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. Karen says:

    I was told to just eat a teaspoon of it daily. Does anybody else do this? Or do you all just cook with it? I love what it does for my skin…I use it daily as a moisturizer. I cannot understand why it's so hard for the "experts" to come to a final conclusion on coconut oil (the unrefined oil)? Do you think that maybe the cholesterol drugs they need to push would suffer in sales? LOL!

  2. Chase says:

    You failed to mention that the research done on coconut oil in the past which claims coconut oil is bad for you was done on HYDROGENATED coconut oil.

    Anything loses it's original healthy properties when it is processed.

    Plain, organic coconut oil DOES NOT raise bad cholesteral.

    So yes, you can throw that years of research right out the window.

  3. angelina santos says:

    You need to look at ingredents when you buy snacks or food because they might have palm oil or coconut oil.

  4. Liz says:

    I honestly don't know what to believe about coconut oil, but I have had mono for 3 months, and it hasn't gone away at all. I have tried everything I can think of to get better, but nothing has worked. I started taking half a table spoon of virgin coconut oil every day, and the mono has gone away within a week! I would say it was definitely worth taking to get the mono to go away even if its not healthy

  5. Pri_prix says:

    The study you link to is a literature review released in 2003, that summarized and presented information from 25 years of studies. So pretty much stuff done in the 80s and 90s. Many of those studies have come into question, because the scientists doing the studies needed to raise cholesterol levels in the animals they were using, so they "hydrogenated" the coconut oils to make it more user/testing friendly…

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  7. Cygnia says:

    This article contains numerous critical errors in reporting that need to be corrected in order to be accurate:

    Myristic (C14:0) and palmitic (C16:0) acids are NOT medium-chain fatty acids, they are long-chain fatty acids. This matters because the key difference between MCFAs and LCFAs is that MCFAs bypass the carnitine portal vein which is why they are easily absorbed and digested – a major part of the benefits proponents talk about. Medium chain fatty acids include caprioc (C6:0), caprylic (C8:0), capric (C10:0), and lauric (C12:0) acids.

    MCTs (medium chain triglycerides) are a lab-produced fat that is a concentration of caprylic (C8:0) and capric (C10:0) acids because they do not occur in high concentrations naturally – they are "distilled" from sources like coconut.

    Coconut oil is NOT high in LCFAs like myristic and palmitic acids. Coconut oil is predominantly made of lauric acid (+55%), which is widely known and acknowledged to have very powerful anti-fungal, anti-viral, and anti-bacterial effects. In total, coconut oil is about 75% MCFAs, which you can easily confirm with any specification sheet from a supplier of virgin coconut oil.

    Additional, fundamentally flawed statements about saturated fats and coconut oil that simply do not bear truth litter the rest of the article, but I prefer to refer you to Dr Mary Enig's book, "Know Your Fats" for an explanation instead of going into depth here.

    With that said, I am a HUGE believer in virgin coconut oil as it really helped me out when I was on a restricted diet recovering from several digestive disorders. However, its tough to find ways to eat coconut oil out of the jar in a way that is truly enjoyable. Instead, I use food products that prominently feature virgin coconut oil, like Melt Organic buttery spread, that are far more versatile and easy to love on my food. Melt Organic in particular is great because it blends other oils like flax oil in a way that is TASTY, so I get my MCFAs and my Omega 3s in one product. The MCFAs also help with better absorption of the Omega 3s.

  8. garymullennix says:

    Coconut oil is THE oil for about a 1/4 of the world's population and they've been happily and healtfully consuming it for centuries. Whenever you see the word 'study' appended to something supposedly scientific, remember there is little to no science involved. It sounds like science but it is someone's opinion expressed in a way to give it more gravitas. Food studies are particularly bad…there are no control groups most often,just some observations with conclusions that are really opinions. Food subjects are always based on self reporting, not at all conducive to scieence which seeks replecation with feedback to advance or bash the prior announcement. Thus,my point on billions of people eating coconut oil. It isn't an experiment. Some get upwards of 63% of their calories from it without the heart disease we suffer in the west. Saturated means it cannot be later saturated with O2 and then we hope we can find enough anti-oxidants to offset the disease such variants cause. Lots of good books on the subject. Taubes, Newport, all Paleo sites. Throw out the canola, corn and so called vegetable oils.

  9. Mary says:

    I've been using coconut oil to ease contipation for the past couple years. It has really worked wonders for me.

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