For decades, coconut oil was just another “artery-clogging” saturated fat source we were supposed to avoid. Then in recent years, as we’ve learned that dietary fat—even saturated—may not be as detrimental as once thought (when consumed in moderation), coconut oil has emerged as a popular ingredient touted for its unique health benefits. The paleo and ketogenic crowds especially love it, and it’s a key ingredient in plenty of natural foods.
But then coconut oil came under fire again last summer, when the American Heart Association called it out specifically in its advisory about dietary fats and cardiovascular disease. The authors wrote: “Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD, and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.”
This statement sprung some pretty damning headlines, such as USA Today’s “Coconut Oil Isn’t Healthy. It’s Never Been Healthy” and the BBC’s “Coconut oil ‘as unhealthy as beef fat and butter.’” But a chorus of critics also came to coconut oil’s defense, insisting the AHA got it all wrong. Some lambasted the health group’s “oversimplified” or “outdated” views on saturated fat. Others said coconut oil was a unique case and didn’t deserve to be lumped in with butter and beef fat.
OK, so who is right, who is wrong, and is this stuff healthy or not?
Well, as with many nutrition-related debates, it’s complicated. There’s some truth to what both the anti– and pro–coconut oil camps are saying, but also some room for argument. Let’s take a closer look.
Coconut oil breakdown
There are a few facts about coconut oil that everyone agrees on. For one, it’s very high in saturated fat, especially compared to other plant oils. According to the AHA’s breakdown, coconut oil is roughly 82 percent saturated fat while canola oil is only 7 percent, olive oil 14 percent and peanut oil 17 percent saturated fat. Just for comparison’s sake, pork lard is 39 percent and butter 63 percent saturated fat. So yes, no doubt, coconut oil is sky-high in saturated.
There’s also no question that coconut oil is very low in unsaturated fats, whereas many other plant oils, namely olive and sunflower, are rich sources. Unsaturated fats are widely considered to be heart healthy because, unlike saturated fat, they do not raise LDL cholesterol. For this reason, most nutritionists and doctors recommend unsaturated fat over saturated (now that everyone agrees we need some fat in our diets, for energy, nutrient absorption and more).
Wondering how an oil that’s high in saturated fat and low in unsaturated could ever be considered healthy? It’s because coconut oil is especially rich in a certain type of saturated fat: lauric acid, which has been shown to raise HDL cholesterol—the good kind. Research suggests that an increase in HDL, relative to total cholesterol, may lower the risk of heart disease.
Additionally, coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs. Unlike longer-chain fatty acids, MCTs are metabolized in the liver and broken down and absorbed by the body more quickly. Therefore, theoretically, they can be used for energy instead of adding to the body’s fat stores. This is the main reason why people on paleo and ketogenic diets are crazy about coconut oil.
Where opinions diverge
While nobody argues coconut oil’s nutrient composition, there are vastly different beliefs about how it impacts health. First off, there is still some debate over how big of a deal saturated fat’s effect on cholesterol really is—and this, in turn, influences how different camps view coconut oil.
While the AHA and many other health experts firmly believe that risk of elevated LDL is indeed enough to warrant cutting back on saturated fat, others disagree. They argue that there isn’t good evidence linking saturated fat to actual heart attacks and strokes, and there is no proof that just cutting saturated fat from the diet will reduce the risk of cardiovascular events. For instance, if you replace saturated fat with sugar, you’re not doing your body much good. There is definitely some merit in all of these arguments.
The next point of contention is over lauric acid and MCTs and how much they can really benefit us when part of such a high-calorie, high–saturated fat package. Coconut oil’s health cred got a major boost back in the early 2000s when Columbia University researchers discovered that MCTs can rev metabolism, potentially leading to weight loss. And since coconut oil contains more MCTs than many other plant oils, many people ran with the idea that coconut oil must increase metabolism and help us shed pounds.
But the researchers on those very studies say not so fast. They used a specially designed 100 percent MCT oil in their research, whereas coconut oil is only 13 to 15 percent MCTs. They’ve since done more work on lower-percentage MCT oils that more closely resemble coconut oil, finding that they did not have the same effects on metabolism, fat oxidation or appetite suppression. So basically, you’d have to consume a crazy amount of coconut oil to get the effects seen in the studies on 100 percent MCT oil—that is, assuming these benefits wouldn’t be squelched by the negative impacts of ingesting so much saturated fat, which, of course, they probably would be.
Considering this wide range of opinions, the truth likely falls somewhere in the middle. Coconut oil likely isn’t a health pariah, nor is it the superfood it’s sometimes touted to be. Because it is rich in lauric acid, which may benefit HDL cholesterol, coconut oil may be healthier than its high saturated fat count would indicate. But since it’s low in unsaturated fat, when it comes to influencing heart disease risk, you may be better off choosing a different plant oil that’s higher in unsaturated and lower in saturated fat. As for the MCTs, there is definitely something to be said for coconut oil having a lot of them, but it’s probably a stretch to say that MCTs alone make coconut oil healthy.
Bottom-bottom line: Use coconut oil in moderation. It can be a fabulous oil for frying, as it imparts a rich flavor, but just don’t use it every day. When you see coconut oil listed as an ingredient in packaged foods, you shouldn’t necessarily avoid that product, but don’t think the coconut oil magically makes the food healthy either.