Opinion: Coconut oil has gained a halo as a natural health product, with claims it can be used for almost anything from warding off dementia to helping people lose weight. However, many of these claims draw on overly simplified or misconstrued understandings of scientific studies and indigenous practices.

I’ve spent several years investigating why people consume coconut oil and what makes them believe it will help them, despite the lack of evidence of health benefits and the potential downsides of eating the oil, which is high in saturated fat (92 percent).

So why do so many people still think it’s a good choice?

‘Natural’ marketing

Marketing of coconut oil as a natural product has successfully played on perceptions that we were healthier before industrialisation, and even before the introduction of agriculture. If we returned to a more ‘natural’ state – such as the existence supposedly lived by indigenous peoples of the Pacific – we would be healthier too.

However, these representations fail to account for the fact that Pacific peoples generally do not eat extracted coconut oil. Though many Pacific Island diets customarily contained coconut fats, these were typically a result of eating coconut flesh or coconut cream, and not the extracted oil on its own.

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Rather than a food, coconut oil is commonly used topically as a beauty product. It also holds spiritual meanings. Some of the Pacific people I spoke with during my research were shocked to hear that coconut oil was being eaten at all. One interviewee even had a hard time believing me.

The main downside to eating coconut oil is that it’s high in saturated fat. Ingesting high levels of saturated fat is strongly linked with an increased risk of developing heart disease.

Consumer perceptions of coconut oil may also be influenced by the view that products from the Pacific region must be healthier. However, the reality is most of the global supply of coconut oil doesn’t come from the Pacific Islands. These days, most of it is produced in the Philippines or other south-east Asian countries.

The commercial coconut palms growing in the Pacific – many planted in the past century when oil from copra (dried coconut meat) played a greater role in international soap manufacture – are often past their best producing days.

The vision of the Pacific Islands as sandy beaches surrounded by coconut palms, an image typically used in marketing, also doesn’t match the reality of commercial production. Coconut plantations are largely a manufactured landscape. A lot of the original bush and ecosystems of the islands was dramatically altered to plant the coconut palms, and plantations are far from ‘natural’ environments.

Many communities in the Pacific Islands are hopeful the coconut oil industry will help stimulate their local economies. However, they are at a disadvantage when competing with the vast quantities of coconut oil that non-Pacific countries can produce at cheaper prices. The disputed efficacy of coconut oil as a health product also affects the viability of the industry.

The saturated fat debate

The main downside to eating coconut oil is that it’s high in saturated fat. Ingesting high levels of saturated fat is strongly linked with an increased risk of developing heart disease. In places where consumption of saturated fat has decreased, heart disease-related deaths have also decreased overall.

However, many coconut oil advocates, including many who participated in my research, expressed beliefs that the science about saturated fat is wrong and also that health professionals are corrupt. In extreme cases, some expressed their belief that government health institutions were deliberately making people sick.

In an online survey I carried out, fewer than half of the 475 respondents (all consumers of coconut oil) said they fully trusted the recommendations of the World Health Organisation and the American Heart Association. Both organisations recommend people reduce their saturated fat intake.

Most respondents were getting their health information from their friends and family, or from the internet – not from a medical journal. So if their friends and family said coconut oil was good for their health, they were likely going to trust these people. How we know ‘truth’ is always informed by trust.

There was also a perception that dietary science is constantly changing and many people were aware of the ongoing debates about whether other foods are good for us or not – chocolate or red wine for example.

While this hesitancy to trust dietary science as a permanent truth is understandable, the evidence about the risks of consuming large quantities of saturated fat has only increased over time. The weight of evidence supports reducing saturated fat intake.

Dr Nate Rigler has a PhD in Pacific Studies from Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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