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    Harvard expert’s criticism of coconut oil widely shared online

    But they seem so healthy. A labourer sorts raw coconuts in India.
    Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images
    But they seem so healthy. A labourer sorts raw coconuts in India.

    Coconut oil has been making headlines lately, thanks to a lecture given by a Harvard professor that’s gone viral.

    In her much-debated speech, Karin Michels, an adjunct professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, described coconut oil as “pure poison,” which comes as heresy to people who profess its benefits.

    A video of her lecture, titled “Coconut oil and other nutritional errors,” has been viewed on YouTube more than 966,000 times.

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    But Michels is not the first to speak out about the topic.

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    Last year, the American Heart Association issued an advisory that recommended against the use of coconut oil.

    Despite such warnings, many people still swear by coconut oil. Whole Foods Market touts many coconut oil recipes on its website, and boasts that it can be used in cakes and cookies and other baked goods, as well as in stir-fries, sautés, and roasted vegetable dishes.

    Dr. Frank Sacks, a professor in the Nutrition Department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was the lead author of the report, which found that replacing saturated fat with healthier fats could lower cardiovascular risks.

    “Coconut oil is very high in saturated fat, and that raises your LDL cholesterol — bad cholesterol,” Sacks said in a telephone interview. “It has more saturated fat than butter or meat.”

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    After reviewing the research studies, Sacks said advising against the use of coconut oil “was a pretty easy call” to make.

    The bottom line is this: Coconut oil is an unhealthful food, and you’d be better off rubbing it on your skin, he said. “It’s unhealthy to be eating it,” he said.

    The public has yet to be convinced.

    The same American Heart Association report cited a survey showing that 72 percent of Americans rated coconut oil as a “healthy food” compared with 37 percent of nutritionists. “This disconnect between lay and expert opinion can be attributed to the marketing of coconut oil in the popular press,” the report stated.

    Sacks said he was surprised by the backlash he received after the American Heart Association advisory came out. Although the recommendation to avoid coconut oil “was just a small part of the report,” Sacks said, most of the feedback he received was about the oil.

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    The fact that coconut oil isn’t good for you “shouldn’t be news,” he said.

    “The coconut industry — or some other industry — is promoting coconut oil,” he said. “People are gullible and will listen to advertising, especially when it comes to foods.”

    Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.