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Coconut Oil: Why You Should Question the Hype

Coconut Oil: Why You Should Question the Hype

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

Coconut oil has become an increasingly popular “super food” over the years, with some people claiming it can cure 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 the result of 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 1 tablespoon of coconut oil.

It’s well known that 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! In comparison, butter is about 64 percent saturated fat, and beef fat and lard are only about 40 percent saturated fat.

Not all saturated fats are the same, however. They differ based on the number of carbon atoms present, and this structural difference affects the impact the fat has on cholesterol levels and our health.

  • 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 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 “good” HDL cholesterol, while stearic acid has been shown to have a neutral effect on cholesterol levels. 

The roles of lauric and myristic acid
Coconut oil is about 50 percent lauric acid and 16 percent myristic. Lauric acid is a medium-chain saturated fat, also referred to as a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT). MCTs are more easily digested and converted to energy. The MCTs in coconut oil are what have been linked to weight loss and cognitive function for Alzheimer’s disease. 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 a neutral impact on the cholesterol ratio. The overall role of lauric acid on cholesterol and health remains unclear.

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 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.

Medically reviewed in November 2018. Updated in January 2020.

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