A great example of a controversial food is coconut oil. It is generally praised by the media, but some scientists doubt it lives up to the hype.
It has mainly gotten a bad rap because it is very high in saturated fat. But new studies suggest saturated fat is not as unhealthy as previously believed.
Is coconut oil an artery-clogging junk food or a perfectly healthy cooking oil? This article looks at the evidence.
Coconut Oil Has a Unique Composition of Fatty Acids
Coconut oil is very different from most other cooking oils and contains a unique composition of fatty acids.
The fatty acids are about 90% saturated. But coconut oil is perhaps most unique for its high content of the saturated fat lauric acid, which makes up around 40% of its total fat content (1Trusted Source).
This makes coconut oil highly resistant to oxidation at high heat. For this reason, it is very suitable for high-heat cooking methods like frying (2Trusted Source).
Coconut oil is relatively rich in medium-chain fatty acids, containing around 7% caprylic acid and 5% capric acid (1Trusted Source).
Epileptic patients on ketogenic diets often use these fats to induce ketosis. However, coconut oil is not suitable for this purpose as it has a relatively poor ketogenic effect (3Trusted Source, 4).
While lauric acid is often considered a medium-chain fatty acid, scientists debate whether this classification is appropriate.
The next chapter provides a detailed discussion of lauric acid.
Coconut oil is rich in several types of saturated fat that are otherwise uncommon. These include lauric acid and medium-chain fatty acids.
Coconut Oil Is Rich in Lauric Acid
Coconut oil contains about 40% lauric acid.
In comparison, most other cooking oils contain only trace amounts of it. An exception is palm kernel oil, which provides 47% lauric acid (1Trusted Source).
Lauric acid is an intermediate between the long-chain and medium-chain fatty acids.
While often considered medium-chain, it is digested and metabolized differently from the true medium-chain fatty acids and has more in common with the long-chain fatty acids (4, 5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source).
Studies show that lauric acid increases the blood levels of cholesterol, but this is mostly due to an increase in cholesterol bound to high-density lipoproteins (HDL) (7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source).
An increase in HDL cholesterol, relative to total cholesterol, has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease (9Trusted Source).
Coconut oil is exceptionally rich in lauric acid, a rare saturated fat that seems to improve the composition of blood lipids.
Coconut Oil May Improve Blood Lipids
Studies indicate that regularly eating coconut oil improves the levels of lipids circulating in the blood, potentially reducing the risk of heart disease.
One large, randomized controlled study in 91 middle-aged adults examined the effects of eating 50 grams of coconut oil, butter or extra-virgin olive oil daily for a month (10Trusted Source).
The coconut oil diet significantly increased the “good” HDL cholesterol, compared to butter and extra-virgin olive oil.
Similarly to extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil didn’t increase the “bad” LDL cholesterol (10Trusted Source).
Another study in women with abdominal obesity found that coconut oil increased HDL and lowered the LDL to HDL ratio, while soybean oil increased total and LDL cholesterol and decreased HDL (11Trusted Source).
These results are somewhat inconsistent with older studies showing that coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol compared to safflower oil, a source of polyunsaturated fat, although it didn’t raise it as much as butter (12Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source).
Taken together, these studies indicate coconut oil may be protective against heart disease when compared to certain other sources of saturated fat, such as butter and soybean oil.
However, there is yet no evidence that it affects hard endpoints like heart attacks or strokes.
Studies show that coconut oil may raise the levels of the “good” HDL cholesterol, relative to total cholesterol, potentially decreasing the risk of heart disease.
Coconut Oil May Help You Lose Weight
There is some evidence that coconut oil may help you lose weight.
In a study of 40 women with abdominal obesity, coconut oil reduced waist circumference compared to soybean oil while also improving several other health markers (11Trusted Source).
Another controlled study in 15 women found that virgin coconut oil reduced appetite compared to extra-virgin olive oil, when added to a mixed breakfast (14Trusted Source).
These benefits are possibly due to medium-chain fatty acids, which may potentially lead to a modest decrease in body weight (15Trusted Source).
However, scientists have pointed out that the evidence on medium-chain fatty acids cannot be applied to coconut oil (16Trusted Source).
Despite some promising evidence, research is still limited and some researchers question coconut oil’s weight loss benefits (17Trusted Source).
A few studies suggest coconut oil may reduce belly fat and suppress appetite. But the true weight loss benefits are controversial and only moderate at best.
Historical Populations That Ate a Lot of Coconut Were Healthy
If coconut fat is unhealthy, you would expect to see some health problems in populations that eat a lot of it.
In the past, populations of indigenous people who got a large percentage of their calorie intake from coconuts were much healthier than many people in Western society.
The Tokelauans, for example, got more than 50% of their calories from coconuts and were the biggest consumers of saturated fat in the world. The Kitavans ate up to 17% of calories as saturated fat, mostly from coconuts.
Both of these populations appeared to have no traces of heart disease despite the high saturated fat intake and were overall in exceptional health (18Trusted Source, 19Trusted Source).
However, these indigenous people followed healthy lifestyles overall, ate a lot of seafood and fruit, and consumed virtually no processed foods.
It is interesting to note that they relied on coconuts, coconut flesh and coconut cream — not the processed coconut oil you buy in supermarkets today.
Nevertheless, these observational studies indicate that people can stay healthy on a diet high in saturated fat from coconuts (18Trusted Source, 19Trusted Source).
Just keep in mind that the good health of these indigenous Pacific populations reflected their healthy lifestyle, not necessarily their high coconut intake.
In the end, the benefits of coconut oil probably depend on your overall lifestyle, physical activity and diet. If you follow an unhealthy diet and don’t exercise, a high intake of coconut oil won’t do you any good.
Pacific islanders following indigenous diets ate lots of coconut without any apparent harm to their health. However, their good health probably reflected their healthy lifestyles rather than coconut oil per se.
The Bottom Line
Although the benefits of coconut oil remain controversial, there is no evidence that a moderate intake of coconut oil is harmful.
On the contrary, it may even improve your cholesterol profile, though it’s currently unknown whether it has any effects on heart disease risk.
These benefits have been attributed to its high content of lauric acid, a unique saturated fat that is otherwise rare in food.
In conclusion, eating coconut oil appears safe and may even improve your health. But as with all cooking oils, make sure to use it in moderation.
Scientists and foodologists aren’t entirely sure where coconuts came from, and when, but their best guess is that coconuts are a variety of prehistoric plant that originated in the South Pacific – most likely in New Guinea.
Reportedly, sailors aboard Vasco de Gama’s fleet dubbed the fruit with the name “coco” – sailor lingo for a hobgoblin-like, grimacing face. When “cocos” were brought back and introduced in England, the locals added the term “nut” to coco, giving it the name still widely in use today.
Perhaps the most useful ingredient inside a coconut is the oil, which health-food advocates say contributes to higher energy levels and a stronger metabolism. In fact, coconut oil’s benefits (and some risks) have become a hot topic in health and nutrition circles, as more and more people turn to coconut oil to better their wellness
Are they on to something? Here’s a deep dive on coconut oil, and what it brings to the table for you.
What Is Coconut Oil?
In a word, coconut oil is a body-friendly foodstuff that is heart-healthy, great for oral health, and other health benefits. Structurally, coconut oil is taken from coconut kernels. It’s tasteless and colorless, and is available for consumer usage in refined and unrefined coconut oil.
Composite-wise, coconut oil contains a cornucopia of fatty acids and proteins that hold antioxidants and provide myriad health benefits. It’s rich in so-called medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA’s), which are, in great part, comprised of Caprylic acid, Lauric acid and Capric acid.
As a rule, nutritionists love MCFA’s, noting that, among other advantages, they’re easily digestible and since they’re processed by the liver, MCFA’s are more effectively and quickly converted to energy, and not fat, inside the body.
Coconut Oil Nutritional Facts
Here is how coconut oil is broken down, nutritionally (based on one tablespoon of coconut oil.)
- 120 calories.
- 0 grams of protein
- 14 grams of fat (12 = saturated fat; 1 = monounsaturated fat; and 0.5 grams of polyunsaturated fats.)
- 0 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol
It’s worth noting that, component-wise, coconut oils often differ in their make-up, and differ in their health benefits.
For example, partially hydrogenated coconut oil isn’t deemed as healthy by nutritionists – it’s similar as other processed oils that hold trans fats. Yet so-called “virgin” coconut oil comes from fruit component of coconuts, and is extracted without the use of chemicals or other foreign agents. Thus, nutritionists look more favorably on virgin coconut oil.
10 Benefits of Coconut Oil
There is a growing body of evidence that coconut oil offers some health benefits, both internally and externally.
1. A Boost in Good Cholesterol
Coconut oil is said to modestly hike one’s level of good cholesterol.
2. Good for Blood Sugar and Diabetes
Coconut oil can aid in lowering obesity levels in the body and also battles insulin resistance – issues that often lead to type two diabetes.
4. Helps Stop Heart Disease and High Blood Pressure
Since coconut oil is so high in saturated fats, that helps boost HDL (or “good”) cholesterol to ward off heart disease and lowering high triglycerides. Additionally, coconut oil also performs a rather remarkable and heart-healthy feat – it helps turn bad cholesterol into good cholesterol.
5. Aids in Liver Health
Coconut oil also guards against any damage to the liver, and also aids in curing urinary tract infections.
6. Boosts Energy
Unrefined coconut oil also hikes energy and endurance, primarily by its MCFA’s shooting directly into the liver, which enables to be converted into energy.
7. Aids with Digestion
Another benefit of coconut oil – it helps with food digestion by aid the body take in fat-soluble components like vitamins and magnesium. It also eliminates toxic bacteria and candida, which fights poor digestion and stomach inflammation. That helps prevent stomach ulcers.
8. Acts as a Salve for Wounds and Burns
Coconut is good for the skin, especially in the treatment of wounds, burns, and dermatitis. It also acts as sunblock, and as a moisturizer for the skin, thanks to the two primary fatty acids in unrefined coconut oil, caprylic and lauric, and to its antioxidant component, which team up to reduce inflammation under the skin and promote better healing.
9. Acts as an Anti-aging Component
Rich with antioxidants, coconut oil is known to slow the aging process, generally by curbing any undue stress on the liver.
10. Helps With Weight Loss
Coconut oil also can help with weight loss, as it acts as a fat burner and a calorie burner, especially with doses of unrefined coconut oil. It also acts as an appetite suppressant. One study shows that the capric acid in coconut oil helps boost thyroid performance, which in turn reduces a body’s resting heart rate and aids in burning fat for an increased energy boost.
Coconut Oil Risks
Some critics of coconut oil as a health and wellness remedy recommend that users slow their roll before taking in too much coconut oil.
For starters, the bulk of the medical research hasn’t been done on humans, so any conclusions drawn have to be taken with a grain of salt. Additionally, coconut oil is high in calories, and used to excess, could result in weight gain, especially if coupled with a high-calorie diet.
In reality, any risks associated with coconut oil comes down to saturated fats, which are abundant in coconuts. The American Hospital Association recently issued a warning against saturated fats, especially coconut oil. In addition, the American Heart Association recommends keeping saturated fat intake to no more than 6% of one’s total calorie intake.
In general, medical professionals recommend edging away from unsaturated fats and toward unsaturated fats to increase heart health, and to increase healthy food habits.