food, coconut, fruit

Coconut Oil or Snake Oil?

by guest blogger George Grunfelder, 4th year nutrition student, Winthrop University

In recent years, coconut oil has slipped itself into America’s cabinets and shelves, with the media touting it as a cure-all miracle oil that can treat everything from dental issues to heart disease. When you hear the buzzword “superfoods”, coconut oil always seems to come up.Take a second to reflect and I’m sure you can think of a few people in your life who have a tub of it in their homes. This begs the question: does science support this obsession? Is coconut oil really as healthy as popular personalities and magazines have made it out to be? Hopefully after reading this, you’ll be better equipped to decide for yourself. 

Coconut oil comes from processing the kernel or meat of a mature coconut. It is 100% fat, with 80-90% of this being in the form of saturated fats. There are different forms of saturated fats present in coconut oil, with the primary form being lauric acid, followed by myristic, palmitic, and stearic acids1. While stearic acid has a neutral effect on cholesterol levels, the former three saturated fatty acids have been shown to increase LDL (bad) cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease, our number one killer. In plain English, coconut oil is a processed oil that is very high in saturated fats which raise cholesterol, which in turn raises the chances of developing heart disease. This isn’t new information as the American Heart Association has studies dating back into the 50’s that show how coconut oil raises our bad cholesterol. So what gives? Why are so many people pro-coconut oil?

There is a lot of misinformation afloat about this “superfood”, potentially due to the popularity of new diet crazes such as the keto diet. Here is a quick rundown of some of this misinformation: 

  1. Many of the health claims of coconut oil stem from research that used a special form of coconut oil that was 100% MCT. MCT, or medium-chain-triglycerides, are fat molecules that are not as long as other forms of fat, thus they are more quickly digested and used by the body. These MCTs make up only roughly 10% of commercial coconut oil, with the rest being those LDL-raising saturated fatty acids. 
  2. Coconut oil advocates will often point to certain populations such as pacific islanders as examples of how high intake of coconut equates to healthy individuals. The studies2 this argument is founded on only looked at the whole food form of coconut, and disregarded the differences in diet otherwise. In one example, they compared two islands that both had very high rates of coconut consumption, and what they found was that even though these populations were eating a primarily plant based diet, their cholesterol levels were high. There have been no studies on actual disease rates for these populations though, which is where proponents say that since they seem healthy, coconut oil is good for you. The study does not show the effects of coconut oil. 

The American Heart Association has stated that coconut oil is not heart healthy3

“The AHA advised against the use of coconut oil, and suggested limiting all saturated fat. For those at risk for or who have heart disease, they advise no more than 6% of total calories from saturated fat, or about 13 grams based on a 2000-calorie diet. One tablespoon of coconut oil comes close to that limit at about 12 grams of saturated fat.”

While coconut oil may be a decent skin or hair moisturizer, it may be best limited to your bathroom rather than your kitchen. If you just can’t live without the taste of coconut, try whole coconut as opposed to the processed form, and consume sparingly. If you like cooking in coconut oil, consider trying olive or canola oil, and sprinkling coconut flakes on top instead. Don’t get me wrong, a little bit of coconut here and there will not kill you, and if you are eating a balanced diet rich in whole foods, a moderate amount most likely won’t hurt you either. It is when you begin to consume excess amounts of the processed coconut oil that your health will likely be affected. Alternative sources of fats (of the healthy variety) would be mono-unsaturated fats and poly-unsaturated fats. This includes foods such as avocados, nuts, seeds, olives, and poly and mono-unsaturated rich plant oils. 


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