Starbucks now offers coconut milk as an option, even potato chip companies are starting to come back to cooking with coconut oil.
Why are so many people coming back to coconut products?
In the areas where the coconut tree grows naturally, it is referred to as the “Tree of Life”. It’s medicinal properties date back over 5,000 years. Ancient people in India, Sri Lanka and the Phillippines used just about every part of the coconut tree, just like how Native Americans had used every part of the American buffalo for food, weaponry, and spiritual purposes.
So how could the coconut tree be called the “Tree of Life” in some portions of the world, but so vilified by the United States for most of the 20th century?
The answer lies in the our understanding and treatment of saturated fats over the 80+ years – and their controversial link to heart disease.
Coconut oil naturally contains a high amount of saturated fats, the majority of which are known as medium chain triglycerides (a sub-type of saturated fat). These medium chain fats are metabolized very differently from other types of saturated fats. But as you will learn, these differences are largely ignored – and myths about coconut oil, saturated fats and heart disease continue to this day.
Coconut Oil Benefits and the Saturated Fat and Cholesterol Controversy: A Detailed Timeline of Events (& Additional Resources Below)
Below, you will find much more detail on the treatment of saturated fats and coconut oil over the last 85+ years.
1929-1939: Coconut Oil and The Great Depression:
The American economy was tanking in the 1930’s triggered by the great stock market collapse in 1929. The subsequent Great Depression would plague Americans until 1939 which ended with our entry into World War II.
In the 1930’s the government quickly needed income and tax revenue to balance its budget; and, it did so by increasing taxes on imports and using domestic subsidies to protect American jobs.
Coconut oil was one of those products that was taxed heavily in 1934 with an excise tax – a type of tax used to make imported products more expensive. As coconut oil became more expensive to import into the United States, it made domestic products like soybean and cottonseed oil cheaper. If you account for the subsidies to agricultural products grown domestically – it became exorbitantly expensive to use coconut oil.
Since the Philippine economy was so dependent on coconut oil exports, part of the law deemed that the Philippine portion of all coconut tax revenues be given back to the Philippine treasury. While this sounds nice, the 1934 act also dictated that the tax money given to the Philippines could NOT be used to subsidize their own coconut oil industry.
The combined effect of the coconut excise tax and domestic subsidies really favored the use US-produced oils like soybean, cottonseed, and corn.
The import and use of coconut oil drastically declined. The use of soybean, corn, and cottonseed oil sky-rocketed.
1930’s-1960’s: A Cultural Revolution: Coconut Oil and the Industrial Revolution / Post-World War II Baby Boom Generation
During the 1930’s through the 1960’s, the United States went through a massive cultural revolution.
We began eating more foods outside of the home, and; if we were eating at home, we were eating less in front of the dinner table, and more in front of the TV with a full meal that just took a few minutes heating up in the oven or microwave.
TV Dinners were easy to store, refrigerator or freeze. They were easy to cook, and now could be enjoyed in front of your favorite television show. American lives were changing rapidly.
As more women were also working, but still held many of the domestic responsibilities – families quickly found themselves with less time to cook and prepare meals from fresh, raw ingredients. This favored processed and canned foods that just happened to use a lot of cheap domestic oils like soybean or corn.
Now, long recovered from the Great Depression, American middle-aged consumers learned to value the ability to plan ahead, save, and be prepared. Commercial canned foods and processed foods that could be stored for a long period of time also grew rapidly. The demand for these products followed suit.
The use of subsidized soybean oil and other vegetable oils quickly grew. Soybean agriculture became very profitable and an important aspect of the US economy.
1940-1970: Scientific Bias Against Saturated Fats (Including MCTs in Coconut Oil):
During this period you had a growing scientific bias against saturated fats. As early as the 1940’s, Meeker, et al designed a study using rabbits and found evidence that saturated fats increased cholesterol up to five times more than soybean oil.
Most famous was the Seven Countries Study was published in 1970 by the researcher Ancel Keyes.
Keyes’ Seven Countries Study looked at diet and health data starting in 1958 that ultimately found a link between the consumption of saturated fats and heart disease. He based his findings on correlative data from seven major countries.
The scientific community rallied over the next 20-30 years to vilify the dietary intake of saturated fats due to their CORRELATIVE risk with heart disease.
Here’s some of the flaws with those two famous studies:
The Meeker study looked at intake of saturated fats and cholesterol in rabbits. It found a statistically significant link between saturated fats and high cholesterol in the rabbits when compared to soybean oil. The problem with the study is that rabbits are naturally vegetarian – a poor animal model to determine the risk of saturated fats. Additionally, the study focused on the link with high cholesterol; not necessarily cardiovascular disease.
The Seven Countries Study was more flawed. It was discovered that Ancel Keyes essentially hand-picked the seven countries out of a pool of 20+ countries. If you look at data from all 20+ countries – you actually do not find a statistically significant link between saturated fats and heart disease!
But this did not stop the firestorm of events that resulted from such studies. The overarching bias became what we now know as the Diet-Heart Hypothesis. Overwhelmingly the scientific community and media agreed that saturated fats cause high cholesterol, that high cholesterol causes heart disease, and therefore, saturated fats cause heart disease and should be avoided.
The Ancel Keyes study had ENORMOUS role on diet guidelines for the last 40+ years, and its findings were based on a flawed handling of data. The hand-picking of countries seems criminal if you consider the vast ramifications of the study’s flawed conclusions.
During this period it was increasingly difficult to fund studies that might include such as “poisonous” fats like coconut oil – so instead, researchers would study “MCT oil” and any health benefits or risks from coconut oil was forgotten. This is why MCT oil was relatively popular and recognized in the 1990’s, yet coconut oil was reviled. Coconut oil was just seen as a plant source of saturated fats, and since the sentiment was that all saturated fats should be avoided, anti-coconut oil sentiment rampaged on.
MCT’s were recognized for having some useful health properties, but were seen as distinct from coconut oil. The term “MCT” doesn’t exactly scream “saturated fat” – even though that’s exactly what MCT’s are.
1960’s-2000’s: Heavy Lobbying Against Saturated Fats By the Vegetable Oil Industry and Pharmaceutical Industry
By the mid 1960’s coconut oil practically disappeared from grocery store shelves. The soybean lobby viciously and successfully warned about the use of “tropical grease” through the 60’s and 80’s.
By the 1970’s, the soybean industry was doing very well – so well that it now began using its excess profits (largely due in part our public subsidies) to lobby for its interests. By the 1970’s it was estimated that soybean oil made up as much of 70% of all oil consumption in the US; coconut and palm oil made up only 4% of oil intake. Coconut oil virtually disappeared in favor of the other vegetable oils.
In 1982 you had the discovery and invention of statin drugs used by medical doctors to lower and block production of cholesterol.
These drugs focused on lowering “harmful” cholesterol in the body. Statin drugs quickly became one of the most successful and profitable drugs in the pharmaceutical industry.
When it came to dietary guidelines, the surest way increase the level of cholesterol in your blood is to eat fat, and saturated fats were the easiest to pick on. So Big Pharma soon took their vast lobbying money and joined in on the anti-saturated fat sentiment.
Health guidelines followed suit. The evidence seemed so clear at the time – but it offered an incomplete story at best.
1980’s-2000’s: Regulatory Agencies Take Note and Coconut Oil Takes an Economic Hit
By the mid 1980’s, the successful lobbying had respectable health agencies such as the American Heart Association and Center for Science in the Public Interest warning against the use of saturated fats.
In 1992 you had the government-sponsored release of the infamous Food Guide Pyramid which was sure to say “Use Fats Sparingly” at the tip of the triangle.
In 1994, the CSPI launched a campaign warning against the use of coconut oil in movie theater popcorn (substituted with corn/soybean oil/butter/margarine varieties of course). Any hope of a 90’s comeback for coconut oil was thwarted once again.
The MyPyramid.gov guidelines launched in 2005 were a much-needed update on the 1992 guidelines, but the 2005 government guidelines still continued the anti-saturated fat sentiment.
To this day, the American Heart Association still recommends a diet low in saturated fats. The vilification of fats led to high consumption of vegetable oils, sugar, and refined carbohydrates seen in American diets today.
Over the 1930’s to early 2000’s, quite the perfect storm was created that created the following environment:
- High coconut oil prices (created by history of tax levies and subsidies on competing oils)
- Cheap soybean/vegetable oil prices
- Less cooking at home and more processed foods (such as increase in dual-income families, change to industrial/service-based economy)
- Growing dissent against saturated fats in the scientific and medical community and low demand for butter, coconut oil, beef tallow, bacon and more.
2000-Present: Coconut Benefits Back on the Radar
The popularity of vegetarian diets really rised during the 1980’s and 1990’s, and that sentiment continued in 2000’s until the Zone Diet and Atkins’ diets became popular.
By the 2000’s (and still today), if you tell someone you were on a “diet” or were eating “clean’ – people assumed you meant that you were eating vegetarian. Eating “healthy” meant that you were eating “rabbit food” of vegetables and you were limited to “weird” and bland-tasting foods like tofu and veggie burgers. Rabbits are meant to be vegetarian; we are omnivores meaning we need aspects of both animal and plant products to keep us healthy.
This sentiment continued to compound until you had some reports occur in early 2000’s that started to question the link of cholesterol and heart disease – particularly a failure to link cholesterol with deaths from heart disease. If you follow the statin literature, much of the literature between the years of 2000-2010 started to re-evaluate, “re-market” and reposition Statin drugs as “Anti-inflammatory” drugs. As a result, statin use remained popular during this time.
You soon saw the development of the popular High-fat/High-protein/Low carb diets of today such as the Paleo Diet or the Whole 9 Diet.
Keep Calm and Eat Coconut: Finally, Coconut Oil’s Full Comeback
In the year 2000, the Coconut Research Center, led by Dr. Bruce Fife, ND, was launched and a well-planned educational campaign was launched that started to push back against many of the myths of coconut oil. The medicinal uses of coconut oil, particularly related to its high MCT content, were being rediscovered – and coconut’s popularity has been increasing ever since.
Oftentimes, answers to trends can be found simply by “following the money”.
I took considerable time to go back to the 1930’s to demonstrate this point alone. But you could make broader arguments of how larger movements of Westernization and Modernization pushed back the traditions of our ancestors as “non-scientific” – and that pushed out generations of using plants as medicine.
As a result, we unfortunately threw the baby out with the bathwater – and we’re just now realizing many of the traditions and assertions of coconut health benefits not only had merit culturally, but also can now be backed by sound science.
Remember, statin drugs were discovered in 1982.
In 2012, the initial 30-year patents on the first statin drugs expired. Since then, generics have flooded the market. Just three years later in 2015, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans report was released. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are released every five years. For the first time, the 2015 guidelines actually removed concerns about dietary cholesterol; it also further increased the allowance of dietary fat as a percentage of the diet.
While the 2015 guidelines still disparage the intake of saturated fats as a whole, they suggested much more allowance for high-fat foods such as nuts, avocados (and perhaps coconut) as healthy, plant sources of fats. This is a HUGE dietary shift – and I think the media really underreported its significance.
Perhaps because people would realize that the low-fat, low-cholesterol crazes of the 80’s and 2000’s were based on incomplete science. It makes me angry, and I’m sure it ruffles your feathers too.
It is interesting to point how how the patents on the first statin drugs expire and suddenly the guidelines make a complete turnaround. Now, the government is “allowed” to tell us that dietary cholesterol is not harmful, and that total fat consumption may not be as problematic as originally believed. It’s a win for science, but it also suggests how much big money plays in our health guidelines.
If you look at the long history above of how lobbying has biased the guidelines – I cannot help but link the events. This is a personal assertion, but regardless of my personal assertions as to “Why?” – don’t let it cloud the very real realization that fats are back to stay in our diet – especially the coconut fats!
Here are some more of my resources related to the saturated fat and cholesterol debate replete with references:
- The Diet-Heart Disease Hypothesis: Revisited
- Is Saturated Fat Healthy?
- Coconut Oil and Heart Disease
- This is Your Brain on Bacon
- Study Compares the Effect of Soybean and Coconut Oils on Belly Fat and Heart Disease Risk in Women
- Comments on New Guidelines for Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs
- New Debate Spurred on Red Meat and Heart Disease
- Support HDL Cholesterol Levels Naturally and Keep a Healthy Heart
- Can MCTs from Coconut Oil Help You Lose Weight and Trim Body Fat?