroom should either be grey or have a pink hue.

Puffer Fish

If you've ever been fishing or crabbing in the inter-coastal waterways or in the ocean, you may have seen or caught a puffer fish (also known as a blowfish). The eyes and internal organs of puffer fish are highly toxic.

Fun fact: Fugu (the liver) is officially illegal for the Emperor of Japan to eat.

What to look for:

Not much. We recommend steering clear of puffer fish unless they are prepared by a professional chef trained in fugu (yes, such a thing exists). Training to acquire a license in fugu preparation takes two to three years, and only 30% of trainees pass the test.

Castor Oil

Castor oil comes from the castor bean plant. One single castor bean can drop a human to his or her knees. Four can potentially kill a horse. Castor beans are loaded with ricin, a poison. Many field workers who gather the beans today tend to experience negative side effects.

What to look for:

Carefully handled and prepared castor oil. Castor beans undergo strict safety guidelines which must be met in order to place this product on shelves.

Almonds

This commonly devoured seed, often mistaken for a nut, packs a little more punch than we knew. Bitter almonds, when served raw, are full of cyanide. In order to remove the toxins, they must go through a specialized heat treatment. For some countries, such as New Zealand, the risk is far too great, and the delectable treat is off shelves and illegal.

What to look for:

Bitter almonds that have been processed and heated.

Cherries

Often enjoyed raw, in pies or in other popular treats, cherries are another hazardous item on our list. Be wary and cautious of their seeds, which contain hydrogen cyanide.

What to look for:

Cherry seeds that are crushed, chewed or even slightly injured can be a potential threat. Please consume wisely and remember, don't chew on the seeds.

Apples

An apple a day will keep the doctor away. That is, unless you eat too many of the popular fruit's seeds. These seeds also carry cyanide, but it's speculated that the seeds within one apple are not enough to become dangerous.

What to look for:

Be aware of your apple consumption, and be sure to pluck the seeds as you go. Apples are a delicious and healthy snack when prepared properly.

Rhubarb

When we think rhubarb, pies and pudding come to mind. Underrated and easy to grow at home, this plant can be great. However, its leaves contain a double-threat: corrosive acid and an unknown, unidentified poison.

What to look for:

Step away from the leaves and look to the stalk. Make sure they are washed very carefully, and never use frost-bitten stalks.

Tomatoes

Known for their many beneficiary properties, such as Lycopene, tomatoes also contain the poison Glycoalkaloid in their leaves. Glycoalkaloid is known to upset your stomach and cause severe cramping and nervousness.

What to look for:

Avoid the leaves and stems of the tomato plant. They may be used to enhance flavor when preparing dishes, but must be removed before consuming.

Fun fact: Tomatoes, considered a fruit in much of the world, were declared a vegetable by the United States in 1893 for tax purposes.

Potatoes

Potatoes are another vegetable with poisonous stems and leaves. Potato poisoning rarely occurs, but most fatalities have been attributed to eating green potatoes (full of Glycoalkaloid) or drinking potato leaf tea.

What to look for:

Simply put, enjoy the wonderful and tasty crop for what it is (and not for its stem or leaves). Go crazy with baked potatoes, french fries or mashed potatoes, just leave anything green out of it!

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But it’s probably best to stick to one tablespoon a day, and pay attention to what kind of coconut oil you’re consuming. One study found that virgin coconut oil doesn’t seem to have the same harmful effects as highly processed oils, so become more of a label detective the next time you go grocery shopping and stick with virgin.

At The End Of The Day, It’s All About Balance

Max Lugavere, author of the book Genius Foods, posted a Facebook video on Tuesday to help combat the hysteria surrounding Michels’ comments. He also told HuffPost that calling coconut oil poisonous is “hyperbolic, click-baity and not supported by any good evidence.”

“The most recent meta-analysis of fat consumption, cardiovascular disease and early mortality has not defined any clear association between saturated fat consumption and risk for heart disease or early death,” he said. “On the other hand, coconut oil is also not the miracle food most health gurus will make it out to be. Although, it does contain medium chain triglycerides, which can be beneficial in certain contexts. But in terms of the healthy oil that is most supported from an evidence standpoint, that trophy must go to extra-virgin olive oil, which is the hallmark of the Mediterranean dietary pattern, adherence to which is associated with a risk reduction for a broad array of conditions.”

RELATED: Nutritious swaps to try 

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Nutritious swaps to try in the kitchen
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Nutritious swaps to try in the kitchen
1) Swap squash or zucchini for noodles

"Do you ever make smart swaps? You know, instead of whole milk you use almond milk or in baking, you sometimes substitute granulated sugar for applesauce? Well, lately I've been on the smart swap kick myself. Lately, I've been making a lot of noodles made from zucchini, or squash!" - Dana, This Silly Girl's Kitchen

"I am sharing a recipe for one of my favorite zucchini noodle dishes, Zucchini Noodle Primavera! I thought since Primavera was already a dish loaded with veggies, why not just take it to the next level! And you know what, it's even better than the original if I do say so myself! I was inspired to start trying out some smart swaps after I saw these SmartMade meals in the freezer section at various grocery stores." - Dana, This Silly Girl's Kitchen

2) Prepare cauliflower rice
"I do best with smart eating when I take small steps like no pasta during the week...I make pasta and rice for the kiddos but I always have zucchini noodles or cauliflower rice in the fridge for myself.That step alone makes a huge difference for me and it’s not hard to do." - Karen, Seasonal Cravings
"I don't always have time to make meals like this during the week since I am often playing chauffeur to my kids.  On those nights, I look to SmartMade to make eating smart easy. SmartMade is a new line of frozen meals that uses smart swaps like this one to create delicious, balanced dinners that can be ready in minutes. I love having meals like this in the freezer that I can cook quickly on busy weeknights. These are meals made like I cook." - Karen, Seasonal Cravings
3) Make a weekly dinner menu with healthy swaps

"There are two ways I know of to combat the surprise need to order take-out mid-week: 1) make a weekly dinner menu and stick with it, or 2) have a few fast, easy, and nutritious meals up your sleeve for those crazy-busy nights that inevitably come up. And it’s a total bonus if those meals simulate your favorite take-out!" - Faith, An Edible Mosaic

"I made a few smart swaps that help make this meal as nutritious as it is delicious. Here I used quinoa instead of rice because even though they have about the same calories per serving, quinoa has more protein and fiber, as well as more vitamins and minerals like B vitamins and iron than rice. I think quinoa tastes just as good as rice, so that was an easy swap for me to make." - Faith, An Edible Mosaic
4) Substitute quinoa in fried rice
"Part of being dietitians means we are always looking for creative swaps for our favorite foods that may not be quite as nutritious.  So when our friends at SmartMade contacted us about creating our own healthy recipe using a "smart swap," we jumped at the chance to turn a traditional fried (white) rice into a yummy vegetable quinoa delight." - Wendy, Food Heaven Made Easy
"You'll be happy to know that this vegetable quinoa fried rice is even more flavorful than its traditional counterpart. Top that off with the fact that this dish actually nutritious -- really nutritious -- and you would be missing out big time if you do not to give this goodie a chance." - Wendy, Food Heaven Made Easy
5) Reach for the spaghetti squash
"Chicken parm is usually served on/with pasta but I've swapped that for some yummy, healthy spaghetti squash. How cool is this vegetable?! So crazy that its fibers are in long strands like spaghetti!...If you're trying to eat a low-carb diet or consume less calories then make this swap in your next spaghetti recipe." - Melanie, Garnish & Glaze
"Maybe your life is super busy and hectic and you need a healthy meal fast. SmartMade is a new line of frozen meals that would be a great choice. It's your favorite dishes but made with better ingredients to offer a balanced and delicious meal. They are meals that are inspired by the same healthy cooking techniques you already use like grilling chicken and roasting vegetables." - Melanie, Garnish & Glaze
6) Create custom bowls with healthy ingredients
"This magical bulgogi is far from authentic, but I love how the ground chicken absorbs the flavor of the soy-based sauce, which is equal parts sweet, savory and tangy. Combined with the coconut cauliflower rice, crunchy fresh veggies, and a dollop of gochujang or sambal oelek for heat, these bowls are a satisfying, nutrient-packed feast that you’ll want to keep in regular rotation." - Serena, Domesticate Me
"I know this bowl seems to have a lot going on, but it’s actually pretty easy to pull off. I’m talking 30 minutes from start to finish if you’re committed. As always, feel free to customize your bowls based on what you have on hand. Ground chicken could just as easily be 93% lean ground turkey, pork, lean beef, or firm tofu. Sub shredded or grated coconut for flaked. Throw in whatever fresh veggies happen to be hanging out in your fridge." - Serena, Domesticate Me
7) Go Greek
"I love the way SmartMade meals swap things out for more nutritious alternatives. So I SWAPPED out the heavy cream for a cup and a half of Greek yogurt in this recipe! While the swap made a change to the overall texture of the dish, I am happy to report it maintained its full flavor." - Jennifer, Tatertots & Jello
"Recently we found SmartMade meals at the store. They're fun frozen meals that feature smart ingredients. For instance, white pasta is swapped out for whole wheat and white bean puree is used instead of heavy cream." - Jennifer, Tatertots & Jello
8) Turn to cashew milk for heaps of flavor
"When we were asked by SmartMade to come up with a Smart Swap (i.e. an idea to replace a common ingredient with a more nutritious one,), we decided to create this Quick Cashew Chickpea Curry recipe, which is DELICIOUS, but also completely vegan. This recipe has no butter or ghee, and uses cashew milk rather than the normal heavy cream or yogurt for its distinctive flavor and creamy texture." - Sarah, The Woks of Life
"This Quick Cashew Chickpea Curry is everything. It’s spicy, filling, and has a hint of coconut. Thick, ever so slightly sweet cashew milk gives the dish that distinctive creaminess that you’re looking for in a great curry, without the dairy. Oh, and the leftovers are awesome, making for great weeknight dinners or daytime lunches." - Sarah, The Woks of Life
9) Forget about meat when you have mushrooms

"You can make this mushroom Bolognese recipe for a casual weeknight meal, or for when you’re watching your wallet or your waistline, without having to compromise any flavor." - Phoebe, Feed Me Phoebe

"This mirepoix technique is great for meat sauces. But it’s even more essential for a flavorful vegetarian Bolognese, which cooks up in a fifth of the time... You can easily use this smart swap for topping gluten-free pasta. But I love it ladled over a creamy bowl of polenta, which is made rich and buttery by using only full fat coconut milk." - Phoebe, Feed Me Phoebe 

10) Mash cauliflower as a hearty potato replacement
"One of my favorite things to do lately has been to swap cauliflower mash for mashed potatoes whenever possible. Don't get me wrong, I love potatoes but cauliflower has significantly less calories than potatoes. So naturally, a cauliflower mash will definitely give you more bang for your buck if you’re looking to cut down on your calorie intake."
- Amanda, The Skinny Fork
"I love that this recipe (like a lot of my others) is made with real ingredients that anyone can pronounce. That's always how I like to eat! Clean and lean. If you're like me and you enjoy smart swap style meals, then you'll love SmartMade too!" - Amanda, The Skinny Fork
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So no, coconut oil isn’t poison. In fact, it probably has some solid health benefits. It only becomes dangerous when you consume too much of it, so as long as you moderate your consumption, feel free to keep drinking those mouth-watering pineapple-coconut oil smoothies that taste suspiciously like a piña colada.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.

 

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