Quantcast

So, Is Coconut Oil Healthy or Not?

Popular

By Jill Richardson

Is coconut oil:

  1. good for you
  2. bad for you
  3. neither good nor bad
  4. scientists don't know

The subject of this question is the source of a disagreement. Initially, the question was thought to be settled decades ago, when scientist Ancel Keys declared all saturated fats unhealthy. Coconut oil, which is solid at room temperature, is a saturated fat.


Keys performed a famous "Seven Countries Study," comparing the diets and health outcomes of the populations of seven different countries. Decades later, Artemis Simopoulos, author of The Omega Diet, re-examined the data. Keys misinterpreted his data by failing to distinguish between omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats.

Could he have been wrong about saturated fats, too?

Today, advocates like Dr. Mercola and the Weston A. Price Foundation believe saturated fats should be entirely exonerated. Coconut oil is sold as a health food, and some eat it straight as a nutritional supplement. (They call the practice "oil pulling.") Literally eating a saturated fat like coconut oil from a spoon flies in the face of the recommendations of Ancel Keys, as well as the American Heart Association.

The AHA just reconfirmed its condemnation of saturated fats in a new publication. Here is how it's been reported in the news: "Coconut oil has more 'bad' fat than beef and butter: heart doctors;" "Coconut Oil May Have Just Lost Its Health Halo;" "Coconut oil isn't healthy. It's never been healthy."

Question: Did the journalists writing those headlines actually read the AHA's study?

Answer: No.

The publication is a meta-analysis of four different studies. The authors gathered the data of all four different studies and then analyzed them together. None of the four studies have jack squat to do with coconut oil.

They also have nothing to do with the main component of coconut oil: lauric acid.

Saturated fat is not just one chemical; it's several. The structure of these chemicals is similar, but they differ in how many carbons they have. Coconut oil is rich in lauric acid, a medium-chain saturated fatty acid with 12 carbons. Saturated fats in animal products tend to be comprised of palmitic and stearic acid.

The studies in the new AHA publication all had patients replace animal fats with polyunsaturated fats, primarily from soybean oil. They saw a drop in coronary heart disease in the groups that made the switch compared to the control groups. One could pick apart their statistical analysis or their research methods (some of the studies were far from double-blind) but as far as coconut oil goes, that is not even necessary. Plainly put, coconut oil was not a part of the study at all.

If there's one thing we've learned in recent decades, it's that fat is not just fat. And even dividing it into saturated and unsaturated fat is not enough to truly understand it. There are several different kinds of unsaturated fat, and now consumers know that omega-3s are the type they should eat. Beyond that, some products do not just boast of containing omega-3s, but specific omega-3s used by the human brain, EPA and DHA.

Saturated fat is also not monolithic. Scientists divide saturated fats into short chain, medium chain, long chain, and very long chain saturated fatty acids. Lauric acid, which makes up nearly half of coconut oil, is medium chain. Palmitic and stearic acids, found in animal products, are long chain.

Short chain and medium chain fatty acids are digested differently than long chain ones. Therefore, it does not follow as a foregone conclusion that if replacing animal fats with polyunsaturated fats reduces heart disease, coconut oil is bad.

In fact, in a study in mice, coconut oil was found to be healthier than (unsaturated) soybean oil. Another study found oil pulling with coconut oil reduced plaque and gingivitis. Several studies that found beneficial effects of coconut oil specify that the effects come from virgin coconut oil, which has not been treated with heat or refined in any other way. For example, one study, also in mice, found virgin coconut oil helped with stress.

This is not to say that coconut oil is definitively wonderful. A study of coconut oil as large-scale and comprehensive as the American Heart Association's study would be more conclusive. Those studies involved hundreds of patients, and they lasted several years.

But lumping all saturated fats together, and drawing conclusions about coconut oil from a study that had nothing to do with coconut oil is simply wrong.

Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Doctors report that only 1 in 4 children are getting the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day. Ronnie Kaufman / DigitalVision / Getty Images

By Dan Gray

Pediatricians are being urged to start writing "exercise prescriptions" for the children they see in their office.

Read More
A First Nations protester walks in front of a train blockade in Tyendinaga, near Belleville, Ontario, Canada on Feb. 21, 2020. LARS HAGBERG / AFP via Getty Images

An indigenous rail blockade that snarled train travel in Canada for more than two weeks came to an end Monday when police moved in to clear protesters acting in solidarity with another indigenous community in British Columbia (B.C.), which is fighting to keep a natural gas pipeline off its land.

Read More
Sponsored
A rainbow snake, a rare reptile spotted in a Florida county for the first time in more than 50 years, seen here on July 5, 2013. Kevin Enge / FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute / Flickr

A Florida hiker recently stumbled across a slithering surprise — a rare snake that hadn't been spotted in the area for more than 50 years.

Read More
We need our government to do everything it can to stop PFAS contamination and exposure from wreaking havoc in communities across the country. LuAnn Hun / Unsplash

By Genna Reed

The EPA announced last week that it is issuing a preliminary regulatory determination for public comment to set an enforceable drinking water standard to two of the most common and well-studied PFAS, PFOA and PFOS.

This decision is based on three criteria:

  1. PFOA and PFOS have an adverse effect on public health
  2. PFOA and PFOS occur in drinking water often enough and at levels of public health concern;
  3. regulation of PFOA and PFOS is a meaningful opportunity for reducing the health risk to those served by public water systems.
Read More
Charging EVs in Stockholm: But where does a dead battery go? Ranjithsiji / Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

Driving an electric-powered vehicle (EV) rather than one reliant on fossil fuels is a key way to tackle climate change and improve air quality — but it does leave the old batteries behind as a nasty residue.

Read More