I remember exactly when and where I first learned that coconut oil was about to take over the world. I was on spring break freshman year of college and was sitting at my parent’s kitchen table skimming The New York Times. I came across an article titled, “Once a Villain, Coconut Oil Charms the Health Food World,” which cautiously observed that not only was coconut oil delicious for cooking, it was also becoming a health-food community darling. Annual sales growth at Whole Foods was, “in the high double digits for the last five years,” said Errol Schweizer, the chain’s global senior grocery coordinator.
That was only the tip of the oily iceberg. It suddenly felt like I couldn’t read a recipe or celebrity interview or beauty-related story without seeing the words “coconut oil.” I was advised to cook my bitter greens in it, put it in smoothies, eat it plain, slather it on my hair and skin, bathe with it, gargle with it, have sex with it, cure my acne with it, lose weight with it, boost my energy with it and take my coffee with it. Apparently there wasn’t a single thing that couldn’t benefit from the magic of coconut oil.
Like most bubbles, coconut oil’s was doomed to pop. Last week the American Heart Association released an extensive study on fats and how they relate to cardiovascular health, wherein it officially advised against the consumption of coconut oil, saying it puts people at risk for cardiovascular disease. Frank Sacks, lead author on the report, said he has no idea why people think coconut oil is healthy. (The AHA reported that 72 percent of Americans regard coconut oil as a “healthy food,” compared with only 37 percent of nutritionists.)
Gwyneth Paltrow herself endorsed almost every possible application: “I use coconut oil a lot,” she told E! Online. “I do on my face, on my skin and in my cooking. And I just started oil pulling, which is when you swish coconut oil around [in your mouth] for 20 minutes, and it’s supposed to be great for oral health and making your teeth white. It’s supposed to clear up your skin, as well. It’s really interesting; it’s an ancient, ancient technique. I read about it on the Internet.”
In addition to rampant unpaid celebrity endorsements, coconut oil’s recent rise in favorability is largely owed to its unique fatty profile. According to a writeup in The Cut: “Though high in saturated fat, it is mostly composed of lauric acid which raises HDL (good) cholesterol levels while lowering the ratio of bad (LDL) cholesterol.” But according to the AHA review, studies indicate that coconut oil actually does increase LDL.
In other words, we should approach coconut oil as we would any other “treat” — fine in small amounts, but by no means a “health food.” Nutritionist Tracy Lockwood explained to Well+Good, “Coconut oil has not been shown to lower the risk for cardiovascular disease, and people are using it in huge and excessive quantities.”
“Huge and excessive quantities” is the crux of the issue, and it is illustrative of what seems to happen frequently in the wellness industrial complex: an alleged health trend trickles into the zeitgeist and explodes to the point of being mythologized beyond the scope of what’s actually been consistently medically proven. The same thing happened with turmeric.
As of writing this, I have a full jar of coconut oil in my kitchen pantry that I purchased mere weeks ago with the intention of sautéing many a summer veg. I think I’ll use it for a hair mask instead.