New Delhi: There’s a coconut war afoot. A warning by Prof Karin Michels of Harvard on the alleged health risks associated with coconut oil has prompted a surprisingly strong attack by the Indian agriculture ministry, which has written to the university demanding “corrective measures" and a retraction while hailing the fruit as a “revered crop".
“I hope that you will take corrective measures by retracting the statement and come out clean by accepting the circumstances that compelled her (Prof. Michels) for the negative statements against the revered crop of billions," the horticulture commissioner in the ministry of agriculture, B.N.S. Murthy, told the dean of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in a letter dated 28 August.
Mint has reviewed a copy of the letter, dashed off after Prof Michels described coconut oil as “pure poison... one of the worst foods you can eat."
Murthy called the professor’s comments “controversial".
“The industry provides livelihood to more than 12 million farm families. In India, coconut has a tradition dating back several thousand years and is unique in being revered as the tree of life," he told Harvard.
In a lecture at the University of Freiburg in July, Prof Michels of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said health claims surrounding coconut oil were “absolute nonsense". She described the oil—a popular cooking medium in southern India—as “pure poison" for its saturated fat content and the risks it posed to the heart.
“Coconut oil is one of the worst things you can eat," Michels said in a lecture on ‘Coconut oil and other nutritional errors’.
Michels based her warning on the high proportion of saturated fat in coconut oil, which is known to raise levels of LDL cholesterol, which is associated with a high risk of cardiovascular disease. Coconut oil contains more than 80% saturated fat.
“Mere googling pulled out 19,100,000 general results and 411,000 scholarly articles indicating health benefits of using coconut oil. Prof Michels’ statements are unsubstantiated and inconsiderate. Moreover, there is no evidence that coconut oil consumption is linked to health disease or inflammatory diseases. Rather contemporary studies have shown that coconut oil is healthy," the government official said. “There are plenty of studies that show coconut oil is safe."
India’s food regulator took a more moderate line, saying it would seek scientific opinion on Michels’ claim.
“As of now there is no need to panic. Since it is coming from such a reputed university it cannot be dismissed. However, we will take required action depending on the opinion we get from the experts in India. One has to study the risk factor in detail on Indian population," said Pawan Agarwal, chief executive officer of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
Murthy told Mint he had raised the issue at the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Coconut Community in Thailand that held from 20-24 August.
“The community in their open letter objected to the claim by the Harvard professor."
The annual coconut production in the country is 2,395 crore from 20.82 lakh hectares and the productivity is 11,505 coconuts per hectare, the minister for agriculture and farmers’ welfare, Radha Mohan Singh, said in January this year. Coconut contributes about ₹ 27,900 crore to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). In 2016-17, coconut products worth of ₹ 2,084 crore were exported.
Coconut oil has significant use in toiletry, food and various industrial sectors.
Dr. Anoop Misra, chairman, Fortis-C-DOC Centre of Excellence for Diabetes, Metabolic Diseases and Endocrinology agreed that coconut oil elevates bad cholesterol, citing various clinical trials and observational studies.
“A detailed scientific review of eight clinical trials and 13 observational studies clearly shows that coconut oil clearly elevates LDL while slightly increasing HDL (good cholesterol). Such changes twist the balance towards increased risk of heart disease, only slightly less than that seen with butter. The good news is that intake of coconut flesh incorporated in traditional diets does not increase risk for heart disease," he said.
“It’s easy on the intestines and absorption and may help in raising the good cholesterol but currently we think it is not of much meaning—it’s the bad cholesterol that matters."