A few years ago, research on coconut oil condemned the oil as a cause of high cholesterol and clogged arteries. A number of processed food manufacturers promptly removed coconut oil from their formulas. The Center for Science in the Public Interest slammed movie popcorn popped in coconut oil, saying it added a huge number of calories from unsaturated fat. (For some reason they didn’t mention the gobs of fake butter drizzled over the popped corn, which is composed of soybean oil, artificial flavoring, beta carotene for color, and preservatives. Yum.)
But lately, we’ve seen coconut oil touted as health food. After years of thinking of coconut oil as essentially fatty poison, this came as a surprise.
It turns out that the coconut oil used in the earlier research was partially hydrogenated oil. The process of hydrogenation creates trans-fats, which are responsible for raising cholesterol and clogging arteries. But virgin coconut oil is primarily composed of saturated fatty acids, with some mono-unsaturated fatty acids and a small amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids. This is where things get murky.
It has been an almost religious tenet of faith that saturated fats (such as animal fats and coconut oil) cause heart disease by encouraging atherosclerosis. This was established through many studies over the years—but does not explain why many people whose traditional diets are high in saturated fats such as the Inuit (in the days before they started eating TV dinners) or the Masai did not disproportionately suffer from heart disease despite the fact that their diets were much higher in saturated fats than most “developed” cultures. Some analysts, looking back at the data, say that the connection between heart disease and saturated fat is weak, at best.
Our body fat is saturated fat. When we burn fat for energy, we are consuming saturated fat, raising the question: why is bodily saturated fat consumption good for us, but eating saturated fat bad for us? Just asking.
Anyway, getting back to coconut oil, there are a lot of claims for its healthful benefits, such as increased energy and heart health. One organic food site says, “The health benefits of coconut oil include hair care, skin care, stress relief, maintaining cholesterol levels, weight loss, increased immunity, proper digestion and metabolism, relief from kidney problems, heart diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, HIV and cancer, dental care, and bone strength.”
HIV and cancer? Weight loss? And all that other stuff? Really?
A minimum of research turned up the information that coconut oil’s saturated fats are primarily medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which the body metabolizes more readily than the long-chain triglycerides found in most fats and oils. Animal studies have shown that these MCTs turn up the metabolic furnace, resulting in weight loss. However, this has not been shown in human studies.
Studies of people living on Pacific islands and in southeast Asia, who rely heavily on coconut oil in their diets, have very low rates of heart disease compared to Americans—but they also eat a higher percentage of plant-based foods than we do, so perhaps we are trying to compare apples and oranges.
As for the claim about AIDS, coconut oil contains a high percentage of lauric acid, which has been shown to inhibit virus production. Opportunistic virus infection is a constant issue with AIDS sufferers, and it is believed (hoped?) that the lauric acid in coconut oil reduces these infections. As far as we could determine, there is no evidence that lauric acid can inhibit the reproduction of the AIDS virus itself.
Beyond anecdotes and claims, there’s no data that coconut oil has any effect on cancer or diabetes. So there’s a lot of hype out there about this ancient food. What do we know to be true?
Virgin coconut oil is another cooking fat you can use in moderation as part of healthy diet. It has a mild coconut flavor that enhances many dishes, and its smoke point is 350ºF, so it can be used for sautéing. It can be substituted for butter or margarine in many dishes, often with an improvement in texture and flavor. It is no more likely to cause heart disease than any other saturated fat—and might actually have some heart-healthy characteristics.
But is coconut oil a cure-all for diseases from cancer to chronic stress? No. Is it a death-dealing Terminator among foods? No. As these things usually go, the truth is somewhere in between.