ON THIS PAGE
- What is coconut oil?
- Composition of coconut oil
- Is coconut oil the same as MCTs?
- What components of coconut oil contribute to its health benefits?
- Interesting facts about fatty acids – related to coconut oil benefits
- Health benefits of coconut oil – what do we currently know – evidence based
- Coconut oil benefits in cosmetics – evidence based
- Tips on dietary uses of coconut oil
- Coconut oil controversy – why is it still considered as “bad fat”?
- What type of coconut oil is the best to use?
Coconut oil benefits and health risks remain controversial.
Mainstream nutrition (including major health organizations) to this date consider saturated fats as dangerous to heart health, regardless of their category and despite the lack of evidence (read more..).
Due to its high saturated fat content, coconut oil has been classified by the major health organizations in the “harmful fat” category, together with animal fats (dairy, meats) and palm oil.
Despite the structural differences between saturated fats, it has been recommended to limit coconut oil’s consumption.
This product has become popular in recent years, after commercial literature and a number of scientific studies claimed that saturated fats in coconut oil have different properties than animal fats and are linked to a variety of health benefits.
Its popularity and rise to the superfood rank was intensified even more, thanks to some health-conscious celebrities and the contribution of the media.
Is coconut oil a bad fat we should avoid or a superfood?
Short answer: coconut oil is harmless, despite being still labelled as “bad saturated fat” by mainstream nutrition. However, calling it a “superfood” is an exaggeration.
This article describes the evidence-based health benefits of coconut oil and explains why the fats in it are not the bad ones.
What is coconut oil?
Coconut oil is the fatty component extracted from the kernels of coconuts, using either a dry or a wet process.
In the dry process, coconut meat is dried to create copra that contains 34% oil, which is then pressed or dissolved by solvents. The more complex wet process involves using raw coconut meat.
Coconut oil can be refined (RBD – refined bleached and deodorized) or virgin (VCO) which doesn’t involve the use of industrial processes.
For this reason, many properties of coconut oil can be attributed to lauric acid.
Due to the large proportion of medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs)(62%), coconut oil is commonly classified as a medium-chain oil.
One of the coconut oil benefits is its high saturated fat content, which makes it the most stable oil that doesn’t need processing. This is unlike most vegetable oils that require further processing, such as partial hydrogenation, to make them more stable.
Coconut oil doesn’t oxidize as quickly and is more resistant to rancidity than other oils with more unsaturated oils. (2)
Please note that the process of partial hydrogenation increases the trans fatty acid content that is detrimental to human health.
Coconut oil has a relatively low smoke point of 385°F (196°C) – 401°F (205°C) (due to the dominating MCFAs).
Therefore, it is not suitable for continuous deep frying, since it may lead to the production of carcinogenic substances.
Virgin coconut oil, not the refined type, contains significant quantities of sterols 836.4mg/kg, although in varying quantities, and antioxidants.
- Coconut oil can be extracted through a dry or wet process
- It can be refined or virgin
- It is composed mostly of saturated fats, predominantly MCTs with Lauric acid being the most abundant
- It is relatively stable, but has a relatively low smoke point (not high as some sources claim!)
- Virgin coconut oil is high in antioxidants
Composition of coconut oil
|Component of coconut oil||Per 100g|
|Saturated fatty acids||92g|
|Monounsaturated fatty acids||6.332g|
|Polyunsaturated fatty acids||1.702g|
|Trans fatty acids||0.028g|
Note: the composition of coconut oil may differ slightly depending on the variety, region of origin, type of soil, or the maturity level of the coconut at the time of processing.
Types of fats in coconut oil: (10)
|Fatty acid types in coconut oil||Structure||Percentage (Average)|
|Lauric (MCT)||Saturated - 12C||0.475|
|Myristic (LCT)||Saturated - 14C||0.181|
|Palmitic (LCT)||Saturated - 16C||0.088|
|Caprylic (MCT)||Saturated - 8C||0.078|
|Capric (MCT)||Saturated - 10C||0.067|
|Oleic (omega 9) (LCT)||Unsaturated – 18C||0.062|
|Stearic(LCT)||Saturated – 18C||0.026|
|Linoleic (omega 6) (LCT)||Unsaturated – 18C||0.016|
|Caproic (MCT)||Saturated – 6C||0.005|
Is coconut oil the same as MCTs?
The answer depends on what context the term MCTs is referring to.
It is important to clarify the term MCT, which is often incorrectly used and misunderstood.
- “MCTs” are medium chain triglycerides that are composed of fatty acids with 6 to 12 carbon atoms.
- “MCTs” also refer to “MCT Oil” – a product containing predominantly two fatty acids (C8 and C10), sometimes referred to as “standard” MCFAs. (See why below)
Since the term MCT may refer to either of the above meanings, it is important to determine the context:
- Compared to other vegetable oils such as canola, sesame or olive oil, coconut oil is can be called medium chain fat/oil, because a comparatively high proportion of the fatty acids (about 65%) is medium chain.
- When analysing the health properties of “standard” Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs), referring to coconut oil as an MCT Oil is incorrect and misleading.
Here is why:
Standard MCTs (C8 and C10) have very specific effects in the body, which to a certain degree differs from the effects of a fatty acid mix of coconut oil.
A typical “MCT Oil” extract is composed almost entirely (97%) of C8 and C10, while in coconut oil they make up only 16%.
- Coconut oil is considered to be a medium chain triglyceride oil, when comparing it to other vegetable oils. This is because in large part, it is made up of MCFAs.
- Since the name “MCT Oil” is reserved for an oil extract consisting of 97% C8 and C10. Therefore, referring to coconut oil as MCT Oil may be misleading, since it has a different composition and effects on the body.
- Although it contains a large proportion of MCTs and has multiple health benefits, it is not the same as pure MCFAs.
SIDE NOTE: Why are C8 and C10 considered standard MCTs?
C8, C10 and C12 are the most abundant oils in coconut and palm kernel oils from which they are usually extracted.
Lauric acid (C12), although also of medium chain length, due its high commercial value in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries is separated from other fats.
The remaining, valuable fats in coconut and palm kernel oils are C8 and C10, which have unique properties applicable in nutritional medicine primarily as an alternative energy nutrient.
Since historically these oils have usually been separated for their distinct usage, the term “MCT” got stuck to C8 and C10, especially after patenting “MCT Oil” product which primarily contains these two fatty acids. (13)
What components of coconut oil contribute to health benefits?
Coconut oil has important health promoting fats, polyphenols and antioxidants.
However, it is crucial to note that many studies are done on specific components of coconut oil, which means that the effects of coconut oil itself may be not as potent as these pure substances and some of the effects might even be absent.
Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs)/Medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs)
Coconut oil is the richest natural source of MCTs. They make as much as 62% of the total oil content. The main MCTs found in this oil are lauric, caprylic and capric acids.
MCTs, unlike LCTs, get absorbed and transported to the liver, where they are rapidly converted to energy. This characteristic is the major health benefit of MCTs. Please note that lauric acid has a slightly different behaviour than the shorter MCFAs. (read more..)
Specific fatty acids:
Lauric acid (about 50% of total contents)
Lauric acid has a larger molecular mass and is composed of longer carbon chains than standard caprylic and capric acids.
For this reason, it is absorbed a little slower and a portion of it is sent through the lymphatic system. The portion sent varies, depending on specific conditions. (read more..)
Lauric acid gets converted in the body to monolaurin, which is a monoglyceride with antiviral, antibacterial and anti-fungal properties.
Studies show that lauric acid:
- is the most potent saturated fatty acid in inhibiting gram-positive bacteria, and effectively killing gram-negative coccus, STD pathogen and N. gonorrhoeae, by disrupting their cell membranes. (14, 4)
- is effective in killing candida Albicans, staphylococcus aureus and in the treatment of chlamydia. (15, 16, 17, 18)
- kills Helicobacter pylori bacteria in the stomach, but not necessarily in the mucus barrier. (19)
- decreases plaque formation and inhibits hydroxyapatite dissolution. Studies on rats show that when used as food, lauric acid decreases caries but not significantly. (20)
Caprylic acid (C8) and capric acid (C10)
Capylic and capric acids are considered the “standard” MCFAs.
These fatty acids make up 16% of coconut oil which, although not as abundant as in a synthetic extract MCT Oil, makes it one of the highest natural sources.
C8 and C10 are very efficient energy sources, due to their super-fast absorption and metabolism and efficient production of ketone bodies.
For these reasons, they are the most commonly used MCTs as supplements in various medical conditions related to fat absorption and type 2 diabetes and to improve the palatability of the ketogenic diet (read more..)
Polyphenol contents are much higher in virgin coconut oil than in refined coconut oil.
Polyphenols have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and may be suitable in the management of inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis. (23)
- Coconut oil is composed of a variety of proven health promoting components.
- Lauric acid: antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties;
- Capric acid: antibacterial properties;
- Caprylic and capric acids (and partly lauric acid): don’t accumulate in the fatty tissue, but get converted into energy rapidly;
- Polyphenols: antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Interesting facts about fats – related to coconut oil benefits
To understand the health benefits of coconut oil it is important to clarify the a few points:
- Long chain saturated fats are neutral to human health and do not have detrimental effects on cardiovascular diseases. Claims that saturated fats are “bad fats”, are not based on scientific evidence. (read more..)
- MCTs are chemically and physiologically different than saturated LCTs. They undergo completely different absorption and metabolic processes and, therefore, should not be placed in the “bad saturated fat” category. Treating MCFAs as a saturated fat category is incorrect and misleading.
- MCTs get rapidly absorbed to the liver, where they are turned into energy and produce ketones – an energy source alternative to glucose. The shorter the MCFAs chains, the more efficient they turn into energy.
- If your diet is based on carbohydrates and is excessive in calories, most of the dietary fat, will be deposited in the fat cells, resulting in weight gain. The first step to reduce body weight is to eliminate alcohol and added sugars from your diet.
- Saturated fats are harmless
- MCTs behave differently from saturated LCTs after digestion.
- If you are on a high carbohydrate and/or high caloric diet, any excess of energy will get deposited in body fat, due to excessive energy intake.
Health benefits of coconut oil – what do we currently know – evidence based
Studies on coconut oil benefits show either neutral or positive effects on health, which is mainly due to its high contents of MCTs.
However, some of these points below are not backed up by sufficient evidence and require further studies.
- Coconut oil reduces the risk factors of heart disease
Consumption of coconut oil increases HDL cholesterol in blood and has been shown to have better results in lowering LDL and total cholesterol, in comparison to soybean oil. It also reduces triglycerides in the blood and the oxidation of LDLs (24, 25, 26)
- Supplementation with virgin coconut oil may prevent bone loss
Studies on postmenopausal rats with osteoporosis show that a dose of virgin coconut oil, equivalent to a human dose of 3.5 tablespoons daily, prevents bone loss and improves bone structure. Therefore, it may be effective in preventing bone loss in osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. The mechanism is thought to be through the antioxidant properties of polyphenols. However, more studies on humans are needed. (27)
- Polyphenols in coconut oil may be protective against arthritis
Due to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of polyphenols, coconut oil may be beneficial in the management of arthritis. More studies on humans are needed. (23)
- Coconut oil consumption may improve antioxidant status
Virgin coconut oil prevents lipid and protein oxidation through its antioxidant properties. More studies on humans are needed. (28)
- Does coconut oil increase satiation?
- Beneficial for brain disorders such Alzheimer’s
Coconut oil may improve the cognitive level in women with Alzheimers, but without type 2 diabetes. These effects might be due to the high contents of MCTs. More studies are needed however, not only on MCTs but on the effects of coconut oil. (32, 33)
- May be beneficial in epilepsy seizures on ketogenic diet
The ketogenic diet is used as an effective treatment for epileptic seizures in children.
Since the ketogenic diet requires drastic limitation of carbohydrate intake, it makes the diet difficult to follow.
Since MCTs are rapidly converted after absorption to ketone bodies, some studies show that partial substitution of MCTs for LCTs enables the patient to increase slightly the amount of carbohydrates, making the diet more palatable, while maintaining the ketosis state.
- Neutral to weight loss
Coconut oil may potentially help in weight loss. Please note, however, that the studies showing that coconut oil reduces weight gain are small, short termed and may be biased.
Many studies quoted in the weight reducing claims refer to the effect of standard MCTs, rather than to coconut oil itself.
The consumption of standard MCTs (C8 and C10) has been shown to result in burning more calories, in comparison to the same caloric amount of LCTs. However, due to commercial bias in some of these studies, more independent studies are needed.
Please note, that some of these studies only apply to very high fat diets. This doesn’t mean that having MCTs on a high carbohydrate diet will have the same effect. (38)
Adding MCTs to your food may delay hunger in subsequent meals. (43) This study uses “standard” MCTs rather than coconut oil and is conducted over a short period of time. Therefore, more long term studies on coconut oil are needed.
- Coconut oil has anti-microbial properties
Anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties are probably the most talked about coconut oil benefits. About half of its content is lauric acid (C12), which through the digestive process is converted in to monolaurin, a potent anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-bacterial substance. (44)
Lauric acid and/or monolaurin have significant health benefits, as mentioned in the section above. (45)
- Epidemiological studies show that cultures where coconuts are a dominant fat source, have very low cardiovascular disease incidences. (46, 47, 48, 49) Please note that these populations have been using whole coconuts, rather than oil itself.
- Coconut oil has anti-microbial properties
- It may be beneficial in heart, bone health, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, may prevent lipid and protein oxidation and may be beneficial to enhance the ketogenic diet. However, most of the evidence is weak and more studies are needed.
Coconut oil benefits in cosmetics – evidence based
There are several coconut oil benefits related to topical application and oral hygiene.
- Great moisturizer with antiseptic properties
Coconut oil is an effective and safe to use skin moisturizer with antiseptic properties. It improves the moisture, elasticity and fat contents of the skin.
A considerable improvement has been shown after applying on dry skin twice daily for two weeks. It is especially useful in some skin conditions, such as psoriasis (for instance on the elbows), dermatitis, xerosis and eczema. Coconut oil may be a cheap substitute to skin lotions. (50, 51, 52)
- Coconut has protective effects on hair damage
Coconut oil protects hair from being damaged while grooming, if it is used as a pre-wash conditioner. It has much better results than vegetable or mineral oils.
It has also protective properties on chemically treated hair, UV-treated hair and hair treated with boiling water.
Its protective action is most likely due to its ability to penetrate into hair cuticle and cortex seams. It coats the fiber surface, preventing water from penetrating and from swelling and damage while wet combing. (53)
- Blocks UV rays, but only 20%
Coconut oil blocks about 20% of UV rays, and is often used as one component in sunscreen products. (54)
However, the protection it provides is not significant, so it should not be considered as an effective sunscreen.
- Effective in oral health – oil pulling
Pulling sesame oil between the teeth has been used as a traditional Indian folk remedy to improve oral health. Coconut oil has a similar effect and is more pleasant to use as a preventive home therapy to maintain oral hygiene.
- Coconut oil benefits is beneficial for the health of the skin and hair.
- It can be used in oil pulling
- It is not an efficient sunblock.
Tips on dietary uses of coconut oil
There are many ways you can use coconut oil.
The following are some suggestions that you can use to search on the web for full recipes.
- Add a tablespoon to your breakfast cereal (e.g. mix with yogurt)
- Add to your smoothie
- Use when making toasted oats
- Use in homemade popcorn
- Add to your protein shakes after training
- Replace vegetable oils or butter
- Use to make chocolate desserts
- Add to coffee with milk: add a teaspoon to milk before frothing it
- Use in homemade mayonnaise, instead of vegetable oil (extra virgin olive oil is good too!)
- Use in baking, instead of other fats
- Use in shallow frying (but not continuous deep frying)
- Mix with fruit salad
Coconut oil controversy – why is it still considered as “bad fat”?
Coconut oil is still surrounded by controversy, which relates to its saturated fatty acid contents.
Mainstream health organizations such as FDA, WHO, Department of Health and Human Services, ADA, AHA, British National Health Service, British Nutrition Foundation, Dietitians of Canada, despite a lack of evidence, still warn against the consumption of coconut oil, while evidence showing coconut oil benefits is mounting.
Why such a great discrepancy in opinions?
The media regularly warns us that coconut oil consumption is bad, as if these conclusions were the result of new scientific discoveries.
It happened again recently in Australia in June 2017 on major TV news channels. Not surprisingly, this was “old news”. They simply referred to the “long-standing recommendation to limit foods high in saturated fats” that were once again announced by the U.S. Heart Association. (55)
This announcement also referred to studies that compared the effects of coconut oil with olive oil on cholesterol. It didn’t show that consumption of oil from coconuts does any harm.
The regularly repeated news on this oil simply quote the same outdated, and unproven theory that saturated fat increases low density lipoproteins (LDL) and increases the risk of artery-clogging plaque and cardiovascular diseases (CVD). They refer to an old doctrine established in the 1970s.
There are no new discoveries that specifically prove the detrimental effects of coconut oil on our health.
In recent decades, we have already learned that:
- Long chain saturated fats found in animal fat products, such as milk and meat, are neutral to our health rather than harmful (read more..).
- Coconut oils contain medium chain saturated fats which behave differently in your body to long chain saturated fats that come from animals. It simply doesn’t make sense to place them in the same group.
- Studies that look at populations with the highest coconut consumption in the world, show that they have good heart health, which is contradictory to the mainstream claims. (56, 57)
It is worth noting, however, that these populations consume mostly the flesh of coconuts or squeezed coconut cream, rather than the extracted oil. Their diet also includes little processed and other unhealthy foods.
- Saturated fats cause an increase of LDL cholesterol. However, LDL consists of good (larger) and bad (small and dense) components. Therefore, referring to the whole group of LDLs as “bad cholesterol” is incorrect, if not illogical.
The bottom line is that while most of the studies on coconut oil benefits show either neutral or positive results that vary in evidence strength, there is no evidence that taking coconut oil is unhealthy.
- Saturated fat is still being blamed for increased risks of cardiovascular diseases, despite a lack of evidence. Most claims on coconut oil refer to these outdated theories.
- Saturated fat in coconut oil has a different structure and metabolizes differently than saturated fat found in animal products.
- Studies on coconut oil benefits show either neutral or positive results but their evidence is generally weak.
- There are no studies that prove that medium chain fatty acids in coconut oil have a negative impact on cardiovascular disease.
What type of coconut oil is the best to use?
Coconut oil can be either Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO) or refined, bleached and deodorized (RBD).
While the composition of fatty acids in both are similar and the chemical composition are within the limits of the Codex standard for edible oils, Virgin Coconut Oil has significantly more phenolic contents, which contributes to health benefits. (58)
Most studies on coconut oil benefits use extra virgin coconut oil.
- When choosing the right product, select Organic Virgin Coconut Oil.
NUTRITION FACTS VS NUTRITION MYTHS
You will find a summary of the most common nutrition myths and evidence-based nutrition facts here.