Coconut Oil: Healthy or Hype?

By Katie Trant | Last Updated: September 28, 2014

Coconut Oil: Healthy or Hype?

Coconut Oil: Healthy or Hype?
For ages we were warned about the dangers of saturated fats, and told to avoid foods like coconut oil in favor of more heart-healthy fats like olive oil. Now, suddenly butter is back and coconut oil is everyone’s new best friend. What’s with that? Why was coconut oil a problem before and now it’s being touted as a miracle food for everything from weight loss to anti-viral properties?

Is coconut oil healthy, or hype?

First things first, it’s important to know that not all coconut oil is created equal. The coconut oil we were previously told to avoid was a highly processed partially hydrogenated version of the oil used in junk food and other processed foods in the ’80s and ’90s, which contained trans fats and other dangerous compounds.

Do you remember seeing cold-pressed virgin coconut oil in the ’80s? Me neither. That’s because it wasn’t widely available. But it is now, and this is the form of coconut oil that is getting all the attention these days.

But coconut oil is still coconut oil, right? What about the saturated fat?

Well, it turns out that not all saturated fat is the same. Coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat. For comparison’s sake, butter is about 65%, and beef fat rings in at about 40%. But it’s the type of saturated fat that has garnered all the fuss when it comes to coconut oil.

About half of the saturated fat in coconut oil is made up of medium-chain fatty acids, also referred to as lauric acid. Lauric acid has a number of health-promoting properties attributed to it, including the ability to improve levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Medium-chain fatty acids are also more easily digested and therefore more easily converted to energy than other forms of fatty acid.

Lauric acid has also been shown to kill harmful pathogens like bacteria, viruses and fungi, which is why coconut oil is praised as having antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties.

The proportion of lauric acid in coconut oil is greater than in most plant-based oils, but let’s remember that coconut oil is more than just medium-chain fatty acids—there is still the other half of its saturated fat content to consider. Furthermore, overall effects on health cannot be determined simply by changes in HDL cholesterol, and there have been no long-term studies on the impact of coconut oil consumption and heart health.

But wait, isn’t saturated fat okay now?

Not exactly. In the spring, a paper was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggesting there is no evidence supporting the longstanding recommendation to limit saturated fat consumption (Annals of Internal Medicine, March 18, 2014). Mainstream media jumped all over this study, and it was widely cited in social media with headlines such as “butter is back” and “saturated fat should not be demonized.”

And that’s probably true. It shouldn’t be demonized, but what the study actually showed is that saturated fats may not contribute as directly to heart disease as we once thought. This doesn’t mean we should be eating them with wild abandon!

Coconut Oil
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the main issue is that if someone replaces the saturated fat in their diet with refined starches or sugar, then the risk of heart disease remains the same. But, if saturated fat is replaced with polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat such as is found in olive oil, nuts, and other plant oils, there is substantial evidence that risk of heart disease is reduced.

Back to coconut oil… what about all of the other miraculous health benefits it has been touted with?

Yes, there are many. From Alzheimer’s and epilepsy to weight loss, antibacterial properties, and even use as a natural sunscreen, there are literally hundreds of supposedly miraculous uses for coconut oil.

Many of them may be true. And with better, long-term research, we may get some definitive answers in the future. The problem with latching onto coconut oil as a cure-all right now is that these health benefits are not substantiated.

A widely cited study attributing daily coconut oil consumption to abdominal fat loss (abdominal fat is the most dangerous kind of fat) follows just 40 women over 12 weeks. Another study on coconut oil consumption and appetite uses just six subjects! Important research like this should ideally be conducted on thousands of participants and over many, many years.

For now, the various health claims about coconut oil are largely not supported by peer-reviewed papers of large, long-term studies as credible scientific evidence should be. No doubt this research will come, but for now we should remain cautious about calling coconut oil a superfood or miracle cure.

So, what’s the bottom line?

Coconut oil should be consumed in moderation as a part of a well-balanced diet rich in vegetables, fruit, nuts, and monounsaturated fatty acids such as those found in olive oil. I love the flavor of coconut oil (I also love and use butter). I use heart-healthy olive oil as my primary fat source, and bring in the others from time to time. If you wish to use coconut oil for its flavor, use it in moderation, and seek out virgin, cold-pressed coconut oil, which is the least refined available on the market.

About Katie Trant

Katie is a university-trained nutritionist and professional writer based in Stockholm, Sweden. She is a vegetarian of more than two decades, and is passionate about real food. Her blog The Muffin Myth is all about approachable nutrition.

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Love this! I see coconut oli everywhere, and while I do also use it (in moderation) I often worry about its over utilization in one’s diet! I will continue to keep an open ear to research and I appreciate you taking the time to put all of this into an easily understandable post. Thank you for sharing!

I use coconut oil as one of the fats in my pantry, but which one I use depends on the recipe. I have found it to be very effective in healing sunscreen–aloe has never worked for me as an after-sun treatment, but coconut oil, seems to do very well.

Keep in mind that this is based on a sample size of one.

Coconut oil is definitely great for your skin! And I’m sure as an after sun moisturizer it’s brilliant. As to whether it actually protects us from the sun, I’m a bit more skeptical. I also like to rotate the fats in my pantry depending on the recipe – tonight I made a soup that had some coconut milk in it, so I used coconut oil to bump up the coconutty flavour. Yum!

My dietitian put me on 2 servings of unrefined, cold, expeller pressed coconut oil each day. I am a type 1 diabetic at a healthy weight. My blood sugar, A1c, dropped from 9.2 to 6.5. By combining this oil with avocado fat, one serving each day, and low-glycemic foods, I have been able to retake control of my diabetes. Thank you for this excellent post. Thank you!

What counts as a serving for you? Is it a tablespoon? These healthy fats definitely have beneficial effects when it comes to blood sugar regulation, that’s been well documented. Glad it’s helping you control your diabetes!

Yup, I’m all about the moderation. I preach from the soapbox of moderation! And yes, fats serve many very important functions, like the ability to absorb fat soluble vitamins for one!

My concern about coconut oil is the environmental impact of its production. Do you know anything about this? Is coconut oil related to palm oil, the production of which is destroying he rainforests?

Good question. Coconut oil is not related to palm oil, and they are typically grown in different parts of the world. The biggest producer of coconut oil is the Philippines, whereas most palm oil comes from Indonesia. The growing and harvesting conditions of coconut oil are much more sustainable than palm oil, and I haven’t come across anything related to slash burning and coconut oil. However, I wonder about the labour conditions, and of course, coconut oil ain’t local (depending on where you are).

Great article! I was starting to believe it was super healthy for you in many ways, glad to bring back into perspective and understand that it does have some benefits, but the hype of it exaggerates them. In my experience, coconut oil does wonders to the hair, also it was amazing in the brownies I made yesterday; I substituted the vegetable oil for coconut oil and butter.

Thank you, Katie, this is interesting. I began using coconut oil as I was anxious about the media claims that olive oil should not be used at high temperatures, I’d used it previously for years without concern. But not to put too fine a point on it, good quality coconut oil can be expensive if one is on a tight budget. I enjoy using it with some of my recipes, but I’d value a little clarification on just what sort of oil is safe to use at different temperatures if you could, please, Katie.

Coconut oil can definitely be pricey, especially the good stuff. Like I said, not all coconut oil is created equal, and I’ve read that the virgin cold-pressed coconut oil is not good at high temperatures either. Apparently it’s the refined version of coconut oil that does best at high temperatures. I do cook with both coconut and olive oil from time to time, but other good choices are cold-pressed canola, sesame, or grape seed oil.

As a cancer health educator in the UK , “will coconut oil help with my cancer?” is starting to be asked more and more. As you rightly point out, long-term studies are so far absent but that there may be many aspects to ev coconut oil that warrant longer, robust studies. In cancer, coconut oil may be useful for those following ketogenic diets. And I am hearing interesting things about post-treatment weight loss sped up a bit with coconut oil (I run weight management classes for post-treatment). Thank you for such a thoughtful. well-resereached and open-minded post. I look forward to a follow up when a bigger study reports. All best. And thank you Kiersten for having Katie as a contributor on Oh My Veggies.

Of course coconut oil makes perfect sense as part of a ketogenic diet, which can be such a tough diet to manage naturally. There are interesting results with small studies and anecdotical evidence regarding weight loss. Why it may occur is largely unknown. Is it satiety? Something else specific to coconut oil. Time will tell I suppose. Thanks for the kind words, Kellie!

Everything in moderation, including moderation. Yes! Coconut oil is a great substitute for other cooking oils, but it doesn’t mean you should fry stuff in it just because it is better for you than a veggie oil fry. Keep it balanced, and when the balance tips a bit, take a breath and know that it’s not the end of the world. 😛

Everything in moderation indeed! I wouldn’t necessarily say that coconut oil is better for us than a veggie oil – oils like extra virgin olive oil have well documented benefits when it comes to heart health – but I think that in the name of moderation and balance keeping a good rotation of healthy fats in our diets is key. They all offer different benefits! And yes! Just take that breath!

What a coincidence! I just wrote an article on the different types of coconut oil available, in my blog. This is so well written, may I include a link back of this article in mine? I completely agree that moderation is key and the type of coconut oil used is important, but these days we see only the minimally processed type, which is good. I use expeller pressed oil in cooking, which has a neutral flavor; cold-pressed for external application.

My grocery store has highly processed refined coconut oil available next to the margarine! It’s hard as a rock (I bought it once by accident) so I imagine it’s only intended use is to be melted down for deep frying. Luckily the unrefined coconut oils are much more common these days 🙂

I help family members caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. Every week there is a new miracle herb or supplement announced. The discussion on coconut oil is the only one that is discussed week after week so I’ve assumed there must be some merit. Your article is well written and something I can comfortably share with my audience to help them make an informed decision. Thanks.

I honestly haven’t dug very deeply into the connection between coconut oil and Alzheimer’s, but given what we know about healthy fats and brain health, it doesn’t surprise me that one exists. This may be another matter of ketones and brain health. I can’t make a statement on any benefits or drawbacks, but I agree that if coconut oil is mentioned time and time again in this context, there may be something there. Hopefully in time we’ll know more!

BTW, after reading your article I searched some online stores to see what refined coconut oil looks like and I found some soft gel supplements that are cold-pressed and refined. I realize that using the oil is ideal but do you have any thoughts about taking it as a supplement? This is primarily to help me increase my HDL (17 was 7) and unrelated to Alzheimer’s.

You know, I’ve never come across coconut oil supplements before. If you’re looking to increase your HDL I recommend you speak to your doctor or a clinical dietitian and find out the best course of action.

Thanks! I know what you mean about cited research… although some of the coconut oil as holy grail articles I’ve come across online are well cited, they just fail to mention the insanely small number of research participants. I mean, six? Six?!

Some colleagues of mine were talking about coconut oil recently and my main impression was that they were buying into a lot of hype. One even said “I know I need to use coconut oil more often… I should be using it every day!” What? Scary how much of our consumption is based on marketing, even when we’re trying to be healthy. Thanks for putting it in perspective!

Fantastic article! Super informative. I’m always skeptical buying “new” health products, as I feel the media just seems to go overboard with the next BIG thing that will save you from every disease on the planet. It’s hard to trust the media, but it’s always in your face. It’s great to read some very well researched and thoughtful information for a change! Awesome read. Thanks for sharing 🙂

Thanks Courtney! Even as a nutritionist I find it hard to sift through all the information out there, especially when coming from the mainstream media. There is a real tendency to latch on to ‘miracle’ foods, and I think we need to always be wary of that kind of thing.

Don’t get me wrong, I like coconut oil! I like the flavour in baking, I like it on my pancakes, and sometimes use it in soups. But it’s still totally a moderation situation in my books, just like everything else.

Great post! It’s so refreshing to read a balanced argument/post on this topic. I also greatly appreciate seeing a food-post written by a nutritionist, who also is a vegetarian. There are very few vegetarians in the country I live in (Norway). I’ve asked my doctor before about nutritional advice to suit vegetarian needs and only got a stark and blank expressions 😉 not her “forte” apparently and she couldn’t refer me to a nutritionist either. As an overweight vegetarian in good shape (perfect blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels), I struggle to find sensible nutritionist advice suitable to a veggie diet. So thanks to ohmyveggie for being such a great blog and for introducing me to Katie’s blog 🙂

Thanks Christina! Glad you liked the article. I’m just next door in Sweden, and although the vegetarian scene is improving, it’s definitely not as good as what I left behind in Canada. I don’t think the vegetarian diet is very common in the Nordic countries in general. If you’ve got nutrition questions feel free to send me an email and I’ll try to help.

Wow, Katie, I didn’t realize you were based in Sweden, you’re literally a next door neighbour;-) I lived in Scotland for 6 years and the vegetarian options were just a world away from here. Thanks for your friendly offer, I may well take you up on that.

So glad you discuss the research done on coconut oil and mention the importance of studies done on more subjects over longer periods of time as well as articles being peer reviewed! It’s good to see you aren’t just spouting off facts from not so scientific articles. Thank you!

Thank you – most balanced and well explained article on the topic I’ve seen. It’s really worrying that some influential health bloggers are making unfounded health claims about coconut oil! Thanks for emphasising the need of good research!

Glad you enjoyed the article, Benna! This is one of the problems with the blogosphere, I think… so many experts, so little actual scientific information. Good research is definitely where it’s at in terms of health and nutrition issues!

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