US gov’t study warning against coconut oil based on faulty evidence

According to Professor at Ateneo de Manila University
fili@samoanews.com

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — A professor at the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines has taken issue with a US government study warning against the use of coconut oil, pointing out that a “recent study on Samoans, demonstrated that a coconut diet gives healthier outcomes than a western diet.”

Dr. Fabian M. Dayrit made the observation in a recent comment-letter to the US Department of Agriculture, which along with the US Department of Health and Human Services, sought public comments on the topics and questions to be examined in the review of scientific evidence supporting the development of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Specifically, USDA and HHS request comments in support or opposition of the proposed topics and questions available at www.DietaryGuidelines.gov, according to documents released on federal portal [www.regulations.gov]

Information in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is being used to gather public input for the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines, states that fat in some tropical plants, such as coconut oil, and palm oil, are not included in the oils category because they do not resemble other oils in their composition.

Specifically, they contain a higher percentage of saturated fats than other oils, it says, and notes that saturated fatty acids (saturated fats) are found in the greatest amounts in coconut and palm kernel oils, in butter and beef fats, and in palm oil. They also are found in other animal fats, such as pork and chicken fats and in other plant fats, such as nuts.

But Dayrit disagrees with such an assessment of coconut oil, noting that from the first edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans to its eighth edition, there has been a “consistent warning” against saturated fats in general, and coconut oil, in particular.

“This advice, however, is based on faulty evidence and an incomplete understanding of the nature of saturated fats and coconut oil,” said Dayrit, who is with the university’s Chemistry Department and earned his PhD in Chemistry from Princeton University.

“There is a fundamental mistake in putting coconut oil and animal fat into the same category because coconut oil has a vastly different fatty acid profile and cholesterol content from animal fats,” he argued, and went on to explain the difference between coconut oil and animal fat. He cited several issues in which coconut oil shouldn’t be compared to animal fat.

The professor argues that two influential studies which have been used to link coconut oil with heart disease “have serious weaknesses: first, none of them actually studied coconut oil, and second, the presence of confounding factors, in particular, trans-fats.”

He said if coconut oil is indeed a significant heart disease risk, then there should have been an epidemic of heart disease in Asia and the Pacific where coconut consumption is significant.

“Coconut milk, which contains 20% coconut oil, is one of the most widely-used culinary materials in Asian and Pacific Island food,” he argued, adding that the “warning against coconut is a disservice to the Asian immigrant population in the US who are being advised to abandon this healthy tradition.”

In fact, he explained, all of the available evidence shows that a coconut diet is part of a healthy diet and there is no direct evidence that coconut oil increases the risk of heart disease.

“Coconut has been consumed by many people in the tropics for thousands of years with no evidence of ill effects, such as heart disease, cancer, and metabolic diseases, until the introduction of the western diet,” Dayrit said.

“The recent study on Samoans demonstrates that a coconut diet gives healthier outcomes than a western diet,” he said noting that Samoa is divided into two regions, with American Samoans who shifted to a western diet showing greater obesity and higher risk for heart disease as compared with Western Samoans who retained their traditional island coconut diet.

He cited a World Health Organization (WHO) report, which states that Pacific islanders were “2.2 times more likely to be obese and 2.4 times more likely to be diabetic if they ate imported fats than if they ate traditional fat sources.”

“The imported fats included vegetable oils and margarine while the traditional fats included coconut oil,” he said, adding that in 2010, the American Heart Association issued a scientific advisory regarding the alarming rate of cardiovascular disease among Asian immigrants to the US.

“This study noted that ‘adoption of Western culture may result in unhealthy dietary practices’,” he said. “This warning against coconut may very well be one of the contributory factors to this avoidable American health problem.”

Details on Dayri's comment-letter, which also cites sources of his information, are found on www.regulations.gov along with the more than 40 comments received so far. 

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