Coconut Oil: What the Science Says

Here we have a fresh look into current studies to help to decide whether coconut oil as a dietary fat should be considered a friend or a foe.

Thanks to Merilin Toomra, ANutr – a registered Associate Nutritionist at AfN – for contributing this article.

Coconut oil is a tropical oil extracted either from coconut meat or copra (dried sections of coconut meat). Its impact on health outcomes has brought about conflicting messages across the media questioning its healthiness as a dietary fat.

On the one hand, coconut oil has been recently promoted as a healthy fat and it is commonly known to be more heat resistant compared to other vegetable oils.

On the other hand, when looking into the composition of coconut oil, it consists primarily of saturated fats.



Why are saturated fats bad?

  • A high intake of saturated fat is considered unfavourable because it has been found to increase the risk of developing a cancer [1].
  • Further, there is strong evidence that the consumption of saturated fat increases levels of LDL (low density lipoproteins), otherwise known as ‘bad cholesterol’.

LDL cholesterol has been labelled ‘bad’ because it causes fatty acid accumulation in the blood. This can increase the risk of developing high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. For this reason, some argue that coconut oil should only be put on the skin and not in the mouth.


Why are unsaturated fats good?

  • There is consistent evidence that replacing dietary saturated fats with unsaturated fats significantly increases the blood levels of HDL (high density lipoproteins), known as ‘good cholesterol’.

HDL is considered ‘good cholesterol’ because it helps to remove the ‘bad cholesterol’ (LDL) from the body. It serves a protective and regulatory function on fatty acid metabolism. As a result, HDL cholesterol is reported to facilitate weight loss and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

PANA Wellness

So, considering that coconut oil is primarily made up of saturated fats, it can seem logical to conclude that it would be better to avoid coconut oil and prefer fats that are high in mono and poly-unsaturated fatty acids.

However…

when looking into the evidence that focuses particularly on the consumption of coconut oil and its impact on health, most studies show no indication of increased LDL cholesterol when coconut oil is consumed.

These findings draw attention and suggest that not all saturated fatty acids have the same impact on health. Therefore, it would be necessary to examine the make-up of coconut oil more closely…


Coconut oil composition

Different saturated fatty acids have different properties, functions and impact on the body. Coconut oil comprises primarily (45%) of lauric acid.

While lauric acid increases total cholesterol, studies show that this is primarily good cholesterol, which has a positive effect on overall fat profiles. In fact, studies have shown lauric acid has a more favourable effect on good cholesterol than any other fatty acid, either saturated or unsaturated.

None of the studies reported that the consumption of coconut oil would increase weight status or waist circumference.

Health professionals have also studied populations in southern parts of India and South-East Asia where coconut oil is used as a staple ingredient in cooking, and reported low levels of cardiovascular disease incidents.


Why does coconut oil not increase bad cholesterol?

Compared to other saturated fats, the body metabolises and uses lauric acid as energy more rapidly. This could be due to the properties of its structure. For instance, fatty acids with longer chain length undergo more metabolic processes and are more likely to be deposited in the body.

However, it is important to note that the beneficial effects of coconut oil on fat profiles apply primarily when ‘virgin coconut oil’ is consumed, as opposed to ‘regular’ coconut oil.

What’s the difference?

It has been noted that process of an oil can affect its composition and possible health outcomes [2].

The beneficial effects of virgin coconut oil can be linked to its minimal processing as this preserves more anti-oxidative activity. [3]


Conclusion

Current evidence does not show that the consumption of coconut oil would have adverse effects on weight status, fat profile in the body or cardiovascular health.

Therefore, there is no obvious reason to avoid coconut oil as a dietary fat.

In fact, evidence suggests that the consumption of virgin coconut oil can promote good cholesterol and facilitate healthy metabolism of fats. For this reason, it could be suggested that virgin coconut oil can be a favourable dietary fat among other vegetable oils high in unsaturated fats.


Additional benefits of coconut oil emerging from the literature:

  • Heat resistance – by having a higher ‘smoke point’, coconut oil retains more of its anti-oxidant properties at higher temperatures.
  • Brain function – evidence shows that the consumption of coconut oil can have neuro-protective potential, improving brain function through sustained slow release energy.
  • Dental health – can help to decrease plaque formation.

Written by Merilin Toomra, ANutr

Edited and designed by Rebekah Jade BSc


References

  1. Srivastava, S., Singh, M., George, J., Bhui, K., Saxena, A. M., S., Y., 2010. Genotoxic and carcinogenic risks associated with the dietary consumption of repeatedly heated coconut oil. British Journal of Nutrition [online], 104 (9), 1343-1352.
  2. NHS, 2018. High Cholesterol – Overview. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/high-cholesterol/.
  3. Khaw, K.T., Sharp, S.J., Finikarides, L., Afzal, I., Lentjes, M., Luben, R., Forouhi, N. G., 2018. Randomised trial of coconut oil, olive oil or butter on blood lipids and other cardiovascular risk factors in healthy men and women. British Medical Journal Open [online], 8.
  4. Mensink, R. P., Zock, P. L., Kester, A. D., Katan, M. B., 2003. Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of serum total to HDL cholesterol and on serum lipids and apolipoproteins: a meta-analysis of 60 controlled trials. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition [Online], 77(5), 1146-1155.
  5. McCarty, M. F. and DiNicolantonio, J. J., 2016. Lauric acid-rich medium-chain triglycerides can substitute for other oils in cooking applications and may have limited pathogenicity. Open Heart [Online], 3 (2).
  6. Arunima, S. and Rajamohan, T., 2014. Influence of virgin coconut oil-enriched diet on the transcriptional regulation of fatty acid synthesis and oxidation in rats – a comparative study. British Journal of Nutrition [online], 111 (10), 1782-1790.
  7. Dayrit, F. M., 2015. The Properties of Lauric Acid and Their Significance in Coconut Oil. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society [Online], 92(1), 1-15.
  8. Fravid, M. S., Ding, M., Pan., A., Sun, Q., Chiuve, S. E., Steffen, L. M., Willett, W. C., Hu, F. B., 2014. Dietary Linoleic Acid and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies. Circulation [Online], 130 (18), 1568-1578.
  9. Li, Z., Zhang, Y., Su., D., Lv., X., Wang., M., Ding., D., Ma, N., Xia., M., Wang., D., Yang, Y., Qiu, J., Hu, G., Ling., W., 2014. The opposite associations of long-chain versus very long-chain monounsaturated fatty acids with mortality among patients with coronary artery disease. Heart [Online], 100, 1597-1605.

About the author

Merilin ToomraANutr
Registered Associate Nutritionist at AfN. @merilinsnutrition

Merilin promotes a holistic and balanced approach to health and well-being. Her aim is to help people make informed choices that would facilitate achieving personal goals and adopting lighter way of living.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s