Coconut Oil: Healthy or Over-Hyped?

It wasn’t all that long ago that anything coconut-related was considered a dietary “no-no.” The fact that we are taking another look at coconut oil is a testament to the fact that nutrition is a science, and science is continually evolving. So why does coconut oil still not earn Guiding Stars, like olive and canola oils?

Dầu dừa
Dầu dừa / Phú Thịnh Co / CC BY 2.0

It’s still a saturated fat.

When we last considered coconut oil, its membership in the “tropical oils” category of fats (along with palm oil and palm kernel oil) made it enemy number one for those who were watching out for their heart health. Indeed, it is a tropical oil, and it’s still high in saturated fat (about 85%)—that hasn’t changed. In fact, the American Heart Association suggests limiting total saturated fat intake to less than 7% of daily calories. A prime way to do that, the AHA says, is to cut down on the commercially baked cookies, cakes and snacks that often contain coconut oil as a way to significantly decrease one’s saturated fat intake.

For the record, that bit of advice is good for more than just limiting saturated fat intake: you’ll cut down on empty calories, overall fat and sugar intake, as well as trim calories from your diet if you step away from the boxed baked goods.

But is does have lauric acid.

So what’s causing the second glance at coconut oil? It turns out that the type of fatty acid that’s predominant in coconut oil may not be as bad for the arteries as previously thought. The majority of the saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid. Lauric acid  is a “medium chain triglyceride (MCT),” which is different in structure than other saturated fats that are longer in their chain length. Lauric acid and other MCTs are unlike most longer chain saturated fats in that they have been shown to increase the good HDL cholesterol and decrease the bad LDL-cholesterol.

MCTs are also unlike the longer chain saturated fats in the way they are digested and handled by the body.  For example, oils containing MCTs provide quick energy for the body and therefore are less likely to be stored as body fat. MCTs are therefore a source of “quick” fuel and appear to behave more like a carbohydrate than a fat. Much of this research is new and still needs to be confirmed in further clinical studies.

Have coconut oil promoters gone nuts?

You may have heard some of the alleged benefits of using coconut oil. One is that it can help you lose weight. This claim is based presumably on the MCT content of coconut oil, and the fact that in one study in which 100% MCT oil was used in combination with a low-calorie diet, participants lost more weight than those who used olive oil.

The difference between this study and real life is that MCT oil is not equivalent to coconut oil (coconut oil isn’t 100% MCT oil). Secondly, the study provided the participants with weight-loss counseling and a restricted-calorie diet. In real life, simply adding coconut oil to your daily food intake is not going to help you drop pounds.

Does coconut oil boost your immune system or combat Alzheimer’s disease? We don’t know yet, so don’t bank on it. Yes, it’s cholesterol-free (all vegetable oils are), and coconut oil is likely more healthful than butter, shortening and trans fats, but it’s not as healthy as liquid vegetable oils. Oh, and all fats have the same number of calorie per gram (9), so there’s no difference there either.

So where should coconut oil fit in?

Remember that coconut oil is still primarily saturated fat (that’s what makes it solid at room temperature), and saturated fats raise harmful LDL cholesterol levels. Coconut oil should, therefore, be used in moderation. Coconut oil does have a high smoke point and contribute a faint coconut flavor to foods—qualities that some cooks and chefs like. The bottom line? Using coconut oil once in a while when cooking things like Thai food is fine, but otherwise stick with olive oil, grapeseed, sunflower, safflower or canola oils which aren’t detrimental to blood fats. Remember, it’s the quality of your diet as a whole that makes the most difference to your health.