Is Coconut Oil Really "Pure Poison?"

Here’s our registered dietician’s take on that viral video you’re seeing everywhere.

August 24, 2018


Photo by: Magone/iStock


Karin Michels, an adjunct professor at Harvard, recently gave a lecture in which she made a pretty bold statement — she called coconut oil "pure poison" and "one of the worst foods you can eat." (You can watch the lecture here, but you’ll need to understand German!) This ignited a firestorm of fans and critics who simply had to chime into the debate. Here’s what we think:

First of all, what is coconut oil?

Coconut oil has had a cult-like following for years. Since gaining popularity in the early the 2000s, many diet enthusiasts have experimented with cooking and baking with the stuff. Coconut oil is made from extracting the fat from the inner kernel or "meat" of the coconut. Unlike most plant-based oils, this fat is predominantly saturated, making it solid at room temperature. And since it can "behave" like butter (also solid at room temperature) it became popular as a vegan replacement for butter in recipes — and in foods that might otherwise have had trans fats. It all sounds pretty great, so it didn’t take long before folks were sauteing with it, stirring it into coffee and literally bathing in it. Several fad diets tout coconut oil as the holy grail of healthy living and over time coconut oil has earned a shiny health halo.

So is it good or bad?

Like all oils, coconut oil contains about 120 calories of pure fat per tablespoon — a concentrated dose of calories that calls for moderation no matter what. But in the case of this oil specifically, you also have to remember the saturated fat; coconut oil is higher in saturated fat than butter or lard. Despite a few studies to the contrary, it is well substantiated by decades of scientific research that saturated fats can have a negative impact on heart health by increasing the "bad" LDL cholesterol levels.

The USDA recommends that you cap your intake of saturated fat at no more than 10% of your daily calories. A slightly more conservative recommendation from the American Heart Association lowers that limit to no more than 7%. That’s about 15 to 20 grams of saturated fat per day. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 12 grams of saturated fat — you do the math.

So what about this Harvard professor? Truthfully, her lecture revealed nothing new — she just used a very strong word. Calling coconut oil "poison" might be taking it a bit far, but from a heart-health standpoint, there are good reasons to watch and limit how much coconut oil you are consuming.

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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