Coconut oil… the best of a bad bunch? | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

Dr Justine Butler, Senior Health Researcher and Writer for Viva!Health looks into the health claims made for coconut oil and finds that although not as bad as butter and lard, polyunsaturated fats from vegetable oils are still healthier.

Coconut oil is big news; featured in TV adverts, health magazines, it is all over the internet. All manner of health claims have been made for coconut oil from stopping Alzheimer’s to zits! One ‘wellness’ website lists 101 uses for it, including treating acne, allergies, arthritis, athlete’s foot, autism, cellulite, haemorrhoids, heartburn, lice, mosquito bites and sunburn! But is it a panacea for good health or is it just the best of a bad bunch?

Previously shunned for its high saturated fat content, coconut oil now differs from the trans fat-containing hydrogenated coconut oil used in junk food in the ‘80s. However, it is still packed with saturated fat, containing considerably more than butter. The unique thing about coconut oil is the type of saturated fat it contains. Most saturated fat is made up of long-chain fatty acids but coconut oil is rich in a medium-chain saturated fatty acid called lauric acid.

Why does that matter? Well, the length of the fatty acid molecule affects its cholesterol-raising power. We know saturated fat increases cholesterol – if you eat a lot of meat and dairy you’ll end up getting a high cholesterol reading from your doctor. Saturated fat is also converted into body fat if we don’t do sufficient exercise to burn it off.

However, lauric acid takes a different route in the body and is used directly to produce energy for the heart and brain. Well that’s the theory anyway…This is why the ‘pro-coconuts’ say coconut oil speeds up metabolism and can help you lose weight.

However, a bit of digging reveals that coconut oil also contains quite a lot of the long-chain fats (palmitic and myristic acid) found in meat and dairy. As stated, these drive up cholesterol and increase body fat. Furthermore, if the medium-chain lauric acid dominates our fat intake, some of it ends up going down the same route as the long-chain fats increasing cholesterol and body fat in the same way fats from meat and dairy do.

As far as the other health claims go, there may be some basis to a selection of them, while others are simply unfeasible. Coconut oil does possess some anti-microbial characteristics and may be effective in killing some bacteria and viruses. However, caution should be applied along with a thick coating of the oil. For example, one website recommends putting coconut oil in your ear to fight ear infection – this could be very harmful if the eardrum is damaged.

Like most ‘magic bullet’ food and health stories, there may be an element of truth in some claims made about coconut oil. Enthusiasts appear to have extrapolated the potential benefits exaggerating them beyond anything the science can confirm.

Coconut oil may be beneficial when used to replace saturated animal fats (butter and lard) and hydrogenated fats which contain unhealthy trans-fats. But replacing saturated fats with unsaturated ones like vegetable oil, olive oil, flaxseed and rapeseed oil, is a more effective way to help reduce cholesterol. These ‘good’ fats have other benefits that saturated fats do not. Polyunsaturated fats are used to build cell membranes and cover nerves. They are needed for blood clotting and muscle movement and can help fight inflammation and boost the immune system. Coconut oil may be ‘less bad’ than its high saturated fat cousins (butter and lard), but it is still not the best choice among the many available oils to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Another selling point for coconut oil is that it is said to have a high smoke point. However, this simply isn’t the case; many other oils have a higher smoke point (see below). In fact, coconut oil has a relatively low smoke point compared to other commonly used cooking fats.   

Type of oil

Smoke point (°C)

Sunflower 277
Soya 238
Rapeseed 204
Olive 193
Coconut 177
Flaxseed (linseed) 107

It is the total diet that is most important in disease prevention and achieving good health. It is better to eat a diet with a variety than to concentrate on individual foods as the key to good health. If you’re preparing a Thai dish, cooking with coconut oil may be desirable, but it should be used sparingly.

Compared to other saturated fats it may be the best of a bad bunch but you are better off replacing saturated fats with healthier unsaturated vegetable oils, while eating a variety of  other wholegrain foods, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables.

To find out more see the fully-referenced version here.

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