‘Pure poison’ are the words Karin Michels, an epidemiologist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, used to slather contempt on world-wide craze for consuming coconut oil. She added that it was “one of the worst things you can eat.”
Someone needs to get Michels a ticket to Kerala, though right now the state is going through its own version of hell - swatting away stereotypes and bigotry from national political groups, as they pick up their lives and rebuild their flood ravaged state.
Adding a misguided Western scholar to the list of woes would only be ‘pure’ torture for the Malayalis. If they did have the time, they would have pointed out to the thousands of Ammachis and Appachans, grandmothers and grandfathers, who have lived to the ripe age of 100, despite a daily diet cooked in coconut oil.
The Malayalis also don’t have time to show off their glowing skin, the healthy babies who have been massaged with pure, first pressed coconut oil. Michels will be hard pressed herself to find ladies with lack lustre hair in the state. Then of course, if she got hungry, she would have been offered chakka (jackfruit) or banana chips fried in, you guessed it, aromatic coconut oil.
But while it is safe to assume that Harvard wouldn’t put out a study it did not check out thoroughly, there is a mention of how coconut oil contains more than 80% saturated fat, more than twice the amount found in lard, and 60% more than is found in beef dripping. These comments were made during her lecture titled “Coconut oil and other nutritional errors” at the University of Freiburg, where she holds a second academic position as director of the Institute for Prevention and Tumour Epidemiology.
As common sense suggests, too much of anything could kill you. This includes too many deep fried schnitzels, too much red meat, butter, lard and of course, coconut oil. In the regions where coconut is a dietary staple, like most of Asia Pacific, the daily dose of coconut oil consumed is fresh, and unprocessed and free from preservatives.
Perhaps the Western consumers are served more a processed version of the oil, which could be harmful vis-à-vis to where coconut is a native product. One can understand Michels’ caution to an oil being labelled a superfood. It is an oil, it cannot be consumed as a dietary supplement; and should not be sold as a panacea to all health problems. But Michels went too far by labeling it as ‘pure poison’.
She is however, not the only one who has raised a red flag, last year The American Heart Association (AHA) issued a scientific advisory statement to replace saturated fats (the list included coconut oil) with unsaturated fats. Now if anyone had to chug coconut oil straight from a bottle, it would be no surprise if they dropped dead with clogged coronary arteries.
Moderation is the key, and people from South India, Philippines, Thailand, Hawaii and loads of other countries have been using coconut oil in moderation, when they cook their food. If you were to consume bottles of olive oil or eat a tub of butter a day, it would be just as poisonous, even if it was a dietary fad. Coconut oil is used as a part of cooking, and it is healthy, not directly consumed daily as a food substitute. You cannot put a straw or mix it with your coffee in copious amounts and say, "hey! It is a superfood." This is where Michels gets to smile and say, “I told you so”.
Coconut oil is here to stay, no study can change its pivotal role in South Indian cuisine. Though how with the packaging of coconut oil as a superfood, the Western countries may find it difficult to sift through the facts, LDL, HDL levels, and whether to remove it from their keto diets, to consume it directly or to just stop eating it. The options are plenty, just like every study that says wine is good for you, or is that bad for you? We will never know.
Poison or not, for the Malayalis right now there is nothing more eagerly awaited in Kerala than a heartwarming, vibrant Onam sadhya made of delicacies cooked in coconut oil, to bring back a sense of normalcy to the state. And remind us of our grandmothers whose lives’ work was feeding their families, knew what is best.
Sharon Fernandes is a journalist based in Delhi.