Where does coconut oil fit in the big Fat Revolution?
Ayurvedic medicine scripts, penned thousands of years ago, have described the health benefits of coconut oil. The coconut tree is commonly referred to as coconut palm tree by Filipinos, and is predominantly cultivated in India, the Philippines, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian regions. Its large plant – based fat content made it an excellent energy source for use in folk medicine leading to the popular name ‘tree of life.' Coconut oil is one component of this multipurpose crop that seems to have captured some attention lately.
Coconut oil is ubiquitous these days: from the creamer used in morning coffee to a butter substitute in baking, and even a key ingredient in rehydrating night cream, it occupies a substantial place in the daily lives of regular people and celebrities. Lately, question/claims about the curious case of coconut oil have been popping up all over the food blogosphere. Some of the common claims:
- Coconut oil is the magic bullet for weight loss even though it is high in saturated fats
- Coconut oil helps improve cholesterol profile
- Coconut oil in moisturizing products enables skin rehydration, smoothening and protection.
- Coconut oil is a versatile option for all-purpose cooking.
- Coconut oil has beneficial effects on people with certain health conditions – improves thyroid function.
How many of these claims are valid, and to what extent? Most importantly, what does the research/literature say? Let’s take a crack at it!
Claim 1: Coconut oil helps with weight loss.
First, let’s pay close attention to the fatty acid profile of coconut oil: although it’s composed mainly of saturated fatty acids, these are Medium-Chain Fatty Acids (MCTs) that are metabolized differently than other saturated fats. Most fats are broken down in the intestine and remade into a special form that can be carried via the blood. But MCTs are absorbed whole and taken to the liver, where they are used directly to produce energy. In this sense, they are processed very similarly to carbohydrates. Theoretically, it makes them more likely to be oxidized and allows less opportunity to be stored as fat. Conversely, Long Chain Fatty Acids (LCTs) (e.g. palmitic or stearic acid) are incorporated to chylomicrons and circulate to the skeletal muscle and adipose tissue – hence, causing weight gain. (3,4,5)
Verdict: Coconut oil might help! It could induce weight loss if consumed as part of a balanced diet with <30% fat per day (~66g in 2000 kcal/day diet). But the evidence is lacking that proves it promotes weight loss in all diets and health status; the studies that talk about weight loss looked at MCTs and not specifically coconut oil. (4,5)
Claim 2: Coconut oil improves cholesterol profile.
While considering blood cholesterol profile, it is important to remember that not all cholesterol is the same and that it’s the ratio that matters. The consumption of solid fats (with high amounts of lauric acid like coconut oil) is linked to an increase in both low-density lipoprotein (LDL - “bad cholesterol”) as well as high-density lipoprotein (HDL - “good cholesterol”) levels. Studies found a comparatively higher increase in HDL than LDL levels, with coconut oil consumption. The result? Improved cholesterol ratio. (2)
Verdict: MCTs – yes; Coconut oil – not necessarily! Using coconut oil as a substitute for other saturated fatty acid sources in the diet could be beneficial for your cholesterol profile. However, it is not clear if it would produce similar benefits as the sole source of fat. (3,5)
Claim 3: Coconut Oil has skin re-hydrating and smoothing properties.
For 1000s of years, coconut oil has been used as a moisturizer and cleanser as part of Indian folk herbology practices. It’s said to remove dead and dry skin while removing blemishes and liver spots caused by ageing or over-exposure to sunlight. These properties are attributed to its content of phenolic compounds that have protective and antioxidant properties. The only clinical study that was published regarding the benefits of coconut oil on skin was a clinical trial performed using virgin coconut oil however on pediatric patients, showing benefits and improvements in children with Atopic Dermatitis. (7) More clinical trials need to be performed before it can be confirmed to have dermatological benefits.
Verdict: It might be okay to try, but be aware of any reactions on the area of skin to which coconut oil has been applied, as it has not yet been clinically proven to be suitable for everyone.
Claim 4: Coconut oil is best for all–purpose cooking.
Smoke point is a critical factor to consider while picking the appropriate oil for various culinary uses. The smoke point is the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke and lose some nutritional value and flavor. Coconut oil's smoke point is 350 F/177C. It works well for baking and medium heat sautéing due to its mild flavor (8, 9), but studies have found that it has carcinogenic (cancer-causing) properties when heated repeatedly. (10)
Verdict: Use it! It is a good cooking oil, but make sure it is for the right purpose (such as baking and medium heat stir fries, unless using refined versions that are more heat resistant) and not reusing it at high temperatures. If you're interested in giving it a try in your dinner plans this week, be sure to check out the recipe at the end!
Claim 5: Coconut oil has positive effects on thyroid function.
Though there have been claims that virgin versions of coconut oil can improve thyroid function, there is not enough evidence to suggest that the effect is consistent among various populations through human studies. The assumption behind claims regarding its benefits are because of the high MCT content that stimulates metabolism and boost energy. (11)
Verdict: Might not work! There is insufficient evidence from controlled trials to validate the claimed benefits of virgin coconut oil having positive effects on thyroid function.
So where do we think coconut oil fits?
When used occasionally in home cooking, as a substitute for other saturated fat sources, and as part of a balanced diet, coconut oil can help consumers reap some benefits. What could be of concern is that coconut oil is frequently used in the manufacture of packaged foods (e.g. biscuits, pastries and cake), and becomes a source of intake. It is very important to consider where the fat is coming from, even with potential benefits like coconut oil.
Though there is a lack of large-scale clinical studies (on humans) to prove that coconut oil is the “best” choice, there is enough evidence to show that it is not a “bad” choice. It makes coconut oil another option to add variety in your kitchen and include as part of a balanced diet!
Karthika Thirugnanam, Red Rabbit Education Intern
BSc Food Technology & Nutrition,
MS Candidate at NYU
Quinoa Pilaf (This recipe includes coconut oil [rich in MCTs] and walnuts rich in monounsaturated fatty acids [MUFA]).
1-tablespoon coconut oil
½ cup chopped onions
2 carrots, chopped
2 cups vegetable broth
1-cup quinoa, rinsed
¼ cup chopped parsley
¾ cup chopped walnuts
1. Take a medium skillet; heat the coconut oil in medium heat.
2. Sautee onions in oil for ~3 minutes then add the carrots and cook it for another 5 minutes.
3. Stir in quinoa and vegetable broth; bring to a boil.
4. Reduce to simmer, cover and let it boil for about 15 minutes (quinoa should become puffy).
1. Jacob, A. Coconut Oil. Today’s Dietitian. October 2013:15(10): 56
2. Coconut Research Center. (2004, January 1). The tree of life. Retrieved September 26, 2014, from http://www.coconutresearchcenter.org/index.htm
3. Lomangino K. Coconut oil and health: Assessing the evidence.Clin Nutr Insight. 2012;38(12):1-4. Available from:http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2145/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rzh&AN=2011768983&site=ehost-live.
4. St-Onge M-P, Ross R, Parsons WD, Jones PJH. Medium-chain triglycerides increase energy expenditure and decrease adiposity in overweight men. Obesity Research. 2003;11: 395-402
5. Nagao K, Yanagita T. Medium-chain fatty acids: functional lipids for the prevention and treatment of the metabolic syndrome.Pharmacol Res. 2010;61(3): 208-212.
6. Assunção ML, Ferreira HS, dos Santos AF, Cabral CR Jr, Floréncio TM. Effects of dietary coconut oil on the biochemical and anthropometric profiles of women presenting abdominal obesity.Lipids. 2009;44(7):593-601.
7. Evangelista M T P, Abad-Casintahan F& Lopez-Villafuerte L. The effect of topical virgin coconut oil on SCORAD index, transepidermal water loss, and skin capacitance in mild to moderate pediatric atopic dermatitis: a randomized, double- blind, clinical trial. Internat J Dermatol. 2014 (53)100-108.
8. LaMantia, J. (2012, November 1). The good oil. Retrieved September 19, 2014, from http://www.alive.com/articles/view/23678/the_good_oil
9. Turner, L. (2011). Oil Change. Retrieved September 24, 2014, from http://www.vegetariantimes.com/article/oil-change/
10. Srivastava S, Singh M, George J, Bhui K, Murari Saxena A, Shukla Y. Genotoxic and carcinogenic risks associated with the dietary consumption of repeatedly heated coconut oil.Br J Nutr. 2010;104(9):1343-1352. Available from:http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2145/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rzh&AN=2010870168&site=ehost-live.
11. Get off your thyroid medication and start consuming coconut oil. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from: http://preventdisease.com/news/13/032113_Get-Off-Your-Thyroid-Medication-And-Start-Consuming-Coconut-Oil.shtml