Coconut oil is a hot topic right now with daily news headlines claiming everything from weight loss to a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, making people intrigued but also confused. So is it healthy or unhealthy? Here are some facts about coconut oil.
Where Does Coconut Oil Come From?
There are 3 main types of coconut oil:
- Virgin or Unrefined – extracted from the fruit of fresh mature coconuts without using high temperatures or chemicals.
- Refined – made from dried coconut meat that’s often chemically bleached and deodorized.
- Partially Hydrogenated – further processed and transforms some of the unsaturated fats (the good fats) into trans fats (the bad fat).
Nutritional Properties of Coconut Oil
Coconut oil that you find in your run of the mill supermarket or at the local health food store, no matter the type, is high in saturated fat–ranging between 82-92%! In fact, it’s considered a solid fat. One tablespoon of coconut oil adds up to more than 11 grams of saturated fats. The daily limit recommended by the American Heart Association is 13 grams.
Most common culinary oils including canola, corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, flaxseed, grapeseed, and extra-virgin olive oil contain significantly less saturated fat than coconut oil.
Is it Healthy or Unhealthy?
The truth is that there isn’t enough scientific evidence to support the numerous claims about coconut oil’s potential health benefits, but we do know that it’s high in saturated fat and saturated fat raises LDL or “bad” cholesterol.
But what about the belief that not all saturated fat is bad? In recent years, numerous claims likened coconut oil to medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) also known as medium-chain fatty acids. MCTs are a type of saturated fat that has been linked to potential health benefits such as weight loss, appetite control, increased metabolism, anti-inflammatory effects and so on. But here is the key…this research on MCTs cannot be applied to coconut oil because the triglycerides predominant in coconut oil are different in their structure, absorption, and metabolism.
It’s starting to get a little intense now but stay with me!
Coconut oil is classified as lauric oil because the main fatty acid is lauric acid. Lauric acid can be classified as either a medium-chain or long-chain fatty acid. When your body digests and metabolizes lauric acid it behaves more like a long-chain fatty acid, therefore you are not getting the potentially beneficial effects of MCTs.
A professor at Columbia University also conducted research that showed a type of fat in coconut oil can increase metabolism and boost weight loss. That type of fat was MCTs because the oil she used in her study was a special 100% medium-chain coconut oil. Most coconut oils typically have 13-14% percent of this medium-chain triglyceride. So, people would have to eat large quantities to replicate the results. “No one eats 150 grams (10 tablespoons) of coconut oil in a day,” said the professor. Nor should they.
Lower intake of saturated fat coupled with higher intake of unsatured fats like polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat is associated with lower rates of Cardiovascular Disease (CVD). But don’t replace saturated fat with refined carbohydrates and sugars as this will not lower your risk of CVD.
Bottom Line? Limit your total saturated fat intake in all forms. Eat whole, unprocessed foods such as fresh, frozen, or canned fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, and low-fat dairy.
Sources: Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association; Saturated fats: Why all the hubbub over coconuts?; & Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans