Many fad diets promoted on the Internet now recommend using coconut oil, particularly for weight loss. Without ruling it out for some limited uses, heart-health specialists strongly oppose its general or routine use.
One indicator of the health-related qualities of a food is the number of qualifications attached to its healthy version. Coconut oil, having its moment in the tropical sun as an ingredient pomoted in fad diets, is a perfect example.
Infamously “high in cholesterol,” it is being promoted as healthy mainly in its “cold-pressed,” “virgin,” and "extra-virgin" forms. On the grocery shelf, these putatively purer forms of the oil are conspicuously more expensive than the “processed” and “hydrogenated” forms, the higher cost itself a hint that cold-pressing or some other form of processing ameliorates other hazards in the oil.
Coconut oil is an easy sell because of its “what’s not-to-like” sensory qualities. It’s delicious and aromatic. It’s solid at “room temperature”—unless the room is in one of the tropical regions where it is made. It “cooks hot,” which is to say it heats quickly and retains heat, both lowering cooking time and allowing for cooking at higher temperatures.
Some of its proponents bill it as “heart-healthy,” but Western scientists and physicians say otherwise—or, rather to the contrary. Its promotion in alternative diets is usually based on claims that it is the only oil used in some cultures, mostly coastal or remote-island tropical cultures, in which there are fewer recorded heart and other circulation diseases than in most of the West.
To return for a moment to the price factor, the smart shopper is likely to notice that even the most expensive, “pure” coconut oil varieties are cheaper than similarly “clean-processed” oils of other varieties, most conspicuously olive oil. That can only add to its allure.
The warring information, and the energy with which the pros and cons are pressed, have made the issue of its healthiness complicated and unnecessarily fraught. Pay close attention when special-diet promoters tell you that any ingredient is good for you in a way the medical establishment, drug makers, and industry-compromised researchers want to keep a “secret” from you.
The relevant facts are known.
What’s in it?
Fat, of course. Oil is fat. But coconut oil is variously estimated as between 82% and 92% saturated fat. Put another way, in one tablespoon, 12 of its 14 grams of fat are saturated.
Adding to the potential confusion, there are different kinds of saturated fats. “Long-chain” saturated fats have 12 or more carbon atoms. “Medium-chain” saturated fats have fewer than 12.
Some long-chain fats, stearic acid, for example, do not cause a rise of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in the blood stream. (It’s the most common fat in chocolate and cocoa butter.)
The saturated fats in the “tropical” oils such as coconut oil and palm oil, on the other hand, are variously known as palmitic, myrisitic, or lauric acids. They do elevate LDL blood cholesterol.
The smallest portion of fat in coconut oil is of the medium-chain variety, known as the caproic, caprylic, and capric acids. Their effect on LCL cholesterol levels is small.
What about the “good” cholesterol?
Half the saturated fat in coconut oil is of the lauric acid type, an unusually high proportion in a food. Lauric acid is known to raise the level of HDL, or “good” cholesterol.” This is thought to be particularly beneficial in diets in which oils replace carbohydrates.
In her article “Is coconut oil healthy?,” CNN food and nutrition writer Lisa Drayer quoted Dr. Walter C. Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, as saying that differences in types of HDL have further “made the waters murky.”
Kevin Klatt, a Cornell University molecular nutrition researcher studying the metabolic effects of coconut oil, told Drayer that, in her words, “Some forms of HDL help remove LDL from the bloodstream, but not all of them do. There is extremely preliminary evidence that the increase in LDL may not be as pronounced if one consumes extra virgin coconut oil instead of refined coconut oil.”
What about the cultures that rely wholly on coconut oil?
In its article “Is Coconut Oil Bad for You?, the Pritikin Center addresses the issue in a section called “Polynesia.” It quotes its nutritional research specialist Dr. Jay Kenney as follows (verbatim):
“Studies of people on traditional Polynesian diets have found that they have relatively low rates from heart disease despite high LDL cholesterol levels, but other aspects of their native lifestyle are very healthful, and probably help counteract the cholesterol-raising effect of the coconut fat.
“Their traditional diet, for example, is very high in dietary fiber and heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids from fish, and very low in sodium. Historically, native Polynesians also tended to be nonsmokers, and were physically very active. All these factors would certainly promote heart health.”
But is coconut oil “bad” for you?
The professional consensus is not that it is bad in and of itself, but that its use should be deliberate, specialized, and restricted. Occasional use in tropical dishes such as Thai food and in certain bakery products is unlikely to be harmful.
The saturated fat in coconut oil is closely equivalent to that of butter. The saturated fats in “tropical” oils are, the Pritikin site points out, are the same “saturated fatty acids in meat, poultry, and dairy fats like milk, butter, and cheese.”
There is some research that suggests that coconut oil is helpful in reducing “belly fat,” making it attractive to people whose main aim in dieting is weight loss. Klatt told CNN, "Even if coconut oil does help reduce belly fat, [coconut oil] doesn't necessarily outweigh the concern about its effect on lipids, specifically LDL.
"You can't infer from ... studies what coconut oil will and will not do. We need better controlled trials. Right now, the internet is jumping the gun and going way beyond the evidence."
The recommmended alternatives
Willett told CNN, "Coconut oil is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum in terms of types of fats. It's probably better than partially hydrogenated oils (which are) high in trans fats but not as good as the more unsaturated plant oils that have proven health benefits, like olive and canola oil. It's probably not quite as 'bad' as butter but not as good as extra virgin olive oil."
In its article, “Is Coconut Oil Healthy for Your Heart (or Not)?,” the Cleveland Clinic voiced the majority opinion (verbatim):
“For heart health, the best types of oils are monosaturated and polyunsaturated oils—primarily extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). Several studies on the Mediterranean diet have proven EVOO’s benefits for the heart.
“To maximize the nutritional value and benefit of EVOO, avoid cooking it at high temperatures (above 375 degrees C). More refined oils, like peanut, sunflower and canola, are acceptable if you need to cook at higher heats.”
American Heart Association Presidential Advisory, with link to full report in pdf: