How Healthy Exactly is Coconut Oil

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Although epidemiological studies find that groups of people who include coconut as part of their native diets (e.g., India, Philippines, Polynesia) have low rates of cardiovascular disease, it is important to note that many other characteristics, dietary and other, could be explanatory. Also, the type of coconut they eat is different than what is used in a typical Western diet. These groups do not eat processed coconut oil, but the whole coconut as coconut meat or pressed coconut cream, along with an indigenous diet of foods rich in fiber and low in processed and sugary foods. 

A literature review on the use of coconut products (oil, milk, flesh, or cream) included 21 observational and clinical studies. 

The epidemiological studies observed people from Samoa, the Philippines, New Zealand, and New Guinea consuming whole coconut as part of their traditional diets. Overall their diets were similar: coconut flesh and milk, fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish. Studies found that those who ate higher amounts of coconut oil had increased beneficial HDL cholesterol levels but also increased total cholesterol and triglycerides.

Eight small short-term clinical trials lasting from 5-8 weeks with a range of 9-83 participants were examined with an intervention of a coconut oil diet. When compared with a butter or unsaturated fat (olive or safflower oil) diet, coconut oil raised total cholesterol, HDL, and harmful LDL levels more than unsaturated oils, but not more than butter. Coconut oil was also found to raise total and LDL cholesterol to a greater or similar degree as other saturated fats like beef fat and palm oil.

The authors concluded that because of coconut oil’s effects on raising blood cholesterol including harmful LDL and in some cases triglycerides, and because its cholesterol-raising effects were comparable to other saturated fats, the oil should not be viewed as a heart-healthy food and should be limited in the diet.

The American Heart Association (AHA) issued a scientific advisory statement in 2017 to replace saturated fats (including coconut and other tropical oils) with unsaturated fats. Based on a review of seven controlled trials, coconut oil was found to raise harmful LDL cholesterol levels. The AHA advised against the use of coconut oil, and suggested limiting all saturated fat. For those at risk for or who have heart disease, they advise no more than 6% of total calories from saturated fat, or about 13 grams based on a 2000-calorie diet. One tablespoon of coconut oil comes close to that limit at about 12 grams of saturated fat. 

Coconut oil contains as many calories and total fat as other fat sources, about 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon. Coconut oil has a unique flavor and is best used in small amounts as a periodic alternative to other oils in baking and cooking, in context of a healthy eating pattern.

Purchase and Storage

Coconut oil is made by pressing fresh coconut meat or dried coconut meat called copra. Virgin coconut oil uses fresh meat, while refined coconut oil typically uses copra. Unlike olive oil, the terms “virgin” and “extra virgin” are not regulated with coconut oil. There is no difference in products labeled with these terms.

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