There’s no source of dietary fat as hotly contested as coconut oil.
In recent years, coconut oil has been the darling of diet gurus for its supposed antioxidant and fat-burning attributes, as well as unproven claims that it can do everything from treat Alzheimer’s disease to improve endurance. But many nutrition scientists aren’t sold on coconut oil’s healthfulness. Earlier this year, Karin Michels, an adjunct professor of epidemiology at Harvard, made waves when she called coconut oil “pure poison”.
To understand why some food experts sing the praises of coconut oil while others do the opposite, it helps to review some nutrition history. Until recently, the U.S. government’s official nutrition guidelines advised people to avoid or limit their intake of fat. It was widely believed that fat expanded waistlines and, later, exploded hearts. The government’s notorious food pyramid recommended eating non-dairy fats and oils “sparingly,” while refined grains, breads, and other carbohydrate-loaded foods formed the foundation of a healthy diet.
These pro-carb, anti-fat nutrition guidelines remained in place for decades, while rates of obesity and its attendant diseases skyrocketed among Americans. Many experts now say that the advice to avoid fat in favor of carbs was never supported by hard science, and that healthy sources of fat are an essential component of a proper diet.
This about-face on fat has pushed many niche foods into the health spotlight. Avocados and olive oil are two examples of fatty foods that most Americans used to consume rarely — if at all — that are now featured prominently in the diets of health-conscious eaters.
Most nutrition experts are in agreement on healthy fats like olive oil, but there’s still plenty of disagreement over foods that are high in saturated fat, like coconut oil.
Coconut oil is composed almost entirely of saturated fatty acids, which makes them an obvious baddie for many nutrition and disease researchers. For decades, the American Heart Association has maintained its position that saturated fat, including coconut oil, raises a person’s levels of unhealthy low-density lipoproteins, or LDL, cholesterol, which is associated with an increased risk for heart trouble.
“The existing evidence suggests coconut oil isn’t bad for you — but it also isn’t a “superfood” (whatever that means).”
In 2016, a review of the research on coconut oil and human health found large gaps in the available evidence on coconut oil’s effect on heart health. What’s known to date suggests it raises LDL cholesterol levels, making it less healthy than unsaturated vegetable oils.
Study co-author Rachel Brown, an Associate Professor in the Department of Human Nutrition at the University of Otago in New Zealand, says people should restrict their coconut oil intakes and instead opt for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils like olive oil, canola oil, and sunflower oil. “I would not say ‘avoid’ coconut oil as it improves the flavor of some dishes,” she says. “As an occasional oil, it would be fine.”
But pro-coconut oil researchers say the LDL-related concerns Brown mentioned need to be considered alongside coconut oil’s effects on a person’s total cholesterol levels. While coconut oil may raise a person’s levels of bad cholesterol, it raises their good cholesterol levels even more, says Jeff Volek, a professor in the Department of Human Sciences at Ohio State University who has studied dietary saturated fat and its health effects. Volek says we can look beyond scientific research for proof that coconut oil is safe. “Coconut oil is a staple in the diet of certain indigenous populations such as those of India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Polynesia, and Melanesia, where historically people are reported to have good health,” he says. This real-world evidence, coupled with scientific studies on humans and animals, suggests coconut oil is healthy, he adds.
What’s special about coconut oil? Volek says virgin coconut oil, a type processed without heat or chemicals, contains compounds that appear to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. Compared to most other fats, coconut oil is an excellent source of lauric acid, a type of saturated fat that some research has linked to healthier cholesterol levels.
One 2009 study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that cutting out lauric acid in favor of carbohydrates led to unhealthy swings in blood fats. Renata Micha co-authored that 2009 Harvard study and agrees that most of the concern surrounding coconut oil is tied to the oil’s high saturated fat content. But she argues that looking at saturated fat alone is an unhelpful way to assess a food’s health profile. “Our research suggests that health effects of saturated fats can vary by replacement nutrient, type of saturated fat, food source, and processing methods,” she says. In many cases, saturated fats are “neutral”, meaning they’re not inherently good or bad for health, and coconut oil may fall into this camp. Micha isn’t a full-throated proponent of coconut oil. “There’s hype concerning potential health benefits of coconut oil due to the type of saturated fat it contains, but that hype isn’t substantiated,” she says.
Other coconut oil claims also warrant scrutiny. For one, the idea that coconut oil promotes weight loss thanks to its unique fat-burning abilities. There is some evidence that medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), a type of fat molecule that’s abundant in coconut oil, can increase energy burn. But the research behind this claim looked at a specially formulated “designer oil” made with 100 percent MCTs. Follow-up research on coconut oil has found that it fails to outperform other oils in the fat-burning department.
Taken together, the existing evidence suggests coconut oil isn’t bad for you but it also isn’t a “superfood”, whatever that means. No matter how hard you squint at the research, there is nothing to suggest you should be slurping up spoonfuls of the stuff. But if you enjoy the taste of coconut oil and want to incorporate it into your diet, know that the concerns about its saturated fat also seem overblown.