Coconut oil has become the darling of the wellness scene. Beyond its use in traditional cuisines like Indian, Thai and Sri Lankan cooking, the tropical oil has inspired countless raw dessert recipes, as suggestions we add it to coffee or even eat it by the tablespoon. Proponents claim it can strengthen immunity, assist weight loss, boost brain function, promote heart health and regulate blood sugar levels.
On the other hand, major health heavyweights, including the Dietitians Association of Australia, the Heart Foundation, the World Health Organisation and the American Heart Association aren’t so enthusiastic, advising that we only use the saturated-fat laden oil occasionally, that we choose unsaturated vegetable oils instead, or that we avoid it altogether. To make matters more confusing, some high-profile health experts and scientists have argued that saturated fat isn’t the heart disease villain we once thought, which puts a question mark over coconut oil.
So does anyone really knows for sure if coconut oil is good or bad for you?
Where the science is at
As it turns out, the answer isn’t clear-cut, and that’s largely because the folks in white lab coats still have some investigating to do. “There is not enough scientific evidence to state categorically that coconut oil is good for us, nor bad for us, as definitive clinical trials assessing the effects of coconut oil on health benefits are lacking,” Professor Barbara Meyer, director of the University of Wollongong’s Lipid Research Centre, tells SBS.
Melanie McGrice, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, agrees. “I don’t think there’s enough research yet to say it’s an amazing superfood that everybody should consume, but there’s also not enough research to put it in the same category as potato chips and say it’s something we definitely shouldn’t be consuming,” she says.
How the health claims stack up
While the jury may still be deliberating, the current evidence suggests that many of the health claims are overblown. “We recently reviewed the scientific evidence for weight reduction, cholesterol-lowering, boosting the immune system, as well as energy and memory-boosting effects and found insufficient evidence to support any of these claims,” says Sara Stanner, science director at the British Nutrition Foundation.
Many of the proposed health benefits of coconut oil (particularly weight loss and increased metabolism) are attributed to its high content of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are digested, absorbed and processed differently to long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). While there is research showing that MCTs increase thermogenesis (fat burning) and appetite control, the MCT oil used in most research has a different fatty acid composition to the type found in coconut oil – so it’s too much of a stretch to assume the same benefits. “It’s important to remember that the amount of medium-chain fats in coconut oil is actually very small,” adds Stanner. There’s also the fact that, just like other oils, coconut oil is high in kilojoules, at 720kJs per tablespoon. “Consuming large amounts of it can still cause weight gain,” notes McGrice.
Matters of the heart
Where the controversy around coconut oil really goes, well, nuts, is on the subject of cardiovascular disease. Studies of traditional communities that have high intakes of coconut oil (for instance, the Polynesians and Sri Lankans) have found decreased levels of heart disease, which is often cited to support the claim that coconut oil doesn’t increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, according to McGrice, we can’t be certain that it’s the coconut oil causing their lower risk of heart disease. “It could be because they have high intakes of fish, fruit and vegetables or because these diets are traditionally very low in refined carbohydrates and sugar,” she says.
Then there’s the debate around the impact of coconut oil on blood lipids, and by extension, heart disease risk. We know that coconut oil is packed with saturated fat (92 per cent to be exact), which we’ve long been told raises LDL (bad) cholesterol, hence why the Heart Foundation recommends saturated fat be only 7 per cent of our total energy intake and the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting intake of foods high in saturated fat. For Peter Clifton, a professor of nutrition at the University of South Australia, there’s no doubt that LDL cholesterol is a heart risk. “The overwhelming weight of evidence from genetic, observational and intervention studies is that LDL cholesterol is strongly related to heart disease; if you have a gene or a treatment that puts it up or down, heart disease rates follow,” he says. “It’s one of the most well-established medical facts we have.”
The plot thickens
Still, some scientists argue that the saturated fat/cholesterol story is less straightforward and that just because coconut oil increases LDL doesn’t mean it’s terrible. “Coconut oil can increase LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol and also HDL [‘good’] cholesterol, but it doesn’t increase the ratio of total over HDL cholesterol, which research shows is a better predictor for cardiovascular disease than LDL cholesterol alone,” says Dr Yutang Wang, senior lecturer in biomedical science at Federation University. According to Wang, the belief that we need to decrease LDL as much as possible is misguided. “Too high LDL can lead to heart disease, however when it’s too low it can cause deaths related to cancer or infections, so what we need is to keep the body in balance,” he says.
Furthermore, not all saturated fats are equal, so lumping coconut oil with other foods high in sat-fat like pastries and fried foods may be overly simplistic.
While we may not have a black and white answer as to whether coconut oil is good or bad for us (or even, neutral, as Wang suspects) anytime soon, we don’t need to avoid it entirely in the interim. “If it’s called for as part of a dish, it probably doesn’t hurt to include a bit of coconut oil, maybe once a week or fortnight,” advises McGrice.
According to Clifton, coconut oil only really becomes a concern, cholesterol-wise, if you’re consuming it regularly. “If you’re taking 30mls a day, six days out of seven because you believe it’s going to do something beneficial, then you’re probably doing yourself some harm,” he says.
The type of coconut oil you consume also matters. Wang recommends choosing virgin coconut oil, as the hydrogenation process that other oils go through can generate harmful trans fats.