Is coconut oil really good for you? Or is it just new-age hype?

All things coconut are popular at the moment — coconut water, coconut mylk, coconut flour, coconut sugar, virgin coconut oil/butter/fat, coconut yoghurt — to name just a few. The question is, are they good for you?

Coconut fat — white when a solid (or it’s cold) then it goes clear when heated

Many ‘health gurus’ and celebrity bloggers are touting the benefits of coconut oil. Just type it into any search engine and you’ll be flooded with articles claiming it controls sugar cravings; gets burned off as energy, not stored as fat; is good for your heart; is good for weight loss; helps digestion; boosts your metabolism; kills bad bacteria in your mouth; beautifies your skin; prevents the degenerative diseases of ageing; and more!

I get asked about it all the time and so wrote a Newsletter about it. Here’s my short summary on the current coconut oil obsession.

The difference between coconut oil and virgin coconut oil

Conventional coconut oil — the kind used to make the gooey centres of chocolates, coffee whiteners and movie theatre popcorn — is Coconut Oil RBD, which stands for Refined, Bleached and Deodorized. Also known as Copra Oil, it is made from dried coconut that is pulverized, cooked and treated with chemicals such as hexane to produce a bleached, refined oil.

It looks opaque, off-white in colour and has no aroma. This fat is commonly used in choc-top ice-creams where you want a coating that doesn’t melt until it hits your mouth.

Virgin coconut oil — started to become a popular alternative about five years ago. It’s made from fresh coconut flesh but by a milder extraction procedure. It is supposedly cold-pressed or expeller-pressed which is gentler but the process still uses some heat e.g. you purée the chunked coconut flesh/meat, heat it gently, and skim off the fat that rises to the top.

Proponents of this “cold-pressed virgin” coconut oil say that it’s a healthier, more ‘natural’ fat than conventional coconut oil. Which certainly sounds true.

It has a stronger coconut aroma and costs typically $3 or $4 more for a 400ml jar e.g. $13 compared to $9. But who really knows if it’s superior nutritionally?

Apart from being less ‘damaged’, there’s little difference between cold-pressed and conventional coconut oil as both contain the same high level of saturated fat.

The scant research into coconut oil

Studies looking at the effect of coconut oil — either virgin or conventional — on heart disease in humans are scarce.

A recent paper in Nutrition Reviews could find only 21 suitable research papers (8 clinical trials and 13 observational studies), some as far back as 1981 on the effect of coconut fat on heart attack and its risk factors.

Written by NZ chemist Laurence Eyers and originally published as a position paper for the NZ Heart Foundation, it’s been freshened and republished in 2016.

The older studies may not be helpful as they used that older conventional form of coconut oil. What’s more many have their limitations, say the authors. They all suffer from a too-small sample size, inadequate diet assessment and some form of bias.

However, every study — small or large — is consistent in that it shows that coconut oil DOES raise both the total and the LDL-cholesterol. Less than butter but more than unsaturated vegetable oils such as safflower oil. Yet despite this many websites assert the contrary, quoting unnamed studies to support their claims.

So it seems likely that switching to coconut will raise your chances of heart disease. It will raise your LDL and your total cholesterol (there is lots of controversy about whether it also raises your HDL and your triglycerides too. Nothing is firm.

Is there a difference between coconut sat fats and others?

There was NO evidence that coconut acted differently to other saturated fats (something that’s often hyped).

Studies that compared it to butter or beef fat or palm oil all reported coconut as neutral or no better than these other three.

What did stand out was that the coconut eaten in tropical islands probably benefitted from the rest of the traditional diet which was high in fish, high in vegetables and fruits, no processed foods, no refined carbs, with an active lifestyle. And this coconut was grated coconut flesh or coconut milk extracted from coconut flesh — not the commercial coconut oil we buy in jars from a supermarket.

My take:

Coconut oil is expensive and comes from overseas (the Philippines is the world’s leading exporter followed by Thailand and Fiji). You’re not helping Aussie farmers each time you buy a jar of the stuff.

Forget the amazing claims about coconut (like instant fat loss, lowering blood sugar, fending off germs, perfect food, boosted immune system).

It’s not a super food. It’s not even a whole food (a whole coconut where you eat the edible white flesh is).

One tablespoon or 10 grams of it will set you back 370 kilojoules (or 88 Cals) and 10g fat, of which 9g are saturated.

If you like it and want to use it to cook a curry or laksa, that’s fine. Use it in PLACE of other oils.

But don’t go eating it by the spoonful hoping it will quell a sugar craving or magically dissolve away unwanted fat. It won’t.

Reference quoted: 
Eyres L, Eyres MF, Chisholm A, Brown RC. Nutr Rev. 2016 Apr;74(4):267–80. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuw002. Epub 2016 Mar 5. Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans.
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