The Truth About Coconut Oil
It’s time to face the truth about coconut oil.
Yes, it’s delicious and versatile. No, it’s NOT a miracle food.
It will not melt your fat, rev your metabolism, cure your diabetes, or rid you of inflammation. In fact, excess consumption of coconut oil may be a heart health liability.
Let’s take a look at what the latest research says about both sides of the coin — benefits and risks.
Does consuming coconut oil offer health benefits?
In short, the evidence for any health benefits of eating coconut oil is… extremely shaky.
A 2019 review of coconut oil and health claims found that the evidence was “inconsistent. There are some positive studies, but they they tend to be low quality. There are also plenty of studies that fail to show any benefits. This mosaic of evidence strongly suggests a biased presentation of results skewed for the purposes of marketing. The authors conclude the following:
To this present day, there is not enough scientific evidence to support the health benefits used by CO brands to promote their product. This kind of promotion should not be used, once it misleads the perception of the consumers. de Silva et al, 2019
Another recent research review reinforces the message that evidence is lacking for many claims, from bone loss, to glycemic control, to Alzheimer’s disease and that such claims would require more rigorous studies to be taken seriously.
“Human clinical and observational studies are needed to confirm many claims on coconut oil products, which are largely based on animal and/or in vitro studies or studies of purified medium-chain fatty acids.” Wallace, 2019
Okay, so we shouldn’t be slathering our food in coconut oil hoping for a health transformation. Could it be that coconut oil is actually doing more harm than good?
Is coconut oil a health hazard?
A sizeable body of evidence suggests that choosing coconut oil instead of other (non-tropical) plant-based oils may raise the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).
Compared to plant-based oils, coconut oil tends to raise levels of LDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol, in turn, promotes atherosclerosis, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The increase isn’t huge but it’s enough to heed, especially if you already have elevated LDL levels or other CVD risk factors.
This observation is not surprising, because coconut oil is loaded with saturated fats (~90%), which, in general, tend to raise LDL cholesterol levels, thus increasing cardiovascular risk. By comparison, non-tropical plants oils like olive, avocado, sunflower, and canola oil are only ~5–15% saturated fats.
It’s important to note that coconut oil is not the same thing as MCT oil, so studies of MCT oil cannot be applied to coconut oil. This is because saturated fats vary in length, which are differentially metabolized.
Coconut oil vs MCT oil: True MCT oil contains only a type of saturated fat called medium chain triglycerides, which are 8–10 carbons long. These types of fats travel directly to the liver, bypassing peripheral tissues such as adipose tissue. Coconut oil is a mix of different saturated fats, with true MCTs making up only about 15%. Most of the saturated fats in coconut oil (50%) are intermediate length (12 carbons, known as lauric acid). The rest (~35%) are are long chain (14–18 carbons), similar to those found in animal sources of saturated fat.
It’s also vital to note that the alternative matters. If you choose coconut oil over butter, that’s likely a win, because coconut oil lowers LDL compared to butter.
This does not mean that you should view coconut oil as poison. As always, the dose makes the poison, and many of the studies showing LDL increases used tons of coconut oil (eg. 4 Tbsp daily).
How much is too much?
There is no single accepted number for capping daily intake of saturated fats. They range from 5–10% of calories, which means around 12–22 grams per day for an average adult female (2000 calories daily). The American Heart Association advice is on the lower end at 5%; the World Health Organization sits at 10%; while Heart UK advises a daily limit of 20 g daily for women and 30 g for men.
This amount is allows for moderate consumption of coconut oil or full fat coconut milk:
Sources of saturated fat:
- Coconut oil: ~12 g per tablespoon
- Coconut milk (full fat): ~12 g per quarter cup
- Alt-meat burger (e.g. Impossible burger 2.0) ~8 g per patty
- Vegan cheese (coconut-oil based): ~4 g per slice
Fun Food Fact. Refined coconut oil is used in vegan foods like the Impossible Burger and vegan cheeses because it offers some of the functional features of animal-based saturated fats (like a creamy mouthfeel, and heat stability), but with a neutral taste.
My Bottom Line
As with many aspects of nutrition, the best answer lies in moderation — and context.
You don’t need to fear coconut oil, but going nuts could be risky, especially if you have high LDL levels or other CVD risk factors. Unsaturated non-tropical plant-based oils are your best bet health-wise.
Personally, I don’t use coconut oil to chase health benefits, but I don’t shun it either. I love a good coconut milk curry, and enjoy a bit of coconut oil in plant-based dairy and meat alternatives.
Coconut oil and health
- Overview of coconut oil and health (Harvard Health).
- Coconut oil: what do we really know about it so far? (de Silva et al, 2019).
- The Effect of Coconut Oil Consumption on Cardiovascular Risk Factors: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Clinical Trials (Neelakantan et al, 2020)
Lipids (LDL) and cardiovascular disease risk
- Reduction in saturated fat intake for cardiovascular disease (Cochrane Review, 2020)
- American Heart Association Key Messages on Dietary Fats and Heart Health (2017)
- Lipids and Cardiovascular Risk (Sigma statement by Sigma Nutrition)
I’m a scientist and mother of three young children. I completed my PhD in genetics at Stanford and spent the first decade of my career working in cancer research, drug development, and personalized medicine.
My new career chapter is dedicated to empowering others to make well-informed healthy choices, rooted in science. I’m also passionate about helping people to fall in love with the plants on their plates.
Check out my website at https://FueledbyScience.com to see more of my work, including articles, videos, recipes