Coconut oil is a fat with 90% being of the saturated fat variety. For comparison, butter is only 63% saturated fat. Canola oil is 7%, and Olive Oil is 15%. Saturated means the fat molecules that consist of hydrogen and carbons are all bound together. This matters because the fully bound nature of the saturated fat makes our cell walls more rigid in larger quantities. Flexibility is needed for healthy cell walls.
The type of saturated fat in coconut oil differs in that it has MCT (medium-chain triglycerides) as well as LCT (long-chain triglycerides). MCTs are stated to lessen heart-disease risk, LCTs are stated to heighten the risk. Lauric Acid is the middle ground between a MCT and a LCT which is where the claims of it being beneficial come from. However, Lauric Acid is just one of the chains Coconut oil contains. It also has two other LCT attached to it that do carry the possibility of heart-disease risk.
One of the claims as to why coconut oil is seen as healthy is that Coconut oil contains high amounts of Lauric Acid. Lauric Acid raises our HDL-cholesterol. HDL is beneficial. It helps to clear other harmful fats from our bloodstream and body.
There are claims that coconut oil is anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial. This includes the practice of ‘pulling’ to rid the mouth of bacteria by swishing the oil between the teeth.
What the science says:
No research evidence exists to suggest Coconut oil is healthier than any other saturated fat.
Coconut oil has been shown to raise HDL-C levels (lower heart disease risk) but unlike polyunsaturated fats (beneficial) it also raises LDL-C levels (heightens heart disease risk). However, recent research has shown that just because HDL-C levels are raised doesn’t necessarily mean it is lessening heart disease risk (Keene, 2014). Therefore just because coconut oil has been shown to raise HDL-C doesn’t mean there is a connection to lowering heart disease.
It does not significantly affect markers of inflammation, glucose homeostasis, and body fat compared to other nontropical vegetable oils.
Lauric Acid (MCT) is beneficial in the correct quantities. Isolating the component and consuming large amounts are two scenarios that should be avoided. As with any foods, try to source from whole foods in moderate amounts with a wide variety. The studies that tout the benefits of coconut oil are either on a purified form that contain purely Lauric Acid (MCT) or natural diets that eat whole food components of coconuts such as the coconut meat in moderation and combination with other foods. The evidence is also limited and provided by company’s pushing their specific highly refined and processed products.
Coconut oil does not offer any scientifically proven health benefits in comparison to other oils that offer proven health benefits such as olive oil.
Occasionally consuming coconut oil alongside a healthy diet is a valid dietary addition. However, replacing other healthy oils such as olive oil with coconut oil is not recommended.
If you enjoy coconut oil then it is a fine occasional addition to meals but do not consume it under the pretense that it is a healthy alternative to other oils.
Also, be careful of the calorie content as coconut oil is high in calories at 117 kcal per tablespoon.
Will this benefit you?
The research does not show coconut oil is beneficial to health. However, keeping other healthy oils and fatty foods in your diet will be more beneficial. Aim for foods such as olive oil, olives, walnuts, pecans, seeds, salmon, and anchovies.
Still curious to try it? If you do, here’s what to keep an eye on:
Coconut oil is a fine occasional food if you enjoy it.
Select unrefined, cold-pressed, extra-virgin coconut oils.
Choose the oil at the back of the shelf that has less sunlight to avoid spoilage.
Keep in a cool dark place away from heat sources such as the oven or light sources such as windows.
Aim for coconut products in moderation. Do not consume in large quantities and it’s best to combine with other foods.
References and additional reading:
Duyff, R L. Complete Food & Nutrition Guide. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2017. Print.
Mahan, L K, and Raymond, J L. Krause's Food & the Nutrition Care Process. Elsevier Inc, 2017. Print.