Is this popular, saturated fat a miracle food or an overhyped fad?
Coconut oil is one of today's most popular health food trends.
Photo by iStock/Geo-grafika
Coconut oil is one of today’s most popular health foods. Passionate proponents of this tropical oil recommend eating it by the spoonful, adding it to coffee and slathering it all over our bodies, claiming it can help us lose weight, boost brain function, cure infections, protect against Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes, reduce inflammation, benefit our hearts, and make our hair and skin glow. But as with any fad food with benefits that seem too good to be true, the hype on coconut oil may be just that. Many health experts are pushing back, urging consumers not to go nuts with their faith in, and use of, this saturated fat. As is so often the case, the truth may lie somewhere in the middle for this food.
In case you’re not familiar with coconut oil, here’s a quick snapshot.
Coconut oil is made by pressing the meat of a coconut to extract its fat. About 84 percent of its calories come from saturated fat. Some cooks like coconut oil because it has a high heat point, making it great for frying, and lends a distinct flavor to everything from Thai food to pie crusts. Virgin coconut oil smells and tastes like coconuts, while refined coconut oil, made from dried coconut meat, does not. Most health claims surround virgin coconut oil, sometimes called VCO.
Saturated fats themselves are a controversial health topic. Most saturated fats come from animal products, although coconut oil is an exception. Long demonized as a primary cause of clogged arteries and related chronic health conditions, saturated fat has been the subject of recent research that has some experts reconsidering its effects on health. In April of this year, three cardiologists released a report suggesting an absence of a link between consumption of saturated fat and health problems including coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and the most common type of stroke.
Yet a number of health professionals questioned the report and maintain that eating a diet high in saturated fats will harm your health.
Research indicates that poly- and monounsaturated fats are indisputably healthy for us, while saturated fats may present some health risks. Studies find that replacing saturated fat in the diet with unsaturated fats improves overall health. Yet it seems saturated fats’ negative reputation may be at least partly due to their conflation with definitive metabolic havoc-wreakers: sugar and highly refined carbohydrates.
To add to the confusion, coconut oil is a unique type of saturated fat, which may make some health benefits more likely. “Not all saturated fats are created equally,” says Michelle Schoffro Cook, a doctor of natural medicine, registered nutrition consultant, frequent Mother Earth Living contributor and author of 60 Seconds to Slim, among other books. “The medium-chain triglycerides found in coconut oil are much easier for the body to digest than other types of saturated fats. They stimulate and restore some of the body’s natural enzyme activities needed for a healthy metabolism.”
Lauric acid, which makes up about half of the fatty acids found in coconut oil, is credited with a range of health benefits. Research suggests lauric acid is different than other fatty acids because our bodies send it directly to the liver to be converted into energy, instead of immediately storing it as fat.
Lots of studies are being done on this unique oil, and many yield encouraging results. But for every fantastical claim, there seems to be a medical expert who says, “Not so fast.”
Lauri Wright, Ph.D., is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the largest organization of food and nutrition professionals in the United States, and a clinical dietitian with two decades of experience. She has trouble understanding this sweet-smelling oil’s meteoric rise to the national stage and the far-reaching claims that tend to make it seem more like a superhero than a superfood.
“Usually I can see the germ that started the growth of the latest health craze. This is the one I can’t figure out,” says Wright, an assistant professor specializing in public health and prevention of disease at the University of North Florida. “It may be related to a few cultures that include coconut oil in their diet and have lower rates of some chronic diseases.”
That would be parts of India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and the Polynesian Islands, where coconut is a big part of the daily diet. According to a study published by the American Society for Clinical Nutrition Inc., a team of researchers studied two indigenous populations in the Polynesian Islands who eat lots of coconut. The research showed that, despite having a diet high in saturated fat from coconuts, vascular disease was uncommon in the populations studied.
“What is not included in these claims are the many different lifestyle factors, such as weight and physical activity, that confound the lower rates of certain diseases,” Wright says. “You can’t do a cause-and-effect with population studies.”
However it started, the coconut oil craze has picked up steam and become a sensation. Whenever that happens, it seems new health claims pop up everywhere from social media to television shows. Let’s take a look at the claims about coconut oil and health to determine what’s backed by science and what’s not.
Claim: Improves Skin Conditions
Coconut oil is often recommended for skin care and in homemade body-care recipes. “Many people like coconut oil to remove makeup and moisturize the skin,” Wright says, and this is one of the coconut oil health claims she can get behind. Her opinion is backed up by a study that looked at the efficacy and safety of using coconut oil to treat moderate xerosis, a common condition that causes dry, rough, scaly and itchy skin. The randomized double-blind controlled trial that compared extra-virgin coconut oil with mineral oil as a moisturizer found that they worked equally well to improve skin hydration.
Verdict: Coconut oil is an excellent skin moisturizer that is safe and effective for daily use. Try it as a moisturizer, in the bath or combined with sugar to make a scrub.
Claim: Lowers Cholesterol
It seems pretty radical to assert that a saturated fat is good for our hearts as many studies have found these fats to raise LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. But coconut oil proponents point out that it’s different than most saturated fats because it contains lauric acid. Studies have shown that coconut oil also increases levels of HDL, or good cholesterol.
“Lauric acid may raise HDL, but it also raises LDL and total cholesterol. It didn’t improve the ratio at all,” Wright says. “In contrast...a wealth of data shows that diets rich in unsaturated fat, especially olive oil, may lower risk of cardiovascular disease.”
Yet there is some reason to believe coconut oil may not affect heart health in the same way as other saturated fats.
“The saturated fats in coconut oil liquefy at around 75 degrees,” Schoffro Cook says, “while the saturated fats in most animal products don’t liquefy until closer to 130 degrees. Our natural body temperatures and metabolic processes are sufficient to liquefy the fats in coconut oil and avoid the artery-clogging effects that are linked to saturated fats.”
Verdict: For now, “I’d use coconut oil sparingly,” writes Walter C. Willett in a Harvard Health Letter article called “Ask the Doctor: Coconut Oil.” “Most of the research so far has consisted of short-term studies to examine its effect on cholesterol levels. We don’t really know how coconut oil affects heart disease.”
Claim: Improves Liver Health
Can coconut oil bolster liver health? Some say yes. In one study, mice treated with coconut oil before being exposed to hepatotoxic chemotherapy drugs had a decrease in inflammatory liver markers and an increase in beneficial liver enzymes. In another study, coconut oil provided protective benefits against effects induced by use of a broad-spectrum antibiotic associated with toxic reactions.
But for now, Wright is concerned about this claim, especially for those with liver damage. “Fat can actually worsen liver function, especially in livers damaged from alcohol and other toxins,” she says.
Verdict: While there is cause for scientists to continue researching coconut oil’s effects on liver health and toxicity, there is not enough research to support its use to treat or prevent liver problems in humans. If you have liver damage, follow your medical practitioner’s advice on treatment.
Claim: Helps Manage Weight
Articles extolling coconut oil say it helps reduce belly fat, increases metabolism and decreases hunger. They often cite a 2009 study conducted by a graduate student in Brazil, in which women age 20 to 40 with abdominal obesity were asked to cook with either soybean oil or coconut oil, follow a controlled diet and walk for 50 minutes a day. The report says the group eating coconut oil had a decrease in belly fat, while the group eating soybean oil had a slight increase. (It’s worth noting that soybean oil is strongly linked with obesity.)
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) — a consumer advocacy group — disputes the results of the study, the only one of its kind, it says. In the article “Coconut Oil Myths Persist in Face of the Facts,” the CSPI says, “The women given coconut oil didn’t weigh any less — and had no smaller waists — than those given soybean oil.”
Wright agrees with this assessment. “There is no research supporting this claim. In fact, all oils are high in calories, at nine calories per gram, over twice as many calories than found in carbohydrates and proteins,” she says.
Verdict:Coconut oil is not likely to affect weight differently than other fats and oils, with the exception of trans fats and soybean oil, both of which are closely linked with obesity and should be avoided. While coconut oil can be part of an overall healthy diet plan, increasing coconut oil intake is
Claim: Promotes Oral Health
Studies have found that coconut oil may help fight bacteria that cause gingivitis. One study compared “oil pulling,” in which coconut oil is swished in the mouth for 10 minutes, with an antiseptic mouthwash, and found both treatments effective at killing the bacteria that cause dental plaque and tooth decay. “Coconut oil contains a variety of natural acids that have antimicrobial properties,” Schoffro Cook says. “Some of these beneficial acids include caprylic, capric, lauric and myristic acids.”
Verdict: Oil pulling appears to be a beneficial practice but should not replace regular tooth brushing and flossing.
Claim: Boosts Bone Health
One theory says that the antioxidants in virgin coconut oil may neutralize free radicals, which can damage bone cells, thereby boosting bone health. A study found that rats that received 8 percent of their calories from coconut oil had more bone volume and improved bone structure than those that did not. Researchers hypothesize that the saturated fat in coconut oil aids calcium absorption; treatment with calcium alone helped improve fracture healing but failed to increase bone density. The effects of coconut oil were most pronounced in rats without ovaries, indicating this treatment may be beneficial for postmenopausal women.
Yet research on this topic is limited. While other nutrients are long-proven to improve bone health, researchers are only now beginning to examine the effects of fat on bone health, and no human studies have been conducted. “Calcium and vitamin D are critical for bone health. But no research links fat with neutralizing bone cell damage,” Wright says.
Verdict: Consuming healthy fat alongside calcium and vitamin D may be beneficial for bone health, but do not replace calcium- and vitamin D-rich foods with coconut oil or overconsume coconut oil to benefit your bones.
Claim: Improves Brain Function
Coconut oil is the subject of research into its effects on neurodegenerative disease. Our bodies can convert coconut oil fats into ketones, a fuel the liver makes when glucose is in short supply. Glucose shortages in the brain are linked with development of neurodegenerative disease. Some believe ketones may provide an alternative energy source for the brain. In one lab study, treatment with coconut oil improved survival of neurons exposed to beta-amyloid, a peptide involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Wright is troubled by the way this is reported. “I started hearing about this...when I was doing work with Alzheimer’s disease patients,” she says. “Families came to me to see if coconut oil could help their loved ones...No studies have demonstrated conclusively that this relationship exists. On the contrary, studies on the Mediterranean diet rich in unsaturated fats have demonstrated improved cognitive health.”
An article published by the University of California-Berkeley reiterates: “It’s still not known whether medium-chain triglycerides reduce dementia risk...Even if they do, it’s unlikely that coconut oil would yield enough ketones to have a meaningful effect.”
Verdict: While preliminary research suggests scientists have reason to explore the relationship between coconut oil and neurodegenerative disease, eating coconut oil to promote brain health is not a practice supported by current science. Unsaturated fats are shown to improve brain health.
Claim: Reduces Inflammation
A few animal and human studies have found evidence that suggests coconut oil may reduce inflammation, including symptoms of arthritis. Yet other studies have found high coconut oil intake increases inflammation and leads to shortening of the intestines. The important factor seems to be balance: Eat fat in combination with other foods, critically large quantities of vegetables. The fiber will help keep intestines healthy and offset side effects of a high-fat diet.
“Virgin coconut oil contains small amounts of antioxidant compounds that may help curb inflammation,” Wright says. “Remember that you get much more concentrated antioxidants from fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Verdict: Consume coconut oil alongside a varied diet rich in plant foods, whole grains and a variety of healthful fats.
Claim: Benefits Hair
Coconut oil is a great source of nourishing fatty acids, which have a history of use for hair health. Yet coconut oil’s effects on hair are mixed, writes Katie Wells of the well-known blog Wellness Mama. “Some people report immediately healthier and smoother hair, while others claim that their hair fell out by the handful after using it,” Wells writes. She’s noticed people with fine to medium, oily hair tend to see good results and stronger, shinier, more voluminous hair. Those with coarse or dry hair, however, may experience brittleness and even hair loss. Wells recommends combining coconut oil with olive, argan or marula oil, or with honey or yogurt, all of which seem to prevent negative effects.
Verdict: Try coconut oil in combination with other oils, honey and/or yogurt. Use small amounts first to see how it affects your hair.
Coconut oil makes an excellent moisturizer for skin, especially when combined with honey. Try this simple recipe from the blog The Indian Spot, which offers a wide array of natural and DIY health and personal-care recipes.
• 4 teaspoons raw honey
• 1 teaspoon coconut oil, melted
• 1 to 2 drops tea tree essential oil (optional)
1. Mix together honey and melted coconut oil in a bowl. Using a fork or whisk, thoroughly mix until oil is not separating. Add essential oil, if using, and stir once more to combine.
2. Using your fingers or a cotton swab, spread mixture evenly on your face.
3. Let sit for 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Rinse face with warm water and pat dry.
Coconut oil has caught the imagination of many researchers. As these brilliant minds analyze its properties, more evidence may arise on the benefits and dangers of consuming it. Several studies thus far support coconut oil as a healthy component of an overall nutritious diet, but most health experts do not recommend using it in supplemental doses. Coconut oil is an excellent topical moisturizer and can be used freely in skin-care formulations.
“What research has shown us that makes an important impact on our health are unsaturated fats,” Wright says. “Choose a diet that is rich in olive oil and fish oil. Then, hand-in-hand with healthy fats, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins.”
Coconut oil may not live up to its larger-than-life hype. But if you are cooking a dish that could be enhanced by coconut flavor, don’t be afraid to use it. It may not cure everything that ails you, but you’ll have a fabulous dinner.
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