Is coconut oil healthy? Barlean’s under fire as lawsuit cites oil's high saturated fat content

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: Barlean's
Picture: Barlean's

Related tags: Coconut oil, Saturated fat

Barlean’s is the latest brand to be hit with a lawsuit challenging the notion that coconut oil is a healthy choice, with plaintiffs alleging that the high-saturated fat oil is one of the least healthy options for consumers shopping the edible oils aisle.

The complaint* is the latest in a string of lawsuits challenging the health credentials of coconut oil, and follows lawsuits vs Costco (which settled a high profile case in 2017), Nature’s Way, Nutiva, and Carrington Farms (the latter two were both filed by the same attorneys behind the Barlean’s case).

In the lawsuit, filed in California on January 24, plaintiffs Michael Testone, Collin Shanks, and Lamartine Pierre allege that Barlean’s falsely implies that coconut oil (which typically contains more than 80% saturated fat​) is inherently healthy – particularly for your heart -  and is also a healthier choice than butter and other cooking oils.  

The linear relationship between saturated fat intake and risk of coronary heart disease is well established and accepted in the scientific community… The USDA and DHHS specifically recommend replacing tropical oils (e.g., palm, palm kernel, and coconut oils) with vegetable oils that are high in unsaturated fats and relatively low in SFA (e.g., soybean, corn, olive, and canola oils).”

They add: “Barlean’s misleadingly markets its coconut oil products as inherently healthy, and a healthy alternative to butter and various cooking oils, despite that coconut oil is actually inherently unhealthy​ [on the grounds that it is very high in saturated fat, which increases LDL cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease], and a less healthy option to these alternatives.”

Barlean’s told FoodNavigator-USA that, “We do not comment on pending litigation, particularly as we have just received the complaint and are still reviewing it.”

Bruce Silverglade, principal at OFW Law, told FoodNavigator-USA that, "The defendants in this case would be wise to settle quickly. Many of their claims are over the top.​"  

 Barlean’s labels includes terms such as:

  • Nature’s most versatile superfood.’​ (The plaintiffs dispute a very high saturated fat oil is a superfood.)
  • Raw whole food.​’​ (The plaintiffs argue that coconut fat – which is extracted from coconut meat - is not a whole food, and doesn’t contain fibers and other components in the coconut)
  • Harvested at the peak of flavor and nutrition​.’  (The plaintiffs say this implies the oil is nutritious.)
  • COCONUT OIL: A SMART FAT:  A natural source of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), coconut oil boosts the metabolism, supports the heart and immune system and provides quick energy​.’ ​ (The plaintiffs say these claims are not supported by science)
  • Cholesterol-free.​’ ​(The plaintiffs say this is misleading because even if the oil contains​ no cholesterol, coconut oil nevertheless increase blood cholesterol. They also say this is a nutrient content claim that doesn’t meet the FDA’s criteria of <2g sat fat per RACC.)
  • The ultimate cooking oil for health-conscious gourmets.​’​ (This falsely implies the oil is healthy, say plaintiffs.)
  • Healthy alternative to butter’​(The plaintiffs say this is not supported by evidence. They also say coconut oil doesn’t meet nutrient content claim criteria for ‘healthy’ as it’s high in saturated fat).

Editor’s note:​ While the FDA issued guidance in 2016​ relaxing enforcement criteria on products high in total fat as long as it is mostly mono- and poly-unsaturated fat (eg. nuts, avocados), coconut oil does not qualify as ‘healthy’ because it is high in sat fat.

  • Great source of medium chain triglycerides​’ (This is misleading because coconut oil is mainly C12:0 lauric acid and C14:0 myristic acid, which have “potent LDL-C-raising effects,​” claim the plaintiffs.)

Coconut oil, saturated fat, and cardiovascular health

According to USDA charts, coconut oil is higher in saturated fat than butter, lard, palm oil, and beef tallow, which the 2015 dietary guidelines advise Americans to replace with liquid oils higher in mono and polyunsaturated fats.

According to a 2017 advisory​​​​ from the American Heart Association (Sacks et al)​​​coconut oil raises LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol. And while it also raises HDL (‘good’) cholesterol, likely due to its high levels of lauric acid, say the authors, this doesn’t necessarily cancel out the effect on LDL, whereas other oils high in mono- and poly-unsaturated fats not only raise HDL but also lower LDL.

However, those querying whether saturated fat is the nutritional bogeyman some make it out to be, cite a 2010 meta-analysis​​​ published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that found “no significant evidence … that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease,” ​​and a 2015 study​​​ in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which concluded that, ‘C​​urrent evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.”​​

Read what one expert has to say about coconut oil and cardiovascular health HERE​.  

*The case is Testone et al. v. Barlean’s Organic Oils, LLC 3:19-cv-00169 filed in the southern district of California on January 24. The plaintiffs are represented by the law offices of Paul K. Joseph, PC and Jack Fitzgerald, PC, and allege violations of California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act, Unfair Competition Law, False Advertising Law, and New York’s Unfair and Deceptive Business Practices Law, and False Advertising Law. They also allege breaches of express and implied warranties under California and New York state law.

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