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.

“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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