India calling for retraction of Harvard professor's 'coconut oil is poison' statement

Korin Miller
After a Harvard professor deemed coconut oil “pure poison,” India’s horticulture commissioner wrote to the university requesting “corrective measures” and a retraction. (Photo: Associated Press)

You may have heard recently that Harvard epidemiologist Karin Michels gave a lecture this summer on nutrition in Germany in which she called coconut oil “pure poison” and “one of the worst foods you can eat.” Those statements got a lot of attention, and now a high-ranking official in India is firing back.

Coconut oil is widely used in India, and Michels’s comments are “unsubstantiated and inconsiderate,” wrote B.N. Srinivasa Murthy, India’s horticulture commissioner, in a letter to the dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that was obtained by the Washington Post. Murthy also asked the dean to take “corrective measures” and retract the Michels comments, which made “negative statements against the revered crop of billions.”

In an interview with the Post, Murthy said that Michels’s lecture also came up at a recent meeting of the Asia Pacific Coconut Community. “There was a little bit of anguish,” he said. “I wondered what had made her make this statement.”

A publicist for the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health did not respond to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for comment.

Related Video: Karin Michels Warns Against Use of Coconut oil

While nutrition experts aren’t all exactly singing the praises of coconut oil, most agree that Michels’s statements went too far. “No food should be called poison, period,” Keri Gans, CDN, author of The Small Change Diet, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Headlines like this cause people to feel confused, anxious, and fearful about foods,” Alissa Rumsey, RD, creator of the Ditch the Diet Challenge, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The stress that this causes can often be worse for our health than actually eating the food itself.”

“I wouldn’t call it poison, as no single food or beverage can make or break your diet,” Julie Upton, RD, co-founder of Appetite for Health, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I would not call it a health food, superfood, or any of the other common marketing terms used to promote it either.”

The biggest issue with coconut oil is the saturated fat, Gina Keatley, a CDN practicing in New York City, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Coconut oil is full of saturated fat, which may increase LDL [bad] cholesterol,” she says. “This in turn can lead to increased risk of heart attack and stroke, which we can all agree is a bad outcome.” (The American Heart Association discourages people from using coconut oil for this reason.)

Still, “coconut oil has better impacts on cholesterol than butter — not as good as olive oil, but still better,” Keatley says. If you have the choice between extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil, “I would choose extra virgin olive oil,” Upton says. Gans also suggests using olive oil instead, as well as other oils that contain healthier monounsaturated fats such as algae oil, avocado oil, and peanut oil.

But that doesn’t mean coconut oil is “pure poison.” “No one food will make you healthy, just like no one food will make you unhealthy. This includes coconut oil,” Rumsey says. “Using coconut oil as a fat source from time to time is perfectly fine.”

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