However, coconut oil has grown in popularity in recent years, amid claims that it can do everything from supporting weight loss to slowing the progression of Alzheimer's disease.
Manufacturers have replaced other oils with coconut oil in packaged products, and many households use it for cooking. It features not only in fried food, but in sweets, shampoos, coffee, and smoothies.
In July 2016, results of a survey in the United States (U.S.) showed that 72 percent of people think coconut oil is healthful. However, only 37 percent of nutritionists agree.
After all, it is still saturated fat, and the American Heart Association (AHA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) caution consumers against coconut and other tropical oils.
Find out more about the controversy, and if you should make coconut oil a staple in your diet.
Contents of this article:
- Coconut oil has increased in popularity in recent years due to reputed health benefits.
- Overall, research does not currently appear to support increasing consumption of saturated fats, including coconut oil.
- It can be a tasty addition to a number of recipes, but it should be used with care.
Here are some key points about coconut oil. More detail is in the main article.
Possible health benefits
Coconut oil us a saturated fat of vegetable origin. It may have some health benefits, but it should be consumed with care.
Coconut oil contains 2.6 percent fewer calories than other fats. It has been said to provide various health benefits.
Here are a few of them:
Shiny hair: It makes hair shinier, because it penetrates better than mineral oils.
Healthy skin: It has been found to enhance protective barrier functions and have an anti-inflammatory effect on skin in humans.
Preventing liver disease: It has reversed hepatosteatosis, a type of fatty liver disease, in rodents.
Fighting candida: Coconut oil has reduced colonization with Candida albicans in mice, suggesting it could be a treatment for candida.
Improving satiety: One argument has been that coconut oil leaves people feeling "fuller" after eating, so they will not eat so much. However, other research has shown that this is not the case.
Weight loss: It has reduced obesity and promoted weight loss in mice.
While a number of investigations have looked into coconut oil and its possible benefits, it should be noted that many of the studies supporting its benefits have not yet been carried out on humans.
In addition, all high-fat foods and oils are high in calories. Adding in more calorie-dense food to a diet that already has plenty of calories will not result in weight loss.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Nutrient Database, one tablespoon, or 15 milliliters (ml) of coconut oil contains:
- 120 calories
- 0 g of protein
- 14 g of fat, of which 12 g is saturated, 1 g is monounsaturated, and 0.5 g is polyunsaturated
- 0 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol
It provides no fiber and little to no vitamins or minerals.
Coconut oil is 100 percent fat, but the structure of fat in coconut oil differs from the saturated fat found in many animal products, which are mainly composed of long-chain fatty acids.
Coconut oil has an unusually high amount of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). These are harder for the body to convert into stored fat, and easier to burn off than long-chain triglycerides (LCTs).
Many of the benefits claimed for coconut oil are due to the high MCT content.
Which coconut oil should I choose?
Not all coconut oils are the same, and some are more healthful than others.
Partially hydrogenated coconut oil is just as harmful as other highly processed oils that contain trans fats. These are not healthful.
Refined coconut oil is extracted from chemically bleached and deodorized coconut meat.
Virgin coconut oil is extracted from the fruit of fresh, mature coconuts without using high temperatures or chemicals. It is considered unrefined, and it may offer health benefits.
Is coconut oil really healthful?
The main argument against coconut oil is its high saturated fat content.
In June 2015, a Cochrane review suggested that saturated fats may not be as harmful as previously believed.
However, the authors concluded that people should: "Continue to include permanent reduction of dietary saturated fat and partial replacement by unsaturated fats."
In June 2017, the AHA issued a new science advisory against using saturated fats, including coconut oil. The advice was based on the findings of over 100 research studies, dating from the 1950s.
The conclusion was that coconut and other tropical oils have a high saturated-fat content, and that coconut oil raised levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol.
People are advised to change from saturated to unsaturated fats to reduce health risks.
The researchers involved in the advisory report believe that moving away from saturated fats could reduce the risk of CVD as much as statins do.
Incorrect interpretation of a study?
One study that made people think coconut oil might be healthful was led by Prof. Marie-Pierre St-Onge, of Columbia University, and published in 2008. It involved 31 men and women who consumed MCT oil or olive oil during a 16-week weight loss program.
The team found MCT oil, of which coconut is an example, is processed differently in the body than other oils.
The researchers concluded: "Our results show that MCT consumption leads to comparable effects on CVD risk factors as an equal amount of olive oil, an oil considered to have beneficial health effects."
It has been suggested that, because MCTs can have a positive effect on HDL and total cholesterol levels, coconut oil must be healthful.
However, St-Onge believes that the results have been used too liberally to support the consumption of coconut oil, especially as they used not coconut oil, but a special oil that was 100-percent MCT.
Most coconut oils are only 13 to 14 percent MCT. A person would have to eat 150 grams (g), or 10 tablespoons, of coconut oil each day to get the benefits. Consuming this much oil would not be healthful.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommend limiting all saturated fats to no more than 5-6 percent of total calories. This includes fats from tropical oils, whether or not they contain MCTs.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are a little less strict, recommending no more than 10 percent of total calories come from saturated fat.
Other critics insist that studies supporting coconut oil are not reliable, having been done over short periods of time, with few participants, and with results not significant enough to prove any benefit to coconut oil consumption.
The results of research supporting a switch to unsaturated fatty acids are more reliable.
Tips for buying and using coconut oil
This does not mean to say that coconut oil should be avoided altogether, but if you do use it, look for virgin coconut oil and use it in moderation, as with any oil.
When buying coconut oil products, avoid any packaged or manufactured foods that contain partially hydrogenated coconut oil.
Store coconut oil in a cool, dark place. Like other saturated fats, it is solid when at room temperature and liquefies when heated.
In baking, coconut oil gives a light, sweet, "coconutty" flavor. It substitutes well for butter and shortening in recipes, and works well as a plant-based replacement for vegan recipes.
The following recipes can include coconut oil:
The bottom line
Dr. Walter Willett, writing on the Harvard Health website, says that coconut oil has "a wonderful flavor" and it can be used occasionally. His advice is: "I'd use it sparingly."
He points out that while, for a saturated fat, coconut is "less bad," than some fats, other oils are probably more healthful.
Perhaps the most promising role for coconut oil is as a replacement for existing trans fats in packaged and processed products.
Consumers should remember that, while changing from one oil to another may benefit health, adding more of any kind of oil is unlikely to enhance weight loss efforts or overall wellbeing.