If there was one food that has been equally idolised and demonised in the media, it’s got to be coconut oil, right?
In fact, one public survey in the coconut oil heyday found 72% of people thought coconut oil was healthy, while 63% of health professionals disagreed, highlighting the big debate around coconut oil.
Skip ahead a year later to 2017 and the American Heart Association issued a warning over eating coconut oil, due to its role in raising LDL cholesterol (the so-called ‘bad’ kind).
Meanwhile, the coconut oil trend continued to grow, driven by claims about a whole bunch of health benefits – from using as a moisturising hair and skincare treatment to a tablespoon in ‘bulletproof coffee’ – but what does the science say?
In a (coco)nutshell, the reality is there are pros and cons, and the evidence is a mixed bag depending on the specific area we’re looking at, so let’s avoid the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ labels.
If you like the taste (in frying, for example), there’s no need to avoid it completely, but go for small amounts and don’t be fooled by the health halo. The wild health claims aren’t backed up by science and high intakes could impact your heart health.
Let’s take a look at the research beyond the headlines.
What actually is coconut oil and it’s nutritional value?
Coconut oil is derived from coconuts (obviously!), made by pressing fresh coconut meat and composed predominantly of lauric acid, which is a saturated fatty acid (a building block of fat).
Nutritionally, coconut oil is almost 100% fat, with up to 90% being saturated fats. A good tip to spot a saturated fat is that it stays solid at room temperature, unlike fats that are higher in unsaturated fatty acids that will stay as a liquid, like extra virgin olive oil (EVOO).
Most of the world’s coconut oil comes from the Philippines. Traditional intake of coconut oil would be part of a whole diet rich in coconut which is high in gut-loving fibre – the oil wouldn’t be eaten in isolation.
The pros and cons: evidence for and against potential health benefits
Cholesterol and heart health
- Coconut oil has been shown to increase HDL cholesterol levels (‘good cholesterol’) – but a meta-analysis (that pooled results of 16 clinical trials) published in 2020 found that overall, coconut oil significantly raised LDL cholesterol in comparison with other non-tropical oils (such as olive oil and rapeseed/canola oil). Several studies have shown that having high LDL cholesterol (often termed ‘bad cholesterol’) is a risk factor for cardiovascular (heart) disease (CVD), so despite also increasing HDL (which is a good thing), it’s unlikely to cancel out the potentially negative effects of the increased LDL. That being said, an elevated LDL cholesterol on its own may not be as detrimental as once thought, and instead, when assessing your heart health your GP or physician will take into account a range of markers and other risk factors (using tools such as ‘Qrisk’).
- Studies following people in countries where coconut is a staple part of their diets (India, Philippines and Polynesia) have found they have low rates of CVD. But usually, the whole coconut would be used, unlike processed coconut oil in Western countries, and their diets are often low in processed foods and high in fibre and oily fish. So, we can’t simply attribute this to coconut consumption, as there are many other reasons that they have low rates of CVD.
Overall health and weight management
- Some of the health claims around coconut oil relate to the level of a certain type of fat it contains (medium-chain triglycerides or MCT). A few studies suggest MCT oil could help support weight management as well as short-term cognition in Alzheimer’s disease. But this is not clear cut. While coconut oil is around 60% MCT, the specific types that have been found to be beneficial in clinical trials are only a small proportion of these (14% of the total fat content in coconut oil).
- The studies that found beneficial effects of MCT oil (which is 100% MCT) on satiety (feeling full) and weight loss are small and of limited quality. What’s more, when it comes to weight loss, this was only tiny amounts – we’re talking 700g. It’s certainly not at the stage where I’d suggest reaching for MCT oil to help with weight management.
- A 2020 systematic review, which focused on an array of studies on coconut oil, showed the potential benefits of MCT oil do not transfer over to coconut oil. Overall, when the studies were combined, coconut oil did not improve any markers of blood sugar control, inflammation or body fat when compared with other vegetable oils (such as olive or rapeseed/canola). This is exactly why we need to look at the full body of evidence to get the full picture, rather than just a single smaller study.
- There are small amounts of polyphenols in virgin coconut oil (oil pressed from coconut flesh without heat treatment) although these are in tiny amounts compared to fruit and vegetables.
- Coconut oil has been touted as antimicrobial, due to the lauric acid (another one of those fatty acids). That’s where the trend for oil pulling with coconut oil (i.e. swishing around your mouth) to support dental health and prevent cavities has comes from. But the evidence is very limited so far in humans, so it’s best to check with your dentist first.
- An animal study has suggested there may be potential for coconut oil to help with specific gut infections, due to the antimicrobial effects. But, not only are humans very different to mice, its ‘anti-microbe’ properties could also hypothetically impact some good microbes too! So until more research is done, if health is your focus, it’s best to stick to oils with proven benefits from good quality human studies, such as EVOO (extra virgin olive oil).
- There are also a lot of rumours about coconut oil for helping to combat ‘candida overgrowth’ or achieve ‘candida balance’, which has been hugely misrepresented. Read more about candida here.
- Consuming large amounts of coconut oil (aka the ‘coconut oil detox’) like with most fats could lead to gut symptoms including diarrhoea and cramping, particularly in those with sensitive guts such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Currently, the advice from both the American Heart Association and the British Heart Foundation is, for the most part, to try switching saturated fats (including coconut oil) with unsaturated sources (such as nuts, seeds, oily fish and olive oil). BUT that is not to say all saturated fats are bad (nutrition is never that black and white). For instance, I am pro-full-fat fermented dairy (which include some types of saturated fat)… but that is a whole other conversation.
By all means, use coconut oil if you like the flavour. It can be delicious in traditional curries (in moderation), but I wouldn’t recommend choosing it as your main fat or oil for its marketed health benefits (for that, EVOO is the top choice, backed up by numerous studies – more on that here!).