The comments by Michels sparked a mix of outrage and incredulity in a country where coconut oil is a dietary staple, especially in the south. (Kerala, a state in southern India, can be translated as “land of the coconut tree.”)
The comments by Michels are “unsubstantiated and inconsiderate,” wrote B.N. Srinivasa Murthy, India’s horticulture commissioner, in a letter emailed last week to the dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
He asked the dean to take “corrective measures” and retract the comments. Michels made “negative statements against the revered crop of billions,” Murthy wrote.
In an interview, Murthy said the lecture by Michels came up at a meeting last month in Bangkok of the Asia Pacific Coconut Community, a gathering of officials from 18 countries. “There was a little bit of anguish,” he said. “I wondered what had made her make this statement.”
The skirmish between India and Michels is part of the larger war over coconut oil.
Rajesh Muralidharan, a cardiologist in Kerala, said his initial reaction upon learning of the lecture by Michels was, “Oh, not again.” He said he thought of all the questions he would face from his patients.
“The answer is that we don’t have an answer,” he said. “What we try to tell them is all oils have fat and to use as little as possible.”
It is impossible to imagine Keralan cuisine without coconut oil, he added. “Our ancestors have been using this for ages,” he said. “It’s something in the blood, the taste of coconut oil.”
V.S. Sunil Kumar, Kerala’s minister of agriculture, said that he, too, planned to write a letter to Harvard seeking an explanation of the comments by Michels.
“Our lived experience is that coconut oil is not a poison,” he said. “Without coconut, there is no life in Kerala. That is true.”