Coconut oil, it has been a topic of health gurus and criticism for quite a while now. But what if we look from a scientific perspective? How much of the claimed health benefits are actually scientifically proven?
Let us first take a look at what kind of health claims we talk about and where they come from, here below just some examples:
- Promotes heart health
- It can help prevent Alzheimer disease
- It’s a long term, weight loss godsend
- It can protect organ function
- It gives your pancreas a break
- It improves digestion
- It may help balance hormones
- It can prevents and treat cancer
- It can reduce the risk of seizures
- It can prevent insulin resistance
- It can be used to treat inflammation and arthritis
But why all these health benefit claims on the internet and all around us? The food & nutrition industry is a commercial market, they want to sell as much of a product as possible. By telling people that it is a healthy choice, even if there is no real evidence, it is quite easy to boost sales levels. This is also the case with the relatively cheap coconut oil. And yes there are certainly benefits, but there is no convincing scientific proof that it is good for your health.
What is coconut oil? It is fat, lipid, and to be more precise, it is approximately 90% saturated fat. It has been proven that saturated fat is a culprit in raising heart disease risk… why would coconut oil be different?
Coconut oil is composed partially of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) / medium-chain fatty-acids, also known as lauric acid or the 12-carbon variety of saturated fat. The human body processes these type of fatty-acids in a slightly different way than other saturated fats. They are harder for the body to convert into stored fat and easier to burn off than long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) which most other saturated fats are composed off. It is the high MCT content that is the basis for most of the claimed health benefits (1).
The result of this is that coconut oil tends to raise beneficial HDL cholesterol, the good kind of cholesterol, more than any other fat does. What is often forgotten to mention is that it at the same time also increases the LDL cholesterol levels, which are known as the bad cholesterol. This is a type of behaviour we do not see with other vegetable oils like olive oil and soybean oil, these unsaturated fasts lower the LDL cholesterol level as well as increase the HDL cholesterol level. From this point of view coconut oil would not be the best healthful option to choose if you want to lower the risk of heart disease for example (2)
One of the scientific studies was carried out in 2008 led by Prof. Marie-Pierre St-Onge, of Columbia University and published in 2008. It involved 31 men and women who consumed MCT oil or olive oil during a 16-week weight loss program. The team found MCT oil, of which coconut is an example, is processed differently in the body than other oils. The researchers concluded: “Our results show that MCT consumption leads to comparable effects on CVD risk factors as an equal amount of olive oil, an oil considered to have beneficial health effects.” (1) The difficulty with this conclusion is that most coconut oils consist of only approximately 13% MCT, which would mean that a person has to consume such a high quantity per day to get the HDL lowering benefits, that he would consume unhealthy levels of fat and calories.
In general health organisations continue to advice to use saturated fat in moderation and try to replace it with unsaturated fat as much as possible in order to reduce health risks.
Other critics insist that studies supporting coconut oil are not reliable, having been done over short periods of time, with few participants, and with results not significant enough to prove any benefit to coconut oil consumption.
A general guideline from the American Health Association (AHA) is that not more than 10% of the daily calorie intake should come from saturated fatty-acids, including coconut oil.
What I personally find interesting about coconut oil is the relatively high smoke point. When using refined coconut oil (deodorized) the smoke point is around 232 degrees Celcius (3), which is comparable to soybean oil, peanut oil and ghee. This makes refined coconut oil a good choice when you want to stir fry at high heat. But then again, consider that fact that it is saturated fat and that it might be a better choice to opt for a unsaturated fat with a similar smoke point.
Personal use of coconut oil is mainly as replacement of butter (solidified fat), as a basis ingredient of my home made deodorant and occasionally to stir fry.
Concluding I would say: use with moderation.