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. Martha Graul says:

    My herbal doctor told me to rub down in coconut oil that it would help to thicken your skin,. Also on the one that said she gave to a child that had autism. I have a grandson that has it so how much coconut oil is that what she give him

  2. Gina says:

    I was very intrigued by your article and research. I hear so many different things that it gets confusing. I believe that the comments from Munsono hits it just right. Moderation is the key. I went to a cafe that has changed over to Soy Oil. They claimed it had no fat. I’m curious about that. Two days later I had my Cholesterol check and it was at an all time low. I would like to hear from anyone that knows about this alternative.

  3. Ren says:

    Someone told me that the studies that claim harm from tropical oils all used partially or fully hydrogenated versions. Can you verify this?

  4. Krikri says:

    About where I stand, I would want to support your investigation that the raw coconut oil in tropical foods may not be the same as those restaurateurs claim to have in their food. There are any ways to create an aroma of coconut oil – one way is by artificial flavors. Yes, like you rightly pointed out, it may have high level of fat but we must differentiate between types of coconut oil.If you have a cardiac history or your family has one, substitutes will serve you well.

  5. Louise says:

    I believe the point that is being missed is this: it is not the sat fat that is the problem but rather he over-indulgence in fried foods.

  6. mb says:

    I’ve been using Canola for several years now because I thought it it was the “lesser of the fat evils” several post say don’t use it, maybe I just shouldnt read this!

  7. Kris says:

    I just read an article claiming that coconut oit has been shown to reverse the cognitive defecits of Alzheimers disease. The Alzheimers patients were given 1 tbs per day. The oil was virgin cold pressed and organic.

  8. Erika says:

    People need to practice temperance. Western Society over uses and abuses everything… including “good things” which vave adverse reactions in the body. We should learn to use those things which are good for us in moderation and abstain from the bad!

  9. D says:

    If coconut help’s us too lose weight and keep our brains,I say folk’s we all need to get to drinking,cooking,and rubbing coconut oil all over and in us!We all want to stay young and healthy.Good luck world I know it work’s on the skin.I used the oil on my body while I was preg with my two children and I only have one stretch mark,and I must show you in order for you to notice it,so lady’s I say rub your body’s down and eat and drink up the coconut in moderation!

  10. katrina says:

    i make a lotion for my daughter who has a severe excema it contains virgin organic coconut oil in and it has done wonders for her and my dad who also has it to, plus if you rub a little around your eyes it will help with those little line around the eyes and your not using any more chemicals than you have to.

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