How Coconut Oil Got Its Reputation for Being Healthy in the First Place

Health food fanatics were in a tizzy after coconut oil was called out by the American Heart Association for its high saturated fat content. But how did coconut oil get its reputation for being healthy in the first place?

Jul. 10, 2017
By Anthony Vasquez-Peddie

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A state­ment from the American Heart Association in June had health food fanat­ics in a tizzy by bad-mouthing coconut oil for its high sat­u­rated fat con­tent, deliv­er­ing a blow to the highly-touted trop­i­cal prod­uct. But how exactly did coconut oil get its rep­u­ta­tion for being healthy in the first place?

I see my research being quoted sup­port­ing the health ben­e­fits of coconut oil. I always find it sur­pris­ing, because I haven’t done research on coconut oil per se.- Marie-Pierre St. Onge, Columbia University

The ori­gin of coconut oil’s rise to fame is partly based on a pair of stud­ies by Columbia University nutri­tion pro­fes­sor Marie-Pierre St. Onge. The results of this research, pub­lished in 2003, are often cited in arti­cles that sup­port the use of coconut oil as a healthy food option.

My research has been focused on medium-chain triglyc­eride oil,” St. Onge told Olive Oil Times. When I’m asked about which food sources this could be found in, it’s in the largest quan­ti­ties in coconut oil. It’s also found in palm ker­nel oil and but­ter. Those are spe­cific fatty acids that are not found in most veg­etable oils, other than those trop­i­cal oils.”

The stud­ies com­pared the use of medium-chain triglyc­eride oil and olive oil. Consumption of medium-chain triglyc­eride oil resulted in greater weight loss. It also did­n’t increase the risk of car­dio­vas­cu­lar disease.

There’s just one prob­lem when apply­ing St. Onge’s research to the use of coconut oil.

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Those fatty acids make up about 13 – 14 per­cent of the total fatty acids found in coconut oil. The research I’ve done was with 100 per­cent medium-chain triglyc­eride oil,” she said. So what we found is that when you eat medium-chain triglyc­eride oil at a level of 20 – 25 grams per day, par­tic­i­pants lost more weight and they did­n’t have an adverse car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease risk pro­file, at least in terms of their lipid pro­file, glu­cose and insulin lev­els, com­pared to olive oil.”

Despite the fact a cus­tom-made oil was used dur­ing the stud­ies, many have seized upon on St. Onge’s research to pro­mote coconut oil as a healthy food choice.

I always find it sur­pris­ing, because I haven’t done research on coconut oil per se,” she said. So I can’t really say whether coconut oil itself would have the same ben­e­fit for weight man­age­ment as medium-chain triglyc­eride oil.”

St. Onge stressed her research focused solely on medium-chain triglyc­eride oil and that she does­n’t want her pub­lished work to make it seem she endorses coconut oil.

I don’t want to make it seem like I think that coconut oil has this health ben­e­fit because of my research. I know that some­times I see my research being quoted sup­port­ing the health ben­e­fits of coconut oil. I haven’t done coconut oil research so I can’t myself speak to the effects of it, only to the spe­cific fatty acids that are found in largest amounts in coconut oil.”

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