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By Brianna Elliott, RD

Coconut oil has become quite trendy in recent years.

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By Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD

Medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil and coconut oil are fats that have risen in popularity alongside the ketogenic, or keto, diet.

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By Hrefna Palsdottir, MS

Coconut oil is an incredibly healthy fat.

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By Ryan Raman, MS, RD

Millions of people around the world depend on a morning cup of coffee to get their day started.

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A female Aedes aegypti mosquito resting after a blood meal. USDA-ARS

You can love it or hate it, but coconut oil certainly has many uses. Now, federal researchers have added one more function of the tropical favorite to the list.

Turns out, coconut oil fatty acids have strong repellency and long-lasting effectiveness against bloodsuckers and disease-carriers such as mosquitoes, ticks, biting flies and bed bugs, according to a new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) study published in Scientific Reports.

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Is coconut oil healthy for you or not? A Harvard professor has joined the debate, calling it "pure poison" in a lecture that has gone viral.

The sweet-smelling tropical staple has gotten a lot of attention in recent years as a "superfood." Enthusiasts love its bounty of potential health benefits from fighting diabetes, to losing weight and even treating Alzheimer's disease. Folks following the high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet like plunking the oil into coffee or blending it into smoothies.

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Is coconut oil all it's really cracked up to be, or is it just another fad? Sebastien Gabriel / Unsplash, CC BY

By Rosemary Stanton, Nutritionist & Visiting Fellow, UNSW

Coconuts have been a valued food in tropical areas for thousands of years, traditionally enjoyed as coconut water from the centre of the coconut, coconut flesh or coconut “milk" (made by steeping the flesh in hot water).

Solid white coconut oil (I'll use this popular term, although technically it's a fat not an oil) is now the darling of celebrities and bloggers, paleo enthusiasts and sellers of so-called superfoods. Claims for its supposed medical value reverberate around the internet, but how well do they stand up to scientific scrutiny?

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Did you know that 50 percent of media headlines about medical studies are dead wrong? And that many of these headlines don't accurately match the conclusions of the studies they cover? That's from a review published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

It makes me sad and furious at the same time that journalists don't do their homework and create firestorms of confusion because of their negligent work.

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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.

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By Jacky Miller

Coconut oil is the extracted oil from coconut, the fruit of the coconut tree that's well-known for growing in tropical areas. It's also an outrageously popular topic among social media and health outlets in recent years.

Typically coconut oil is refined, bleached and deodorized using high heat. The bleach filters the oil to eliminate any impurities and sodium hydroxide is used as a preservative and to get rid of excess fatty acids. Coconut oil typically has a long shelf life because its high saturated fat content prevents oxidation.

Coconut oil is the topic of hot debate, typically known for being fairly high in saturated fats. This can put it off-limits for some people trying to consume a low-fat diet plan. However, the benefits of coconut oil span much further than the detrimental effects of its saturated fat content and not just in the digestive tract. It can be used in lots of different ways.

In addition to being consumed as part of the diet, coconut oil can also be applied for health benefits in a lot of different ways. It can be used topically, as a lotion, melted and inhaled as a vapor solution or used as shampoo.

Coconut oil is made by compressing the fats out of the white part of coconut flesh. Its reputation for being high in saturated fat is not unjustified—around 84 percent of the calories in coconut oil are from saturated fat. This is incredibly high when compared to another organic oil like olive oil, which only contains 14 percent saturated fat. Even butter contains just more than 60 percent saturated fat.

How Can a Food High in Saturated Fat Be Healthy?

Coconut oil has been studied for its effects on preventing Alzheimer's, heart disease, cholesterol buildup and blood pressure. It's been studied for its ability to prevent kidney disease and inflammation and for its defensive capabilities at fighting the development of cancer. How can one food—a food high in saturated fat, no less—be responsible for so many amazing health benefits?

First, coconut oil's saturated fats are mostly composed of medium-chain fatty acids. The most dangerous fatty acids are long-chain fatty acids. Certain types of long-chain fatty acids are known for contributing to heart disease, though some can be neutral. Most people consume far too many of the unhealthy long-chain fats and this is largely what leads to heart disease.

There are three main long-chain fatty acids: Myristic acid (coconut oil contains between 16 and 21 percent), palmitic acid and stearic acid. Myristic and palmitic acid have been shown to increase LDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is short for low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is highly reactive and can oxidize easily, leading to heart disease, strokes and an increased chance of cancer.

Myristic acid was more potent in this regard and has a higher chance of increasing LDL cholesterol. Myristic acid is also rarely found in natural foods and is more likely to be obtained in junk food.

Stearic acid has been shown to actually help balance cholesterol levels and is the healthiest of the three long-chain fatty acids.

In comparison, coconut oil's primary fat constituents are medium-chain fatty acids, including lauric acid (45 to 52 percent), caprylic acid (5 to 10 percent) and capric acid (4 to 8 percent).

The most common medium-chain fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, making up almost 75 percent of coconut oil's fait content. Medium chain fatty acids are connected with a higher rate of weight loss; in fact, subjects in a study who replaced olive oil with coconut oil or palm oil were shown to lose weight at a much quicker rate. These medium-chain fatty acids have also been studied for their efficacy at treating Alzheimer's and helping the body absorb nutrients more efficiently.

The rest of coconut oil's fat composition is made up of a mixture of caproic acid, oleic acid, palmitoleic acid and linoleic acid. Most of these are short-chain fatty acids.

How Does Coconut Oil Improve My Diet?

Residents of the South Pacific, who get up to 60 percent of their total calories—not just their total fat—from the highly saturated fat that is coconut oil, are shown to have virtually non-existent rates of heart disease.

The particular types of saturated fats in coconut oil are proven to not only not damage your cardiovascular system but are proven to improve it. Regular intake of coconut oil can improve heart health, help you lose weight, boost your metabolism, give you short and long-lasting energy. Most of these benefits are due to lauric acid, one of the medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil. Lauric acid is the fat that composes the most significant percentage of coconut oil's profile.

The body converts lauric acid into a new substance, known as monolaurin. This particular compound is an antiviral, anti-bacterial and immune-boosting substance. Being a fat itself, it can also attack lipid-coated bacteria and pathogens such as herpes and HIV, the flu (caused by the influenza virus), measles and lipid-based protozoa and bacteria.

Lauric acid is extremely effective at battling viruses and bacteria and coconut oil has more of it, gram for gram, than any other substance.

Health Benefits of Coconut Oil

Coconut oil's benefits can be experienced by using coconut oil as a topical lotion, a food additive or even a vapor rub. Here are the top health benefits and the best ways to receive them.

1. Coconut Oil Helps Fight Diabetes

The human body typically makes use of medium-chain fatty acids, like the ones in coconut oil, by sending them to your liver for energy production. Since coconut oil is extremely high in medium-chain fat content, it's a great source of energy.

The energy coconut oil provides is instant due to the quick metabolization of fats, which is usually only provided by carbohydrates. The most important difference between the fats in coconut oil and carbs? Coconut oil doesn't cause a blood sugar spike or tax your body of insulin. You get all the energy from a burst of carbohydrates, but don't have to deal with the dangerous after-effects that come alongside excessive carbohydrate or sugar consumption.

Diabetes is caused, among other things, by the body developing insulin sensitivity. This comes by frequent and repeated blood sugar spikes. Insulin is the body's hormone that regulates the production of glucose (sugar) and the conversion of carbohydrates into sugar and energy. With a high carbohydrate diet comes an excessive release of insulin and with that, the body develops a sensitivity. People develop insulin sensitivity when they become dependent on large doses of carbohydrates for energy.

A quick-acting, long-lasting energy source that doesn't cause a blood sugar spike is extremely useful for diabetics and health-conscious individuals who want to avoid diabetes. Coconut oil has been shown to minimize weight gain in people with diabetes and pre-diabetics. This is very helpful at preventing diabetes from reaching type-2 stage.

2. Coconut Oil is a Great Fighter Against Cardiovascular Disease

Diabetes isn't the only blood-related illness that coconut oil fights. It has been shown in multiple clinical trials to combat a number of cardiovascular diseases, to limit heart attacks and strokes and help manage cholesterol.

Managing cholesterol is, alone, a huge improvement towards preventing heart disease. Coconut oil has a few other tricks up its sleeve though.

The nutritional profile of coconut oil helps the body form fewer blood clots, lowers the risk of developing free radicals and keeps higher reserves of antioxidants in cells. Free radicals are "rogue" atoms that are missing an electron in their outermost shell. These electrons compensate by stealing an electron from a neighboring atom and when uncontrolled, create a chain reaction of electron-theft. Each stolen electron creates an unstable atom which can spread and lead to cancer.

Many heart diseases are caused by atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries. This is caused by excess of plaque in the arteries, which can be caused by a variety of things: toxins, viral or bacterial infections, free radicals.

Much like blood will clot to heal wounds on the outer layer of skin, it sends platelets to heal wounds affecting the cardiovascular system itself. Platelets are proteins that stick together and stick to damaged tissue. They act similar to a bandaid for the cardiac system. The combination of platelets, minerals, cholesterol and scarred tissue build up in the body and can eventually harden, leading to potentially deadly disease.

Having effective systems to produce enough platelets is important. If your body cannot properly bandage an internal injury, your veins will produce too much scar tissue.

3. Coconut Oil is Great at Lowering Cholesterol

In one study on coconut oil's effect on cholesterol, 40 subjects were given either two tablespoons of coconut oil or two tablespoons of soybean oil daily for 12 weeks. The group taking soybean oil saw an increase in LDL cholesterol (not the kind you want) and a decrease in HDL cholesterol, whereas the coconut oil group saw only an increase in HDL.

HDL cholesterol can help the body wipe out LDL cholesterol. Since HDL (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol, as its name indicates, is dense, it can sweep LDL cholesterol off the walls of veins and arteries. This prevents excess cholesterol from building up, which is one of the biggest causes of cardiovascular disease.