Coconut Oil: Medical Miracle or Marketing Miracle?

Walking through the grocery aisles, one thing has become clear: coconut oil has come to officially dominate the store. Since when did everyone swap out the usual oil suspects and go nuts for coconuts?

This is not to say there is anything inherently “wrong” with choosing to consume coconut oil. Coconut oil is tasty and can be part of a healthy diet when consumed in moderation. The problem with coconut oil is that it is being touted as this magical, cure-all substance that can do anything from soothing unrelenting frizzy hair to curing chronic diseases. Further, a survey found that there is a discrepancy in the perception of coconut oil as a “health food” between the American public and those involved in nutrition. The American Heart Association recently published a scientific advisory report that recommended against consuming coconut oil [1]. This was met with scrutiny from various media outlets and healthy living figures on social media. So, let’s take a closer look at the current science behind coconut oil and heart health.

Coconut oil has been a staple food among indigenous populations in India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Polynesia, and Melanesia and has more recently made its way into the Western diet [2]. Observational studies of indigenous populations that consume significant amounts of coconut oil have found no adverse effect in regards to cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk [2]. However, these types of studies cannot prove causality and are subject to various biases, including recall bias. Further, these populations were more likely consuming a traditional diet with sufficient polyunsaturated fats, limited refined carbohydrates, and fiber-containing coconut products, such as coconut flesh and flour, which research has found does not increase risk for heart disease [2].

Coconut oil had previously been viewed as an “unhealthy” fat due to its high saturated fatty acid (SFA) content [3]. Upon closer examination, researchers found these saturated fats were primarily comprised of medium-chain saturated fatty acids (MCFAs). Compared to long-chain saturated fatty acids (LCFAs), MCFAs are smaller in molecular size, which increases their solubility in water [3]. Unlike LCFAs, which follow the lymphatic system for absorption, MCFAs are absorbed faster in the intestine into the portal venous system and are carried to the liver to be oxidized for energy [3]. This direct process reduces the amount of free MCFAs in the blood circulation and has been speculated to be a potential cardioprotective mechanism of coconut oil [3].

A recent systematic review has found that coconut oil raises total cholesterol, HDL, and LDL, when compared to cis unsaturated plant oils, whereas butter raises total cholesterol, HDL, and LDL the greatest amount [2]. This suggests that coconut oil may fare better than butter for desirable lipoprotein levels, but ultimately it may be best to choose cis unsaturated plant fats to help reduce risk for CVD [2]. This finding was what encouraged the American Heart Association to caution against consuming too much coconut oil, since the 7 studies included in the review all reported increases in LDL cholesterol, with significance reported in 6 of these studies [1]. However, the current literature for the effects of coconut oil on heart health is relatively sparse and the evidence of an association between consuming coconuts and risk factors for heart disease is mainly of poor quality [2]. Coconut oil has recently become trendy among the health food community, so, while it is probably best to not consume coconut oil excessively, a little bit here and there will likely be fine.

 

References:

  1. Sacks, F.M., et al., Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation, 2017. 136(3): p. e1-e23.
  2. Eyres, L., et al., Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans. Nutr Rev, 2016. 74(4): p. 267-80.
  3. Babu, A.S., et al., Virgin coconut oil and its potential cardioprotective effects. Postgrad Med, 2014. 126(7): p. 76-83.
11 replies
  1. Candice
    Candice says:

    Hi Debbie great post,
    coconut oil has indeed become a new trend in our communities. I do agree to its intake with moderation. We can also expand to its many benefits as related to hair treatment, skin, and immune support. The vitamins and fatty acids contained in coconut oil strengthen the scalp, and contribute to remove sebum build-up from hair follicles. It’s a great remedy for moisturizing dry skin while reducing wrinkles. I also found that the medium-chain Triglycerides(MCTs) in coconut oil have antibacterial and antifungal components to boost the immune system.

    Reply
    • Debbie Fetter
      Debbie Fetter says:

      Hi Candice,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my post! I appreciate your kind words and I agree-rubbing coconut oil on hair/skin can definitely help.

      Reply
  2. Rheanna
    Rheanna says:

    Great post! Thank you for listing both the pros and the cons and taking a non-biased evidence based approach. It is a breath of fresh air among the posts on coconut oil!

    Reply
  3. Alan
    Alan says:

    It is obvious that all reports of the amazing experiences using coconut oil, such as that of Dr. Mary Newport amoung others, has routinely been ignored by this writer.

    It’s far easier to go along with status quo, than to truly investigate how many have actually died from consuming too much coconut oil. If real journalism is implied in this content, it should investigate how many have had serious health complications for the typical, low fat, high carb diets recommended by government and the medical profession.

    So the challenge is to look at the results of a high fat, low carb diet and how many have encountered the health problems as claimed by the AHA and others. More to the point, what is being used as ‘proof’? The famous, or imfamous 7 studies which are not at all current. Where is incontravertable proof that there is any actual relation between saturated fat and any health issue?

    There is good reason for the continued resistence by all converned, and it boils down to MONEY! How conveniently that gets overlooked.

    Reply
    • Debbie Fetter
      Debbie Fetter says:

      Hi Alan,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my post. While yes, I agree that we need more research in this area to form substantial conclusions, the current literature is relatively sparse. To my knowledge, Dr. Newport’s work primarily involves hypothesis papers/case studies, which can provide some useful insights, but are not able to prove causations or associations to a wide audience. The nutrition field is moving towards personalized nutrition, which should provide interesting information in the years to come.

      Reply
  4. Elisa Rose
    Elisa Rose says:

    Hi Debbie,
    First of all I would like to thank you for such an informative post. Recently I just completed a report on “Health Benefits of Coconut Oil”. According to medical research coconut oil can save our life in many cases like- Alzheimer’s Disease, Heart Disease and High Blood Pressure, UTI and Kidney Infection and Protects the Liver, Inflammation and Arthritis and most importantly it also prevents Cancer and is used for Cancer Treatment. On your post you give most of the unknown information. Now my advance appreciation to you to give another descriptive post about the uses of coconut oil for cancer and it treatment.
    Thank you.

    Reply
    • Debbie Fetter
      Debbie Fetter says:

      Hi Elisa,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post. If you are willing, may I read your report? I am happy to take another look at the existing literature. I am sure we will continue to see more work done in the area of coconut oil and health.

      Reply
  5. Mansueto Badion
    Mansueto Badion says:

    Hi Debbie,

    so at the end of the day, it’s still moderation that’s really important. hello from the coconut-producing country of the Philippines.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *