The Health Benefits of Coconut Oil: Facts and Fiction

A meta-analysis of 16 clinical trials found that coconut oil consumption increased both LDL and HDL cholesterol levels relative to other nontropical vegetable oils.

A palm plantation at East Asia.
Sep. 16, 2021
By Daniel Dawson
A palm plantation at East Asia.

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Coconut oil has gained a cer­tain mys­tique over the past few decades.

A quick search online would have one believe that the edi­ble oil extracted from the wick, meat and milk of the coconut palm fruit can do every­thing. Its con­sump­tion is touted as a mir­a­cle weight loss solu­tion, a way to lower cho­les­terol, an aphro­disiac and even a cure to Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

Indeed, coconut oil enjoys cult-like sup­port from its fans, so much so that when the American Heart Association cau­tioned that over­con­sump­tion of coconut oil poses a greater risk than lard con­sump­tion for the heart, the online fury was pal­pa­ble.

See Also: Olive Oil Basics

The coconut indus­try – or some other indus­try – is pro­mot­ing coconut oil,” said Frank Sacks, the lead author of that advi­sory and a car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease pre­ven­tion research at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. People are gullible and will lis­ten to adver­tis­ing, espe­cially when it comes to foods.”

As with many things in life that sound too good to be true, there are cer­tain stip­u­la­tions and lim­i­ta­tions to the ben­e­fits pro­vided by coconut oil con­sump­tion.

Composition of coconut oil

In order to cut through the myths and mis­in­for­ma­tion that abound about the prod­uct, it is help­ful to first under­stand what coconut oil actu­ally is.

Unlike olive oil or other veg­etable oils, coconut oil is usu­ally solid at room tem­per­a­ture. This is because it com­prises mostly sat­u­rated fats – about 87 per­cent, to be exact. By way of com­par­i­son, but­ter is only 63 per­cent sat­u­rated fat and extra vir­gin olive oil is only 14 per­cent sat­u­rated fat.

Saturated fat con­sump­tion increases plasma low-den­sity lipopro­tein (LDL) cho­les­terol con­cen­tra­tions. High lev­els of LDL cho­les­terol are widely linked to ath­er­o­scle­ro­sis since the LDL cho­les­terol deposits some of its cho­les­terol load onto the arte­r­ial wall as it trav­els through the blood­stream, lead­ing to inflam­ma­tion and in the worst cases, obstruc­tion of the arter­ies.

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In con­trast, a 2015 study from the University of California-Davis Olive Center found that con­sum­ing 20 grams, 1.5 table­spoons, of extra vir­gin olive oil each day for at least six weeks may lower the con­cen­tra­tion of LDL cho­les­terol in the blood.

However, the pro­po­nents of coconut oil tend to brush over its LDL cho­les­terol con­tent and empha­size that its con­sump­tion raises high-den­sity-lipopro­teins (HDL) cho­les­terol, which has long been thought to pro­tect against heart dis­ease.

The evi­dence for this claim is far from con­clu­sive. Clinical tri­als with HDL-rais­ing drugs could not demon­strate a clear-cut link between higher rates of HDL cho­les­terol in the blood and lower instances of car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease.

It is unknown which, if any, foods or nutri­ents that raise HDL cho­les­terol do so in a way that reduces ath­er­o­scle­ro­sis and coro­nary events,” Sacks said.

Due to its high lev­els of sat­u­rated fats, coconut oil is also a calo­rie-rich food, sup­ply­ing 117 kilo-calo­ries per table­spoon, which is more than but­ter or lard.

Additionally, coconut oil con­tains no cho­les­terol or fiber, while only pro­vid­ing trace amounts of vit­a­mins, min­er­als and plant sterols, which block the absorp­tion of cho­les­terol in the body.

Coconut oil mar­ket­ing myths

Slickly-pro­duced YouTube videos and seem­ingly author­i­ta­tive arti­cles that prop­a­gate online with catchy click­bait head­lines that do address the LDL cho­les­terol con­tent of coconut oil will often argue that this does not mat­ter because of coconut oil’s lau­ric acid con­tent.

Coconut oil gurus argue that lau­ric acid is a short-chain sat­u­rated fatty acid. These short-chain fatty acids are more water-sol­u­ble than longer chain fatty acids. They do not stick to arte­r­ial walls and have a fairly neg­li­gi­ble impact on LDL cho­les­terol pro­duc­tion.

See Also: Switching From Coconut Oil to Olive Oil Can Be Good for Your Heart

Comprising 47 per­cent lau­ric acid, coconut oil does indeed have a plu­ral­ity of this sat­u­rated fatty acid. However, experts argue that call­ing lau­ric acid a short-chain fatty acid is a mis­nomer.

Composed of 12 car­bon atoms, lau­ric acid would tech­ni­cally fit the def­i­n­i­tion of a medium-chain fatty acid, which is also fairly water-sol­u­ble and has a much more lim­ited effect on LDL cho­les­terol cre­ation.

However, lau­ric acid actu­ally behaves more like a long-chain sat­u­rated fatty acid since it is pack­aged into chy­lomi­crons in the blood, a mech­a­nism that increases LDL cho­les­terol by cir­cu­lates the fatty acid chain for much longer than shorter chain fatty acids.

basics-cooking-with-olive-oil-health-news-the-health-benefits-of-coconut-oil-facts-and-fiction-olive-oil-times

A meta-analy­sis of 16 clin­i­cal tri­als found that coconut oil con­sump­tion increased both LDL and HDL cho­les­terol lev­els rel­a­tive to other non­trop­i­cal veg­etable oils.

LDL cho­les­terol increased by 10 points, while HDL cho­les­terol increased by four points. Only palm oil con­sump­tion increased cho­les­terol more than coconut oil. The meta-analy­sis fur­ther con­cluded that coconut oil con­sump­tion has no sig­nif­i­cant effect on body weight or body fat per­cent­age, com­pared to other veg­etable oils.

Beware of sus­pect sci­ence

Interestingly, many of the health claims from coconut oil gurus that the product’s heart-healthy, cho­les­terol-low­er­ing and energy-pro­vid­ing effects are based on one study.

However, what they often neglect to men­tion is these find­ings exam­ined a spe­cific for­ma­tion of coconut oil made from 100-per­cent medium-chain triglyc­erides instead of lau­ric acid and the other pri­mary sat­u­rated fatty acids – myris­tic acid (18 per­cent), palmitic acid (9 per­cent) and caprylic acid (7 per­cent).

The medium-chain triglyc­erides in this iter­a­tion of coconut oil meant most of the sat­u­rated fat was absorbed into the blood instead of being stored in chy­lomi­crons. After diges­tion, the medium-chain triglyc­erides travel to the liver where they are used for energy.

This for­mu­la­tion of coconut oil is not sold com­mer­cially. In fact, most com­mer­cially avail­able coconut oil com­prises only four per­cent medium-chain triglyc­erides.

Different types of coconut oil

Just like olive oil – and unlike most other veg­etable oils – there are a few ways to pro­duce coconut oil.

Coconut oil can be made by press­ing fresh coconut flesh or dry coconut flesh.

When it is made using fresh coconut flesh, the result is a mix­ture of coconut milk and oil. The milk is sep­a­rated from the oil via fer­men­ta­tion, cen­trifu­ga­tion or by the use of enzymes and the result­ing prod­uct is vir­gin or extra vir­gin coconut oil.

Unlike olive oil, these terms are not reg­u­lated by any gov­ern­ment or agen­cies and are syn­ony­mous.

Refined coconut oil is made from dry coconut flesh, also known as copra, which is pressed to release the oil. The oil is then refined in a sim­i­lar man­ner to most other seed oils and deodor­ized before it can be safely con­sumed.

Additionally, either one of these coconut oils can be par­tially hydro­genated, a process in which hydro­gen atoms are added to the unsat­u­rated fats in the oil. This process increases the shelf-life of the prod­uct

Consume coconut oil in mod­er­a­tion as part of a healthy diet

While coconut oil is far from a super­food, there is no prob­lem enjoy­ing it in mod­er­ate amounts as part of a healthy diet.

Coconut oil serves as an excel­lent sub­sti­tute for but­ter when bak­ing vegan goods. Using small amounts of vir­gin coconut oil also adds a sub­tle coconut fla­vor to sauteéd veg­eta­bles, sauces and cur­ries.

Coconut oil is also an effec­tive mois­tur­izer for skin and hair. Massage small amounts directly onto the skin or hair and leave it in place for the desired amount of time before wash­ing it out.





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