Coconut Oil: Friend or Foe?
By Author Name
Sep 24, 2018
Updated Nov 17, 2023
5 min read
By now, you’ve probably heard that coconut oil is the single most powerful, beneficial and underutilized ingredient in your cupboard. And on the flip side, if you saw the video that went viral in August, you saw an adjunct Harvard professor deem the stuff “pure poison.” So, what’s fact and what’s fiction? We set out to uncover the truth. Can one jar really contain nature’s cure-all? Or is it more like a nutritional pitfall?
According to proponents, coconut is responsible for everything from reducing stubborn abdominal fat to curing Alzheimer’s disease and everything in between. If that’s the case, we’d like a lifetime supply, please. 🙋 Here’s what you may have heard:
Coconut oil is getting a lot of credit lately for helping with weight loss. Now, it is true that the medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) may be linked to increasing how many calories you burn, but the studies were conducted using semisynthetic MCT oil, not necessarily the MCT oil found in coconut oil.
As with anything, diet and exercise are your best bet for losing weight; there will never be a cure-all super food that will help you drop unwanted pounds. OK, maybe not never, but it’s a slim chance. That said, using coconut oil in rotation with other healthy fats is not a bad thing — it’s all about moderation, people!
Science tells us coconut oil is high in saturated fatty acids, and saturated fats have been linked to high cholesterol and heart disease. So where are these people getting their facts? Well, some studies have shown that people who live in the South Pacific eat 60 percent of their calories from coconuts and show very low rates of heart disease. But playing the correlation game can be a slippery slope. They also consume diets that are low in alcohol, sugar, dairy, processed food and salt. Any, or all, of those factors could affect their health. Heck, living in paradise could also be the “magic pill,” but again, we haven’t found an exact science backing that one up either.
You might be wondering, “But what about cholesterol?” Well it’s true that coconut oil can raise your “good” cholesterol… but it can also make the “bad” cholesterol go up, as well. Scientists are still working through what that means for your health, so stand by.
On the surface, this one seems to be fairly true. See, coconut oil is made up of about 50 percent 12-carbon lauric acid. When lauric acid is digested, it produces monolaurin. Both of those funny-sounding things can kill things like bacteria, viruses and fungi. So yeah, coconut oil can be linked to killing bad stuff. But here’s the kicker — scientists aren’t sure the human body can actually make monolaurin from coconut oil.
Now, manufactured monolaurin (try saying that five times fast) is a great ingredient in cosmetics, detergents and soaps. And when coconut oil contains this manufactured monolaurin it could be used as a moisturizer or makeup remover. And we’re all about those multitasking products!
This is something that is being studied, but nothing has really been proven. Those same MCTs from before have been shown to provide an alternative energy source in the brain, which can help with cognitive function. But again, that’s a benefit of MCTs, NOT just coconut oil. You see the issue here.
At the end of the day coconut oil is 80 percent saturated fat. How much is that really? Compared to a tablespoon of olive oil, a tablespoon of coconut oil contains about six times the amount saturated fat. (One more note for comparison: Lard, aka bacon fat, is only about 40 percent saturated fat.) Stacy Beeson, a Registered Dietitian in the Denver area, says the current recommendation is to consume 13g to 20g of saturated fat a day and a tablespoon of coconut oil has about 12g. Saturated fat raises the risk of cardiovascular disease and internal inflammation. That doesn’t mean you have to avoid it all the time, but enjoy it in moderation. An ingredient in curries or baked goods for flavor? Sure! Heaping spoonfuls for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Probably not very helpful.
“You could use coconut oil as a butter replacement in baking or a small amount to add flavor when cooking foods, otherwise stick to oils high in unsaturated fats like olive, canola or avocado oil,” says Beeson. “Research on the impact of specific fatty acids on health is ongoing. To date, data supports using unsaturated fatty acids over saturated fatty acids.”
If you’re looking for some form of the above benefits, studies are making a case for MCT oil supplements and that’s definitely something to keep an eye on.
Keep it, that’s what! While the benefits of eating coconut oil are still in question, it has become a popular ingredient in beauty routines. From hair masks to lip balm to shaving cream, coconut oil may have found its home in your bathroom rather than in your kitchen. But if you love the taste and texture, try swapping coconut oil for butter in vegan baked goods or as an olive oil alternative in a Thai curry.
What’s your stance on coconut oil? Now that you’ve seen the science, will you give it up or double down? Tell us how and if you use it in the comments below!