Coconut Oil: Heart-Healthy Hero or Evil Engine of Extinction?

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.

3 thoughts on “Coconut Oil: Heart-Healthy Hero or Evil Engine of Extinction?

  1. Bruce Fife

    Contrary to your article, coconut oil and MCTs do possess many health properties that can be useful in treating a wide variety of health problems including obesity, diabetes, cancer, HIV, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and more. If you go to the Medical Research section of the Coconut Research Center website you can access hundreds of studies varifying this fact. I would also recommend that you go to the Articles and Videos section to read articles and see videos by medical experts who discuss these properties of coconut oil.

  2. Ed Hartz

    I think I read somewhere that the Weston A. Price Foundation did some research on coconuts and coconut oil. All the talk about coconut oil and other coconut products reminds me of the Raw Milk Revolution in ways. I believe that raw milk is good for us. I also believe in moderation. We can do the research, but the real proof is seeing the difference in ourselves, our own bodies. I have used coconut oil myself for skin care, oral rinse – oil pulling, and cooking with. In all cases it helped improve my health.

    Sometimes, we have to sacrifice something in order to find the truth. Sacrifice some more time and discover the truth about coconut oil. There is a reason it is called the tree of life. I agree with Bruce Fife. Do more research. The truth will set you free.

    “In the service of life sacrifice becomes grace.” – Albert Einstein

    ~ Ed Hartz

    1. sweetwaterhrv Post author

      I did a fair amount of research for this piece, and could find little evidence for many of the claims made by websites selling coconut oil. I have tried it myself and found it pleasant-tasting, but experienced no change in health. I don’t doubt that different bodies respond in different ways to these things, but I want to see solid evidence for something–or experience some change for myself–before I completely buy off on it. Virgin coconut oil appears to be completely benign, so if it makes you feel healthier, fantastic!


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