Coconut Oil: Good Or Bad?

by in Food News, April 14, 2009


A couple weeks ago, some of you brought up the coconut oil controversy — with many praising this high-fat oil as a healthy choice. Eager to know more about the latest studies, I investigated more. Here’s what I found.

Saturated Fat Basics
Ever since restaurants started banning trans fats, tropical oils like coconut started making a comeback. With its high smoke, it is ideal for high-heat cooking methods like frying.

Coconut oil is one of the only plant-based sources of saturated fat (others include palm and palm kernel oils). Animal sources of saturated fat include butter, whole dairy products, beef and poultry skin. According to the American Heart Association, American Medical Association and USDA, we should limit our saturated fat to 7-10% of our daily calorie intake — this includes eating tropical oils such as coconut, which contains 92% saturated fat (one of the highest sources of saturated fats around).

According to the American Dietetics Association, 20-35% of daily calories should come from fat. They promote replacing most saturated and trans fats (e.g. margarine) with unsaturated fats such as olive, walnut and peanut oils.

The Controversies
Most old-school nutrition experts slam coconut oil because of its sat-fat content. Pro-coconut oil advocates, meanwhile, argue that the oil is easily absorbed because it’s a medium-chained triglyceride (I won’t go on about the science). However, there’s strong evidence that suggests the various fatty acids found in coconut oil, including lauric, palmitic and myristic acid (all medium-chained triglycerides), raise both LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol and total cholesterol.

Then there’s the argument that tropical regions use coconut oil as a staple, but they don’t have a higher heart disease rates when compared to areas that primarily use olive oil. Thing is, these tropical regions also don’t eat as many packaged processed and fatty fried foods as Americans! Plus, Americans like to eat out, and coconut oil is replacing the cooking oils used in restaurants these days (note that restaurant coconut oil isn’t the extra virgin coconut oil that pro-coconut folks advocate).

What the Studies Show
Studies released over the past 25 years show an overall pattern that coconut oil increases the risk for heart disease (check out this summary of studies for yourself). Just because a handful of studies show slightly different results doesn’t mean it’s a green light to throw years of research out the window.

The Recommendations
Since coconut oil is already in many packaged and restaurant foods, you shouldn’t use it as your cooking oil, too — especially if you have heart disease or it runs in the family. Stick to unsaturated oils such as olive, canola, peanut or walnut. But even use those sparingly (remember: all oils have about 120 calories per tablespoon). Save coconut oil for special dishes that you love to cook once in a while. If you still want to use it, replace other highly saturated fat foods such as butter and whole milk with extra virgin coconut oil, and be mindful to not go over 10% of your total calories. Avoid refined and hydrogenated versions, which have trans fats.

TELL US: Where do you stand in the coconut oil debate?

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Comments (97)

  1. Emily says:

    This may date me, but I remember back in the 80's it was coconut oil and palm oil that got a bad reputation, and a lot of packaged snack foods boasted claims on their labels that they contained "no tropical oils!" Well as we know now, those items didn't contain tropical oils because they contained partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil… which we now recognize as being really bad for you, and now we're back to the tropical oils. Bottom line is, you can't win. Cheap snack foods will always require cheap ingredients, and banning trans-fats is not going to all of a sudden make a company start using butter. It just shifts to another ingredient that's just as bad for you. Incidentally, our new over-reliance on palm oil has begun to devastate the environment as forests are mowed down to make room for palm-fruit plantations, but that's another story…

    • charles says:

      The soy intustry is destoying 10 times more forests than palm oil.At least the palm trees stay and the vegetation comes back. Soya needs to be sprayed with chemicals to kill the rest of the vegetation that might compete with it. After a while the soil needs to be fertalized because it can not suport vegetation anymore.These are the facts.

  2. Kat Glessing says:

    I have learned thru a nutritionist, MCT oil or Coconut Oil move thru the digestive system faster, aids in weight loss, and since is a medium chain triglyceride, moves out of your system faster than say Olive or Peanut oils..do. I have been using it for about 2 mos now, my pre-diabetes is gone, as is about 25 lbs if not more.

    • @15oggjon says:

      Good! I also use Coconut oil, for my cholesterol, and It has made a dramatic difference in my life! I feel so much more energetic also, and warts that I used to have on my knees have gone, thanks to Coconut oil.__I can rave all day about this stuff:)

    • Ruth says:

      I have been researching coconut oil. What kind do you use? I have started using coconut oil and want to be sure it's ok.

    • charles says:

      I've lost 22lbs in 9 months by using virgin coconut oil and my cholesterol is super good.

  3. Ryan says:

    i like olive oil because it is healthy for you.

  4. D Munsono says:

    I read an article in Women's World magazine 5 yrs ago about the benefits of coconut oil and how it aids in weight loss. I then tried to purchase some, but it was sold out every where because apparently everyone else read the same thing. So now we still don't have a definitive answer on it…

    • @15oggjon says:

      It still aids in weightloss, I've seen the results myself! Buy some, try it, and then tell us :)

      There is a special institute dedicated to Coconut oil research, you can also go online and read some of the success stories from their site. It's called The Coconut Oil Research Centre.

      Claire

  5. Heidi B says:

    The important issue not touched on here is COOKING with oil. Cooking any of the so called "good" oils like olive, canola, etc. heats them to a point where they are not benficial. Those oils are best used cold, such as in salad dressing or dipping. Coconut oil has a higher temp tolerance and cooking with it it by far a healthier choice overall.

    • @15oggjon says:

      I totally agree.
      Coconut oil is the most stable and safe oil in the world.
      It's molecular structure does not alter when heated, and it does not go rancid.
      It has very strong anti-viral properties also, and has been found to lower the CD4 count in Aids patient's.
      It is a SAFE saturated fat, and is good for your heart!!!!!

    • Nightingale says:

      Check out the research the Weston A price foundation did on coconut oil, and other so-called bad for you saturated fats that we've been consuming since nearly forever until the last 50 years or so. I think you'll find the mdern take is badly researched, and in some cases, absolute bunk.

  6. jay says:

    it is so sad there cannot be a definitive answer to these questions. I just cut back on fatty foods as much as possible and pray that whatever decisions i make are the best available at the time j

    • @15oggjon says:

      There are answers, but people ignore them.

      Look up The Coconut Research Centre online, it is dedicated to researching Coconut oil, and you will find what you need on there.

    • Lance says:

      It is sad. But there are answers out there. Look up "paleo" living, "primal" living and look at the research from the Weston Price Foundation. What have we been designed (or evolved…whatever your belief) to eat – whole foods found on the earth. Processed foods – and this includes most grains – are not optimal for us.

      I eat a lot of fat in my diet (but good stuff mostly – coconut oil, olive oil, avocado). I feel better than I ever did, and I've lost a lot of weight. But don't trust me. Look into it.

  7. J Rusell says:

    I noticed the recommendation that you should “Stick to unsaturated oils such as olive, canola, peanut or walnut.” I’d agree if you took out the canola oil. That is a plant oil and not a vegtable oil. Don’t use it!

  8. Kimberly D says:

    How about pumpkin seed oil?

    • Monika says:

      Very good for you I use it in salad, tomatos , add some salt. You can order online it is made in Austria!
      Tasty!! Yummy!!

  9. Joan says:

    My philosophy: everything in moderation! Living in Jamaica where we produce this great oil and other products like coconut water which is a cure all for stomach ailments and always recommended for rehydration we are missing out on this fantastic flavor to our foods. Just a spoonful added to sauces and other cooking is delightful! Remember-moderation!

  10. Bonnie says:

    Don’t forget that coconut oil has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal properties both internally and topically. I love to mix 1 part quality coconut oil to 2 parts Eucerin Creme (not lotion, but heavy creme) for an excellent treatment for extremely dry, cracked winter skin. Most anything else makes my girl’s hands sting. I also had results with weight loss using coconut oil, and also just generally felt better. I am convinced it helped my brain chemistry and mood. I combined this with moderate exercise and good diet, and felt great.

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