Coconut Oil and Magic Marketing

Coconut Oil and Magic Marketing

The Mash-up of Medical Research and Marketing

We've all seen books, articles, or internet stories on the alleged "miracle" properties of coconut oil. And we've watched as coconut oil has gotten more and more dedicated shelf space at our local grocery stores. Have you ever stopped to wonder why a food product that had been used for centuries was magically "rediscovered" and shipped across oceans to American consumers? If we delve into a little history we will quickly see that this new interest in coconut oil is part of a complex and clever marketing "public relations make-over." And unfortunately, the consumer isn't a winner in this marketing mash-up.

Coconut Oil Is NOT a Health Food

Coconut oil is 92 percent saturated fat. A significant percentage of this fat comes from the dangerous, long-chain fatty acids that increase LDL cholesterol circulating in the blood stream. LDL cholesterol is considered "bad" because it causes atherosclerosis--the buildup of fatty plaques inside the walls of the blood vessels. Higher levels of LDL cholesterol are considered risk factors for heart attack and stroke. Despite the evidence that saturated fats injure our cardiovascular systems, there are those who claim coconut oil does the opposite. My article on cholesterol and coconut oil addresses some of the research that has been done on this subject and how this product "increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and possible death due to heart attacks and strokes." The bottom line is that coconut oil is not a heart-healthy addition to our diet.

So What Made Us Think Coconut Oil was Good for Us?

Enter the miracle of marketing. Jeff Novick, MS, RD, LD, LN, traces the evolution of coconut oil from obscurity to health craze. Essentially, the American food industry was in trouble. Up until the 1960s, Americans had been using butter, lard, and other rendered animal fats in their cooking and baking. These fats worked well because they were stable, could withstand high heat, and had a smooth, creamy texture. Then scientists discovered that saturated animal fats were responsible for obesity and cardiovascular disease. Americans were urged to replace the "bad" animal-based fats with polyunsaturated vegetable oils. However, these oils have a lower smoke-point, are unstable and are easily oxidized, and don't offer the desired creamy texture. Because Americans didn't want to change the way they were eating, polyunsaturated oils had to be redesigned so that they had the same stability, heat tolerance, and creamy feel. Adding hydrogen atoms (hydrogenation) to liquid oils became the new craze. This provided the long shelf life and creamy texture customers were looking for. Consequently, margarine and vegetable shortening became popular substitutes for butter and solid animal fats. Years later, scientists discovered the health problems raised by the trans-fats in hydrogenated oils. The news of the dangers of trans-fats took the country by storm. Food companies, driven in part by law suits and bad press, stopped using trans-fats. Cities banned trans-fats from local restaurants.

Suddenly the food industry had an emergency. They needed a stable, heat-tolerant fat with the texture Americans loved. In Jeff's words, here's what happened: "Many things were tried including different blends of oils, interesterified fats, and trans-fat-free fully hydrogenated oils, but nothing worked. The only remaining option immediately available that could fill the need and have the potential for great marketing (plant based, vegan, natural, cholesterol-free, etc.) were the tropical oils/fats. And perhaps, if possible, give these plant-sourced saturated fats in coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils a public relations make-over." And that's what happened. In 2004 and 2005, books began appearing trumpeting the health benefits of coconut oil although there were no credible scientific studies behind these claims. "Soon after their publication" Jeff states, "the market was soon flooded with many more of them, each trying to outdo the previous authors in making even more fantastic claims about the supposed health benefits of coconut oil." Jeff's article gives a timeline that shows how the crisis in the food industry lines up with the emergence of coconut oil as a "health" and weight loss elixir. Jeff concludes, "The main rise in these tropical fats, which started in 2004, was not science driven but consumer and industry driven based on [the] need and desire [of Americans] to keep eating the same processed/packaged junk foods they were hooked on." 

Follow Health Not Hype

So that's the story of how coconut oil became a presumed "super-food" in the American diet. I encourage my patients not to use coconut oil or any other free oils in their quest for robust health. The Starch-Smart® System is full of many, many wonderful, healthy foods with nature and science behind them. Food that comes directly from farms without making a detour through a factory to be highly processed doesn't need magic marketing to convince us it's healthy. And science has consistently shown that "From Sun to Plant to Plate" eating is the very best thing we can do for our health.

For additional information, click on the following links:

(1) Who has Heart Disease? Everyone?

(2) Is Olive Oil Really Heart Healthy?

(3) Linda Carney MD Refined Oil Pinterest Board

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Comments (10)

Rated 5 out of 5 based on 1 votes
  1. Donna Hopper
  1. 5 / 5

Thank you for posting this. I have been trying to explain this to friends but they have seen so many things that say the opposite. Hopefully they will be able to see the truth and understand it now.

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  1. Sean Carney    Donna Hopper

Donna,
I do hope you will share this with your friends. Even if they don't believe it now it may plant a helpful seed.
Sean

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  1. Denise Rose

Today I leafed through a newly published plant-based book on making vegan cheese. The author, who is making the rounds now promoting her book, uses coconut oil a lot in many of her recipes. She states in her opening section about her ingredients that coconut oil is very health promoting with many benefits. Yesterday in teaching a class in WFPB nutrition, one participant talked how she attended a coconut oil talk at Natural Grocers; same thing happened. They promoted coconut oil as very healthy. It appears that the message is not being heard from the WFPB doctors that coconut oil is not healthy.

I find it very frustrating that a WFPB writer and chef who has a public reputation shares this message about coconut oil being healthy. As far as I know, besides you, Dr. Carney, Drs. Greger, Klaper, McDougall, Esselstyn, and Fuhrman all agree that we should not be eating any oils, including coconut oil. I understand Natural Grocers selling the item; for them it is profits. But to have a WFPB cookbook writer espouse that coconut oil is healthy is so problematic; my cynical side says well she needed to do that since she uses that oil in her recipes and she needed to rationalize its...

Today I leafed through a newly published plant-based book on making vegan cheese. The author, who is making the rounds now promoting her book, uses coconut oil a lot in many of her recipes. She states in her opening section about her ingredients that coconut oil is very health promoting with many benefits. Yesterday in teaching a class in WFPB nutrition, one participant talked how she attended a coconut oil talk at Natural Grocers; same thing happened. They promoted coconut oil as very healthy. It appears that the message is not being heard from the WFPB doctors that coconut oil is not healthy.

I find it very frustrating that a WFPB writer and chef who has a public reputation shares this message about coconut oil being healthy. As far as I know, besides you, Dr. Carney, Drs. Greger, Klaper, McDougall, Esselstyn, and Fuhrman all agree that we should not be eating any oils, including coconut oil. I understand Natural Grocers selling the item; for them it is profits. But to have a WFPB cookbook writer espouse that coconut oil is healthy is so problematic; my cynical side says well she needed to do that since she uses that oil in her recipes and she needed to rationalize its use. I hate to be that cynical. So Dr. Carney, can you offer any other explanation for what research this WFPB author might believe in to lead her to believe that coconut oil is truly healthy? I note your article was written 2 years ago. Do you think anything has changed in this debate since then?

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  1. Marky Yvanovich    Denise Rose

There are a lot of smart people who look at the conflicting information out there and just decide to choose which message makes the most sense to them, regardless of the source of the message. So it may not nessesarily be as nefarious as you are thinking (or may be somewhere in between).

I have discussions with very intelligent people about diet all the time and they truly believe that the studies that I reference are flawed in some way. I don't let it get to me, as my belief is just as strong as theirs.

I totally understand your frustration though. I find it very frustrating, especially when trying to convince loved ones to improve their health through diet.

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  1. Sean Carney

Thanks Marky,
I could not have responded better. Also, sorry it took awhile for your comment to show up. For some reason our spam filters disabled your comment. But, I marked it as NOT SPAM and it showed up.
Sean

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  1. Marky Yvanovich    Sean Carney

I know why it was marked as spam. I had posted it as a general comment but had intended for it to be a reply to Denise, so I copied it, deleted it and then re-posted it as a reply. Your software probably saw that I had posted two identical comments in a short amount of time and thought it might be a spammer. I knew you would take care of it so I wasn't worried.

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  Comment was last edited about 3 weeks ago by Marky Yvanovich Marky Yvanovich
  1. Sean Carney

ah that explains things. I should have realized that was why there was a duplicate message. Thanks.

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  1. Denise Rose

Yes Marky it is frustrating. What I find particularly problematic, though, is when cookbook authors who align themselves with the WFPB community create recipes with ingredients that our WFPB doctors advise are not healthy to consume. Unless I am missing something, I do not know of a WFPB doctor on the lecture circuit that advises we eat coconut oil for health benefits. What I hear constantly is to give up and minimize these oils as much as possible for they are not health promoting. If a cookbook author in the WFPB world thinks otherwise, I wish he/she would then cite the science she believes in that advocates consuming coconut oil for health benefits and then explain why he/she is disagreeing with the seeming consensus of WFPB doctors that coconut oil should be avoided. I am willing to be wrong in my understanding of this issue. But so far, from everything I’ve read and heard from people who can interpret the science much better than me is to avoid oils, including coconut oil.

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  1. Marky Yvanovich    Denise Rose

Denise, I totally share your frustration here. Any deviation from the true message is going to dilute the message and make it more difficult to get the true message across to people. It's especially frustrating when it is coming from a source that you had assumed was on your side of the argument. Unfortunately, when there is little to no money to be made on our side of the argument, it is difficult to get a clear message across as we are fighting against big money. I am very thankful that I found out the truth and have benefited from it in so many ways. I will continue to be a good example of how beneficial a WFPB diet is and hopefully some people will see the results and maybe consider giving it a try.

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  1. Denise Rose

Thanks for your commiseration Marky. There is no doubt that more and more people will be making the paradigm shift to plant-based nutrition. A recent story in Fox News (of all places) highlighted vegan restaurants in Texas having new customers trying out plant-based eating after watching the great new film, What the Health (on Netflix now).

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