You probably have seen news reports calling coconut oil a “superfood”. A number of books have come out recently, including “The Coconut Oil Miracle” and “Coconut oil: the fat that could save your life”. Many say it is healthier than butter and a better alternative to milk in coffee. It is found in any health food store.
Let us look at the science behind the hype and see if this oil deserves the status of a “superfood”.
What are the claims about coconut oil?
The most common health benefits claimed include: protecting the heart, helping weight loss, decreasing risk of diabetes and arthritis, improving digestion, easing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and boosting the immune system (including helping cure herpes and AIDS).
Why is this oil so popular now?
In the 1980s, there was lots of bad press about “tropical oils” (principally coconut and palm oils), and the food industry moved towards using partially hydrogenated oils instead. Then it was discovered that these were full of trans fats, which research showed were horrible for your heart and blood vessels (much worse than any saturated fat like coconut). So tropical oils were re-discovered as a healthy alternative, as part of the “back to natural” movement.
Why is coconut oil claimed to be so healthy?
Supporters of coconut oil claim that while it is high in saturated fats, that its fatty acids are different. The main saturated fat in coconut is lauric acid, found in few other foods. Proponents say this fatty acid will improve a person’s cholesterol profile. Coconut oil contains lots of medium-chain fatty acids, which are metabolized more quickly, and this supposedly makes it good for weight control.
Is it good for the heart?
Coconut oil contains 90% saturated fats, which makes it the food with the most concentrated saturated fat source. Butter, by comparison is 64% saturated fat, and olive oil is 14% saturated fat. But not all saturated fats are the same, as we have discussed earlier regarding the saturated fat in dairy and dark chocolate. Some of those saturated fats have recently been found to, in modest amount, be heart healthy.
But the same cannot be said about coconut oil. While coconut oil may well help raise levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, it also raises the levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Coconut oil does not raise the levels as much as the saturated fats in meat, but overall, the current evidence that is that at best, this oil is neither bad nor good for your heart; it is neutral.
Is it better for you than other oils?
Unfortunately, no. Much more research has been done on olive, avocado, soybean, and canola oil and these studies overall show great benefits. The research on coconut oils has been much less, and many of the studies were not well done.
Is it full of antioxidants or nutrients?
A tablespoon of coconut oil contains 120 calories, and not a great source of vitamins or nutrients. Coconut oils come in various forms, and some studies show that “virgin” coconut oil contains antioxidants. However, the level of of antioxidants in virgin olive oil is much higher.
What is the “bottom line” about coconut oil?
We wish we could confirm the hype about coconut oil, but our conclusion is that it is not as healthy as advertised. There is no good evidence to show that it will help you lose weight, or avoid Alzheimer’s, or boost your immune system.
There is much more good research showing the positive health benefits of olive oil, and others such as canola, soybean, avocado, and safflower. If you like coconut oil, we suggest you use it only occasionally, and that you buy the virgin variety, which at least provides some antioxidants.
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