Is Coconut Oil Really Good For You? Here’s What the Research Says
All of the excitement about the health benefits of coconut would have you believe that it can cure bad breath (not that you have it), slim your waistline, and improve your sex life, and if you can't remember what a sex life is, don't worry, coconut oil can also boost your memory!
Coconut oil has become the health-food makers' darling, to the point that companies are adding it to every 'health' food on the market, including snack bars, dairy-free yogurts, coffee creamers, and vegan cheese. They also use it interchangeably with MCT oil and while MCT is made from coconut oil, it's not the same thing, and it gets digested differently in the body.
Studies have touted coconut oil's ability to turn back the progress of Alzheimer's, prevent obesity, and boost weight loss, as well as cure bacterial infections. But what is the truth in all this hype? And are there serious risks in consuming more than a small amount? We looked at whether the research into coconut's supposed health benefits and found that there is more than one answer to the question: Is coconut oil actually as healthy as it is cracked up to be?
Coconut oil got its first big break on the world's health stage when a 2016 article published in The New York Times reported that 72 percent of Americans believed coconut oil to be healthy, while only 37 percent of nutrition experts agreed. Why the discrepancy? Who was right? For one thing, the experts noted, coconut oil contains high levels of saturated fat, which is well-known to contribute to heart disease. But what about all those other supposed benefits such as MCT's (medium-chain triglycerides)? Or research into the health of eating the meat of the coconut itself? Here are the up-to-date facts, and where to net out on coconut oil: Health hero or marketing zero?
Is coconut oil good for you? An Expert's Take
As a qualified nutritionist, at the start of researching this article, my expert opinion on whether coconut oil is good for you would be this: Not in large amounts, no, but as an occasional cooking oil it's fine. Additionally, I thought it may have benefits for keto dieters.
After reviewing the latest evidence, I've realized that some of the facts that people base their love of coconut oil on are flawed. Furthermore, there are limited quality studies and some unanswered questions. Another caveat is it depends on your health priorities and goals. Keep reading to get the lowdown on coconut oil.
Coconut oil, saturated fat, and heart health
A deep dive into the research reveals the beneficial effects of coconut oil for Alzheimer's disease or as an antimicrobial agent against infections have not been studied to a great enough degree to recommend it as a treatment for either condition. One thing to smile about? The practice of oil pulling with coconut oil to rinse out and cleanse bacteria from your mouth, gums, and the tiny spaces between your teeth can improve your dental hygiene.
But those are sideshows compared to the main event: The serious question as to the health profile of coconut oil focuses on its potential effects on your heart health since coconut oil is largely made up of saturated fat. The American Heart Association advises that we limit eat our sat fat intake to no more than six percent of our daily calories — or about 11 to 13 grams a day on a 2,000 calorie diet.
Red meat, full-fat dairy, and other animal products contain saturated fat, so if you're eating a whole food plant-based diet for heart health, just by avoiding these animal fat foods, you have a head start in protecting your heart – and overall health.
However, tropical oils that are solid at room temperature, such as coconut and also palm oil, contain high levels of saturated fat. Coconut oil contains 90 percent saturated fat while palm oil is about 50 percent saturated fat. Health experts tell us to avoid saturated fat to protect our hearts and prevent us from developing diseases associated with obesity.
How much saturated fat is in coconut oil?
A tablespoon of coconut oil contains 11.5 grams of total fat and 9.57 grams of saturated fat, so if you use this to stir fry your favorite veggies and tofu you've used up your allowance for sat fat for the day. If you put three coconut oil cheese slices in your vegan sandwich, you've reached your limit. Or you might have snacked on an energy bar after the gym and not realized it contained 6 to 7 grams of saturated fat. If you ate all three of these foods in a day you would have doubled your recommended daily intake of saturated fat. And if you do that often enough, you will increase your risk of heart disease.
Because so many plant-based products contain coconut oil, such as non-dairy ice cream, coffee creamers, yogurt, and other foods that tout as their dietary benefit that they are "low carbs," it's easy for your coconut oil intake to creep up without your knowing it, and the result can be a rise in LDL (so-called bad) cholesterol, leading to artery blockages, high blood pressure, and ultimately heart disease. It can also contribute to weight gain.
Anyone concerned with heart disease needs to be mindful of how much coconut oil they inadvertently consume – as well as palm oil, which retailers add to many vegan products including plant-based butter spreads.
Simply eating a plant-based diet is not enough to be heart healthy; you need to avoid ingredients that can raise your risk of heart disease as readily as animal products.
What does the research say about coconut oil?
Most of the recent research that reviews the results of coconut oil studies says that we should avoid it. A 2020 systematic review of 16 clinical trials concluded that coconut oil causes higher LDL cholesterol than using non-tropical plant oils. A prior review of 21 research papers had already found that replacing coconut oil with unsaturated fats can reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
And another 2020 Cochrane Library review of 15 studies found that cutting down on saturated fat led to a 21 percent reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease. Not specifically about coconut oil, the study concluded: "that reducing saturated fat intake for at least two years causes a potentially important reduction in combined cardiovascular events."
So it seems that recent studies overwhelmingly suggest that we should be avoiding sat fat. So why do some sources say coconut oil is good for us? Where does that opinion originate?
Coconut oil is not the same as MCT oil
There is a basic misconception that coconut oil is MCT oil, which has been enjoying popularity among keto dieters who believe it promotes fat burning. But medium-chain triglycerides (aka MCT oils) are not the same as commercially bought coconut oil.
Most of the claims about coconut oil's health benefits are actually based on medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs. One example of the confusing research: A 2018 clinical trial suggests that coconut oil is no worse than olive oil, with both not causing an increase in LDL cholesterol, compared to butter which did. The authors suggested that it's too simplistic to classify fats as either unsaturated or saturated since fats can be different 'chain lengths' and this affects their health properties.
The main argument for coconut oil being a healthy fat says that the medium-chain fatty acids that it contains are absorbed quicker in the body and easily converted by the liver for energy (rather than a longer route through the digestive system). Based on this theory, people who follow a keto diet use specially formulated coconut oil, and other sources of MCTs to help them achieve ketosis quickly and accelerate fat loss.
However, research indicates that lauric acid (the main fatty acid in coconut oil) acts more like a long-chain fatty acid, being digested as normal rather than going straight to the liver, so it doesn't have the same benefits as MCT's. Furthermore, MCT oil that scientists use in studies is a much more concentrated form than coconut oil and people would not have the same beneficial effects by eating a normal serving of coconut oil as they would by consuming a studied dosage of MCT oil.
Western societies don't consume coconut in the same form as studied populations
Additionally, much of the evidence of the benefits of coconut oil comes from populations who consume coconut flesh (the white meat inside the hard exterior) or as milk or cream, as well as having a healthy traditional diet devoid of processed foods. This is very different from the relatively new phenomenon of extracted coconut oil that shows up in processed foods such as vegan cheese, 'health' bars, and fake meats.
However, just to further the confusion, some studies have indicated that coconut oil raises beneficial HDL cholesterol, but whether this is enough to outweigh its deleterious effects on LDL and heart disease was at best inconclusive.
Alternatives to coconut oil
So considering the evidence and expert opinions, it's safe to say that we should not be eating too much coconut oil. There are many other plant oils that you can use instead, and these contain healthier polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils. Research suggests that replacing animal fats with vegetable oils (such as olive, canola, and safflower) is a good strategy to improve heart health.
What is the healthiest oil for cooking and baking?
Experts advise us to choose oils that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat rather than saturated fat. For example, the American Heart Association lists oils such as canola, corn, and olive oil as cooking oils that are better for health. However, many vegetable oils are less stable for cooking because of their unsaturated 'carbon bonds' which can lead to oxidation and create free radicals. It's therefore important to only heat oils to their smoke point, avoid re-using oils, and discard any oil that smells rancid. Additionally, only buy smaller amounts of oil and store it in a dark place to stop it from going rancid.
According to a 2018 study by the Modern Olives Laboratory Services Australia that looked at what happens to oils when they are heated, extra virgin olive oil is the most stable oil to cook with closely followed by coconut oil. The study showed that the smoke point didn't predict the oil's performance when heated and that the best oils produced the fewest polar compounds which are harmful to health.
In summary, coconut oil is higher in saturated fat so may not be a good choice to cook with for people who are trying to reduce the amounts they eat or are at risk of heart disease. However, being as coconut oil produces less harmful compounds when heated it may be a good choice to occasionally cook with for some people.
Healthiest substitutes for coconut oil
Some oils are best used for salad dressings and in cold dishes as they don't stand up to heating well, but others can equally be used for stir-fries and light sauteeing.
As a key part of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil has numerous health benefits due to its polyphenol compounds which are anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Research suggests that polyphenols are beneficial for cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer.
Refined olive oil has a higher smoke point and is best for cooking, but keep your more expensive cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil for drizzling on salads.
Avocado oil is a mainly monounsaturated oil with similar anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties to olive oil. As well as being delicious to use as a cold-pressed oil to drizzle on salads, studies confirm that it performs well at high temperatures and is suitable for cooking.
Hemp oil is a valuable source of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and makes a delicious nutty addition to salads, grilled vegetables, or smoothies.
Another excellent source of omega-3 on a plant-based diet is flaxseed oil, also known as linseed oil is one for including in smoothies or cold dishes.
Walnut oil is a rich source of omega 3 and makes a change from olive oil for salad dressings.
The Bottom Line: Coconut oil is 'neither a superfood nor a poison'
Vasanti Malik a research scientist at the Harvard Chan School characterized coconut oil as "neither a superfood nor a poison." She advised that its role falls somewhere in between and that we should consume it in small amounts or as an occasional alternative to other vegetable oils while still adhering to the recommended guidelines for saturated fat intake. I tend to agree.
For more plant-based foods that may be hijacking your diet, read unhealthy plant-based and vegan foods that may want to avoid, according to RDs.