As longtime readers may know, I have a relative that’s a holistic nutritionist, and she sometimes touts the supposed benefits of certain foods to members of our family. One of these is coconut oil, which, so we’ve been told, is one of the healthiest things we can eat.
Now I try to stay out of these conversations unless asked directly what I think. But some time ago my mother wanted my opinion on what our relative was saying, and I told her that I was skeptical since coconut oil is very high in saturated fats, but admitted I hadn’t really looked closely at it. Fast forward a year or so and Mom sends me this for a followup opinion:
Where, oh where to begin? It’s pretty much a textbook case of the credulous reporting we frequently see with alt-med, and my initial inclination was to simply write “bollocks” in the reply email and have done with it. But instead, I decided that – since I was asked directly for my opinion — it might be of more value to explain the things about this video that made me skeptical, while also speaking directly to what the research says. Having done so (and received positive feedback from Mom for it), I thought it might also be worth sharing with our readers here.
Warning Sign #1: Who’s Selling What To Whom?
Mary Newport, the woman they spend Act 1 of the story interviewing, experimented on her husband. Let’s forget the ethics of this for a moment — we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she’s a loving wife using her medical training genuinely to try to help her husband. Let’s instead focus on her ostensibly positive results.
Normally, when researchers see something promising, they try to replicate and improve the quality of their findings. They add rigorous controls to avoid bias, and increase the sample size to reduce the impact of randomness on the results and ensure that they’re significant. In short, they try to validate that the effect they’re seeing is not a fluke, and is actually related to the putative cause.
But Mary Newport didn’t do any of this. Instead, she wrote a book. Her “evidence” is in the letters that those who purchased her book sent her. Which are merely more uncontrolled, unscientific anecdotes no more valuable than the first.
Warning Sign #2: That Slippery Elipsis…
But hold on – Act 2 of the story focuses on researchers in the UK doing just this kind of research, doesn’t it? Well, not quite -– they’re not researching coconut oil at all, but rather a ketone ester that’s 10x more powerful. The narrator (not the researchers) suggest that coconut oil is an acceptable substitute until this ester is commercially available, but why should we assume a lower-powered version will work? That’s a pretty big jump. In my email to Mom, I asked her whether she thought 1/10th of her prescription dosage would work for her.
Warning Sign #3 – Special Pleading
The researchers go on to admit that their findings are preliminary, and that what they really need is money for research. In doing so, they wheel out the tired trope about there being no money for research in natural remedies because no one can profit from it.
This is pure nonsense. As I showed in an article last year, natural health products are an $85B industry that can certainly afford to fund research. More to the point, if there were a promising cure for Alzheimer’s, government research agencies facing an aging population and rising healthcare costs would be lining up to fund it. In the US alone, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has spent $1.4B of public money researching natural health products, and continues to do so despite not really finding much of value so far.
Warning Sign #4 – Bucking the Consensus
Coconut oil is almost entirely saturated fat – one ounce has 24g of sat fat, or 120% of your RDA. Now it’s true, as they suggest, that saturated fat isn’t as bad for you as a trans fat, but it’s also a false dichotomy. Saturated fats raise LDL (bad cholesterol). It seems extremely unlikely that coconut oil is the magic oil that defies the behavior of every other saturated fat. Not impossible mind you, but I’d want to see evidence as strong as the consensus view that saturated fats are bad for you before accepting the claim, and I’m not seeing that laid out in the piece.
Warning Sign #5 – The Wonder Food
This is the point that Mom most responded to. Just look at the list of things coconut oil is also allegedly good for in addition to Alzheimer’s: Parkinson’s, ALS, Epilepsy, Dementia, Schizophrenia, Autism, Herpes and HIV. If this were true, they’d be clearing out Orange County to plant coconut groves.
That is if THEY weren’t in the pocket of Big Pharma, which just wants to keep us sick. Wake up Sheeple!
So my skeptical bells are ringing, but…
What about the evidence? I’d answer that, if only I could find any. I did a Pubmed search on the researcher in Act 2 of the story, and she’s published only one study on the effects of esters on the brain…of rats, not humans.
Then I searched for research connecting coconut oil and Alzheimer’s, and got zero results.
So I checked NCCAM for any articles related to coconut oil and found one reference, which found no association between cognitive decline and saturated fats.
Finally, I checked the skeptical search engine to see if any science bloggers had taken a look at the evidence. Orac at Respectful Insolence refers to making similar attempts to find any evidence on this topic, equally unsuccessfully. In another article, Steve Novella has the same experience over at his Neurologica blog. At least it’s not just me.
So what do we take away from all this? That coconut oil is simply the latest health fad to feature that lethal combination of overblown claims and extremely thin science. That there’s no magic food, despite the marketing hype to the contrary. That our best defense is our ability to pick up on the warning signs that something’s amiss, which hopefully prods us to look at the actual evidence or lack thereof. And that every once in a while, skeptics can actually help someone spot those warning signs and question the bogus claims — even if that someone is only their Mom.
Image courtesy of TigerPuppala via Flickr under Creative Commons.