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What’s the Deal with Coconut Oil?

Written by: Written by: Katie Philippi, Graduate Student in Dietetics, Coordinated Program, Georgia State University
Monday March 23, 2020

Keeping up with coconut oil’s reputation in recent years feels a bit like a rollercoaster ride. Back in 1994,
the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a report that popcorn popped in coconut oil
had the same amount of saturated fat as six Big Macs®. 1 It all came down to saturated fat; coconut oil,
with an 82% saturated fat (SF) content beat out butter (60% SF), beef fat (40% SF), and even lard (40%
SF). Over the past two decades, researchers’ opinions about saturated fats have shifted; trans fats have
been highlighted as the real enemy of a healthy diet. Parallelly, thoughts and opinions on coconut oil have
continued to evolve.

Around 2010, coconut oil made a big comeback. It leapt into the spotlight and quickly became a health-
food favorite, often touted as a cure-all with benefits ranging from fat loss to improved cognition and
heart disease prevention. Soon, shelves of supermarkets were stocked with big tubs of coconut oil:
devotees were swirling it into their coffee, swishing it in their mouths as a “natural cavity-fighter”, and
incorporating it into “healthier” baked goods. Not everyone was convinced. A Harvard professor called it
“pure poison” and “one of the worst things you can eat”, bringing the focus once again to its high
saturated fat content. 2,3 While these statements may merely be a hyperbolic rejection of coconut oil’s
unsubstantiated benefits, the vast range of opinions concerning this tropical oil begs the question: What
does the research really say about coconut oil?

Like other oils high in saturated fat, coconut oil has been associated with raising serum LDL cholesterol
levels. A meta-analysis of 16 trials showed that coconut oil consumption significantly increased LDL
cholesterol concentrations in comparison to nontropical vegetable oils like soybean oil, olive oil,
safflower oil, and canola oil. 4 Coconut oil, however, is different from other oils high in saturated fat in
that it has been also found to raise serum HDL cholesterol levels. 4,5 While this might sound like a feather
in coconut oil’s cap, recent research has shown that positive changes in serum HDL cholesterol caused by
diet are not associated with positive changes in cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk. High LDL cholesterol,
on the other hand, has been identified as a risk factor for CVD. 5 Improvement in glycemic and
inflammatory markers, two other CVD risk factors, have not been observed with coconut oil
supplementation. Overall, coconut oil is not recommended for cardiovascular disease risk reduction, and
the American Heart Association (AHA) advises against its use. 6

Much of the research on coconut oil involve short-term studies examining its effect on cholesterol levels.
What about the claims of its influence on fat loss and brain activity? Unfortunately, research on these
benefits are largely inconclusive. 4,7 This ambiguity has highlighted a need for human clinical and
observational studies to confirm or deny the reported benefits of coconut oil.

What’s the bottom line?

Until the long-term effects of coconut oil on cardiovascular health are clearly established and other
uncorroborated benefits of coconut oil consumption are thoroughly researched, it is not advisable for
coconut oil consumption to exceed the USDA's daily recommendation of 10% or less of total calorie
intake as saturated fat. 8 While it’s largely a decision of personal preference, consuming oils with health
benefits such as extra virgin olive oil may be a more prudent option. If you do choose to include a
moderate amount of coconut oil in your diet, try selecting extra virgin coconut oil which contains higher
amounts of nutrients and polyphenols than refined coconut oil. 9 Another thing to consider is smoke point.

Extra virgin coconut oil has a smoke point of 350 degrees ( 0 ) Fahrenheit (F) and is best suited for sautéing
and baking. 10 Going above this temperature can cause the oil to smoke, releasing potentially toxic
compounds. For searing, frying, grilling, or roasting, opt for extra virgin olive oil (smoke point of 375 0 F),
refined coconut oil (smoke point of 450 0 F), or avocado oil (smoke point of 570 0 F) for best results.

References:

1. Grimes W. How about some popcorn with your fat? The New York Times.
https://www.nytimes.com/1994/05/01/weekinreview/april-24-30-how-about-some-popcorn-with-
your-fat.html. Published May 1, 1994. Accessed February 20, 2020.
2. Coconut oil may not be as healthy as many people think it is. In the News 2018.
https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/is-coconut-oil-healthy/. Accessed February
20, 2020.
3. Sweeney, E. Harvard expert’s criticism of coconut oil widely shared online
https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/08/22/harvard-expert-criticism-coconut-oil-goes-
viral/A76f5NlHVX7UMGbWYqNoHI/story.html. Published August 22, 2018. Accessed March
4, 2020.
4. Neelakantan N, Seah JYH, van Dam RM. The effect of coconut oil consumption on
cardiovascular risk factors: a systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials. Circulation.
2020;141(10):803814.doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.119.04305 2
5. Eyres L, Eyres MF, Chisholm A, Brown RC. Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk
factors in humans. Nutr Rev. 2016;74(4):267-280. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuw002
6. Sacks Frank M., Lichtenstein Alice H., Wu Jason H.Y., et al. Dietary fats and cardiovascular
disease: a presidential advisory from the American Heart Association. Circulation.
2017;136(3):e1-e23. doi:10.1161/CIR.0000000000000510
7. Chatterjee P, Fernando M, Fernando B, et al. Potential of coconut oil and medium chain
triglycerides in the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Mechanisms of Ageing and
Development. 2020;186:111209. doi:10.1016/j.mad.2020.111209
8. Sankararaman S, Sferra TJ. Are we going nuts on coconut oil? Curr Nutr Rep. 2018;7(3):107-
115. doi:10.1007/s13668-018-0230-5
9. Wallace TC. Health effects of coconut oil-a narrative review of current evidence. J Am Coll
Nutr. 2019;38(2):97-107. doi:10.1080/07315724.2018.1497562
10. Boateng L, Ansong R, Owusu WB, Steiner-Asiedu M. Coconut oil and palm oil’s role in
nutrition, health and national development: a review. Ghana Med J. 2016;50(3):189-196.