Poly-Unsaturated Snake Oil

Reader Andy writes:

There is a buzz right now about coconut oil and that it is actually good for you. I remember not too long ago when it was deemed the Devil incarnate. It is possible for one saturated fat to be better than another?

It’s certainly possible, Andy, though I personally I tend not to put much faith in these sorts of flavor-of-the-month claims. It’s true that when saturated fats were thought to be the root of all evil, coconut oil was considered to be The White Death. That’s understandable since coconut oil is over 90% saturated fat (compare that to butter which is about 65% saturated fat).

Now that it seems clear that saturated fats aren’t really bad for you, some people are wondering: could they actually be GREAT for you? That’s probably overstating the matter. Fats are nutrients, that much is obvious, but we’ve all been burned by various “authoritative” studies touting the amazing nutritional benefits of this or that nutrient/ingredient.

But not all studies are created equal. Lest we forget, thousands upon thousands of nutritional studies are churned out by university departments and independent labs every year. The vast majority of them are very small samples of a few dozen or a few hundred participants, tracked over a few months or a few years. Their results — while they may well earn their writers raises or even tenure — should be considered little more than informed conjecture (especially when they’re amplified/exaggerated by journalists).

The gold-plated studies follow thousands of subjects for many years or even decades. But those are rare because they’re so amazingly cost and labor-intensive. The Women’s Health Initiative was one of these, and it showed no correlation between intake of fat — any kind of fat — and disease. That study isn’t the final word on nutrition of course (there never will be one) but I think it’s strong evidence refuting a major current in American popular culture: that single ingredients or nutrients can save us or damn us depending on how much of them we eat.

Maybe it all goes back to the days of the medicine show and Dr. Wilson’s Miracle Elixirs. Who knows? Most doctors impart this simple wisdom to patients who are generally healthy: eat a mix. Eat vegetables, eat grains, eat fats, eat sugars, meats, dairy, what-have-you in reasonable proportions. That advice is pretty much bullet-proof in my view. It won’t support a multi-billion dollar diet and nutrition industry of course, but there you go.

Guess I didn’t really answer the question, Andy, but the rant felt good! Thanks!

10 thoughts on “Poly-Unsaturated Snake Oil”

  1. Joe -Yes I think you did answer it and thank you for the answer, and I agree with you. I think it is all in the mix – so mix it up everybody!!! I am tired of reading how I should eat this or that or avoid this or that only to hear the opposite in a few months or a year later. I do think moderation is the way to go, thanks for the enlightening indepth answer Joe.

    1. More importantly thanks for the question!

      I rely on those to keep me on my toes!

      – Joe

  2. A doctor will say they “practices medicine” for a reason; it’s mostly inconclusive.

  3. The claims I’ve been hearing about coconut oil have more to do with its performance at high temps – that it has a high smoke point, and doesn’t break down at higher temps like olive oil.

    I’m wondering, since it’s solid at room temp, how it performs in baked goods from biscuits to brownies.

    Have you given it a try?

    1. Hey Stephanie!

      It does have a high smoke point, though no higher than peanut oil. About 450 F. Being solid though, it definitely doesn’t break down as fast, so that much is true.

      But the answer is I haven’t tried it in baked goods. It would be interesting to try. If you ever do, get back to me with your results!


      – Joe

  4. Well, that explains my interest – junior is allergic to peanuts, and while I know that technically there’s no protein in the oil, blah, blah, blah, I just can’t bring myself to cross that line.

    I think I’ll try the coconut in biscuits. I’ll let you know.

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