Coconut Oil: Why You Should Question the Hype

Filled with saturated fat, can this "superfood" really reduce the risk of heart disease, Alzheimer's, and more?

Updated on January 21, 2022.

Coconut oil has become an increasingly popular “superfood” over the years, with some people claiming it can fix everything from heart disease to Alzheimer’s disease—and even aid in weight loss.

The problem is, there’s a lack of validated scientific research on the benefits of coconut oil, so it remains unclear whether or not the trend is a valuable one or if it’s mostly marketing hype. The Alzheimer’s Association notes that there is not enough credible science to support coconut oil as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, and the American Heart Association (AHA) does not recommend the use of coconut oil because it is high in saturated fats. The AHA advises limiting saturated fat to no more than 13 grams a day, which is the amount in 1 tablespoon of coconut oil.

In excess, saturated fat leads to increased LDL—or “bad” cholesterol—which is linked to higher incidence of heart disease and stroke. A meta-analysis published in the AHA journal Circulation in 2020 found that consuming coconut oil was tied to significantly higher LDL when compared to consuming oils lower in saturated fat, including olive, canola, and soybean oil.  

What’s in coconut oil?

Coconut oil is extracted from the “meat” inside the hard-shelled fruit of the coconut palm. Made up of 90 percent saturated fat, it has one of the highest concentrations of saturated fat of any food—even more than butter! Butter is about 64 percent saturated fat, while beef fat and lard are about 40 percent saturated fat.

Not all saturated fats are the same, however. They differ based on the number of carbon atoms present, as well as the types and percentages of different fatty acids. These structural differences affect how the fat influences cholesterol levels and health. For example:

  • Butter contains butyric acid, which has 4 carbon atoms.
  • Coconut oil and palm kernel oil contain lauric acid, with 12 carbon atoms.
  • Cow’s milk and other dairy products contain myristic acid, with 14 carbon atoms.
  • Palm oil and meat contain palmitic acid, with 16 carbon atoms.
  • Cocoa butter and coconut meat contain stearic acid, with 18 carbon atoms.

Lauric and myristic acids are most commonly found in tropical oils, such as coconut and palm kernel oil, and dairy products. The saturated fat found in meat, eggs, cacao, and nuts is primarily the triglycerides of palmitic and stearic acids. Lauric acid tends to raise levels of both LDL and HDL (aka “good” cholesterol), while stearic acid has a neutral effect on cholesterol levels.

The roles of lauric and myristic acid

Coconut oil contains a variety of fatty acids, including about 8 percent caprylic acid, 7 percent capric acid, 8 percent myristic acid, and 49 percent lauric acid. Medium-chain saturated fats, also referred to as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), such as caprylic and capric acid, are more easily digested and converted to energy. The MCTs in coconut oil are what have been linked to weight loss.

Some studies have shown that lauric acid has a neutral effect on cardiovascular health because it tends to raise both HDL along with LDL, showing an overall balanced effect on the cholesterol ratio. The overall role lauric acid plays in cholesterol and health remains unclear. For example, there's a debate about whether lauric acid is a medium- or a long-chain fatty acid.

Myristic acid, which is also a component of coconut oil, is the same type of saturated fat found in beef, dairy, and many processed foods. It has been shown to increase LDL cholesterol and the risk of vascular disease.

Bottom line: More research is needed regarding coconut oil’s effects on a range of health conditions—and many studies are in the works. In the meantime, if you choose to cook with coconut oil, do so in moderation, and make sure it’s part of an all-around wholesome diet.

Article sources open article sources

Ann Napoletan. “Can Coconut Oil Prevent Alzheimer’s?” August 20, 2014.
Alzheimer’s Association. “Can Coconut Oil Treat Alzheimer's?” May 10, 2012.
American Heart Association. “The Skinny on Fats.” November 11, 2020.
NutritionData. “Coconut Oil (1 tbsp) Nutrition Facts and Calories.” Accessed July 16, 2021.
Neelakantan N, Seah JYH, van Dam RM. The Effect of Coconut Oil Consumption on Cardiovascular Risk Factors: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Clinical Trials. Circulation. 2020;141(10):803-814.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Coconut Oil.” Accessed July 16, 2021.
Harvard Health. “Ask the doctor: Coconut oil and health.” August 22, 2018.
Purdue University. “Lipids.” Accessed July 16, 2021.
United States Department of Agriculture. “Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies 2017-2018.” July 2020.
American Chemical Society. “Lauric acid.” May 7, 2018.
Atli Arnarson. “10 Types of Saturated Fat Reviewed.” July 1, 2019.
Boateng L, Ansong R, Owusu WB, Steiner-Asiedu M. Coconut oil and palm oil's role in nutrition, health and national development: A review. Ghana Med J. 2016;50(3):189-196.
McCarty, M. F., & DiNicolantonio, J. J. “Lauric acid-rich medium-chain triglycerides can substitute for other oils in cooking applications and may have limited pathogenicity.” Open Heart. July 27, 2016.
O'Sullivan, T. A., Hafekost, K., Mitrou, F., & Lawrence, D. “Food sources of saturated fat and the association with mortality: a meta-analysis.” American Journal of Public Health.” September 2003.
Sankararaman S, Sferra TJ. Are We Going Nuts on Coconut Oil?. Curr Nutr Rep. 2018;7(3):107-115.

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