The AHA advisory, published last month (July) in Circulation, reviews dairy fat and coconut oil as being sources of saturated fats and advises against the use of coconut oil to avoid raising “bad” cholesterol levels and prevent heart-related conditions.
Fabian Dayrit, professor at the Ateneo de Manila University and chair of the scientific advisory committee for health at Asian and Pacific Coconut Community, explains that the AHA recommendation was mainly based on the decades-old studies by Ancel Keys in which he first proposed in 1957 that saturated fats raise cholesterol, which in turn raises the risk for heart disease. Dayrit says that although the saturated fats studied were mostly animal fats, coconut was included in the warning because it is also a saturated fat, ignoring, however, the fact that there are different types of saturated fats.
“If the public response to this AHA advisory is anything like that in the past, it will negatively affect coconut oil exports from South-East Asia.”
Marco Reyes, Virgin Coconut Association of the Philippines
“It is true that coconut oil contains more saturated fat than butter, beef fat and pig fat,” Marco Reyes, secretary of the Virgin Coconut Association of the Philippines, tells SciDev.Net. “But, what the advisory does not point out is the type of saturated fats in these oils and fats.”
He explains that not all fatty acids are the same as some have beneficial effects including on cardiovascular health. Coconut oil consists mostly of medium-chain triglycerides which the body absorbs directly from the portal vein of the liver for immediate metabolism. Fat from other dietary sources like butter, beef tallow and lard consists mostly of long-chain triglycerides that are metabolised through the digestive system.
The AHA advisory comes at a time when coconut is gaining popularity among Americans. “A recent survey reported 72 per cent of the American public rated coconut oil as a healthy food,” the AHA says in its advisory.
“If the public response to this AHA advisory is anything like that in the past, it will negatively affect coconut oil exports from South-East Asia,” says Reyes. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines lead global coconut oil exports.
“After AHA issued an advisory in the 1980s, use of coconut oil dropped until the early 2000s when the health benefits of coconut oil became known,” Reyes said. Suzanne Grant, AHA’s vice-president for media relations, tells SciDev.Net that the AHA recommends focusing on heart-healthy “pattern” of eating rather than on individual components. This pattern emphasises vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, beans, nontropical vegetable oils and nuts, and limits sodium, sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages and red meats.
Grant says the advisory on saturated fat is based on comprehensive analysis of more than 100 high-quality published, peer reviewed research studies conducted by leading experts. "While there are many opinions about nutrition, the organisation just wants consumers to eat a diet based on sound science," she says.
Commenting on the controversy, J. Thomas Brenna, professor of pediatrics and chemistry at the University of Texas, Austin, and formerly a professor of human nutrition at Cornell University, tells SciDev.Net, “the long history of harshly processed coconut oil use in the US means that the sort of studies that the AHA relies upon would be specific to harshly processed coconut oil. Virgin coconut oil, which by definition is gently processed, does not have adverse effects on plasma lipids in animal studies. Whether those results transfer reliably to humans, in my view, deserves its own study.”
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.