By Kahini Iyer Aug. 24, 2018
Even as a kid, I knew that the secret to gorgeous hair was my dad’s heavy-handed Parachute champi and that the tastiest fish was fried in coconut oil. So it came as a rude shock when Harvard professor Karin Michels denigrated coconut oil as “pure poison”.
very week, there’s a new study out about a freshly discovered superfood – followed by another one on how that same superfood is actually giving you 17 different types of cancer. Is chocolate guaranteed to keep your heart healthy, or is it just a delicious bar of diabetes? Should you drink that glass of milk and improve your bone density, even if it means risking leaky gut syndrome (whatever the hell that is)? Will chugging red wine straight from the bottle boost your flavonoids, or make you puke?
Truly, these are questions for the ages. One thing we could always count on, however, was our humble nariyal ka tel. Even as a kid, I knew that the secret to gorgeous hair was my dad’s heavy-handed Parachute champi – the one that left my brain feeling like it had pooled at the base of my skull – and that the tastiest fish was fried in coconut oil. But later, that ubiquitous bottle of crystal-clear grease did more for our country’s global standing than certain politicians, and became a certified, white-people-approved superfood. So naturally, it came as a rude shock when Harvard epidemiologist Karin Michels recently denigrated coconut oil as “pure poison”.
I wasn’t the only one who was confused. Indian Twitter is aghast, with user @shruthipady promising that while Malayalis are currently busy, they will soon address this outrageous claim. Others have shouted out to grandparents rolling in the grave, and have firmly shot down Michels for being #fakenews.
There’s no denying the feeling of betrayal when the tables have so rapidly turned. Coconut oil is the internet’s answer to nearly every question about health and lifestyle. Vegan bloggers recommend it as a butter substitute, organic forest dwellers use it instead of deodorant and mouthwash, and eczema sufferers just slather it on everywhere. Some say that it soothes acne, while others rub it into wood furniture and flea-plagued pets. Between being a key ingredient in DIY non-toxic slime, and a medium for making french fries, the Western approach to coconut oil is basically to splash the stuff liberally around and inside you, and then wait for the warm glow of greasy good health to hit.
And yet, there was Karin Michels – a white woman who should, by law, love coconut oil – who studies diseases, not nutrition, making offensive statements about an Indian export that’s right up there with Coachella bindis and “turmeric lattes”. What gives?
Twitter is rife with theories, with some pointing a finger at Big Pharma: either because they feel threatened by the all-natural wonder that is coconut oil, or because they’re trying to patent it, as has been the case with other ayurvedic superstars like haldi and tulsi. Others have demonised Big Oil, namely the manufacturers of oil-rich cash crops like soybean, rapeseed, and corn, for trying to usurp the coconut’s crown.
While all of this is plausible and certainly not unprecedented, Michels’ blanket disavowal of coconut oil as poison is a gross exaggeration. Her criticism that it has high amounts of saturated fats and causes an increase in LDL cholesterol levels has been refuted by those who advocate high-fat diets. And of course, alongside Indians, there are Filipinos, Sri Lankans, and others who traditionally eat coconut oil, and despite regularly consuming pure poison, we are all miraculously alive and well.
Still, in Michels’ defense, she was also responding to the equally extreme adoption of the substance in the West, as a God-sent panacea. Much as we enjoy coconut oil in our home, we’ve never thought of it as a magic health tonic – that honour is reserved for chyawanprash. Coconut oil is still oil, and conventional wisdom (or plain common sense) suggests it should be used in moderation. There’s no doubt that Michels is right in saying that tossing back a cup of coconut oil with your morning toast is a pretty questionable health decision.
And of course, alongside Indians, there are Filipinos, Sri Lankans, and others who traditionally eat coconut oil, and despite regularly consuming pure poison, we are all miraculously alive and well.
Clearly, the real problem is not with our trusty coconut oil. It’s with superfood fads that convince the overzealous among us to go big or go home. If coconut oil is so great for you, why not drizzle it over everything you eat, and then on that one weird mole on your leg for good measure? Since chia seeds are nutritious, surely they belong everywhere, from salads to smoothies to “healthy” chocolate pudding, and is a meal even worth eating if it’s not served on a bed of kale that cleanses your aura and colon in equal measure?
Sticking to a strict superfood diet might add a few good years to your life, if not to your happiness. But what happens when you inevitably find out that it’s all a lie, and that your best efforts to be healthy have actually given you high blood pressure? Whether you decide to cut down on the acai or abandon the superfood fad altogether is up to you. Just don’t blame it on our coconut oil.