“The healthiest oil on earth!” “Rich in medium-chain fatty acids.” “Stimulates your metabolism.” “Coconut oil gave me back my brain.”
“The health benefits of coconut oil include hair care, skin care, stress relief, maintaining cholesterol levels, weight loss, increased immunity, proper digestion and metabolism, relief from kidney problems, heart diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, HIV and cancer, dental care, and bone strength. These benefits of coconut oil can be attributed to the presence of lauric acid, capric acid and caprylic acid, and its properties such as antimicrobial, antioxidant, antifungal, antibacterial, soothing, etc.” …Organic Facts website
If you believe the coconut oil websites, you’d think that the nut oil is the elixir of life. It will do everything for you…and then some. Food manufacturers are responding as coconut oils and coconut oil-containing foods are hitting supermarket shelves in record numbers.
But is it really all that? Could it be better than extra virgin olive oil, which has thousands of studies that prove it’s heart-healthy? When most foods are billed as cure-alls, it rarely pans out, so I thought I needed to investigate the research on coconut oil and share what I found.
I know from my nutrition background that coconut oil is primarily saturated fat, like palm and palm kernel oil. In fact, 91 percent of the fat in coconut oil are comprised of blood-sludgy saturated fats. Considerably more saturated that, um…butter, palm or lard. Unless you’re considering lard as part of your health-food diet, coconut oil’s health food status might need some reconsideration. Saturated fat, as you know, raises risk for heart disease as well as type 2 diabetes and much more. The saturated fats in coconut oil are medium-chain fatty acids, which may me more readily mobilized than traditional long-chain fatty acids, but more research is needed to fully understand the metabolic effects of coconut oil on biomarkers for health.
There are two main types of coconut oil: refined and virgin. Virgin coconut oil (VCO) is better because like EVOO, it provides anti-inflammatory phytonutrients that may help reduce risk for heart disease. Refined coconut oil, the type used in most food products that contain coconut oil, is just a functional saturated fat that the food industry now uses because it can no longer use the solid-at-room-temperature trans fats. The two main types of highly saturated fats that have replaced trans fats in the food supply are palm and coconut oils because they provide some of the same properties of trans fats.
Some studies do suggest that VCO is not as unhealthy as you’d expect from the high amount of saturated fat it provides. Laboratory research shows that VCO is rich in beneficial phytonutrients that may help temper inflammation and act as potent antioxidants. While VCO is antioxidant-rich, refined coconut oil is not.
Bottom line: Coconut oil is a saturated fat that you can enjoy in moderation but probably shouldn’t be the primary fat in your diet…until more clinical studies suggest otherwise. (Currently, there’s about 6,000 published research studies about olive oil and 1,300 on coconut oil, so don’t discount other vegetable oils that have reams of research proving their healthfulness.)
I use coconut oil spread and VCO on occasion when cooking, as they are perfect for several recipes I make. However, I also use EVOO, peanut oil, sesame oil, avocado oil, walnut oil and several other oils (all virgin) as I believe that like all plant-based foods, eating a wide variety of them is the best way to achieve optimal health.
–Julie Upton, MS, RD, CSSD