The Coconut Oil Debate

The coconut oil debate has been making the rounds again in the media lately, due to the recent comments from the American Health Association deeming coconut oil as unhealthy.

The above tweets are just a few of MANY, but the contradictory tones gives you an indication of what kind of headlines you might see on social media and elsewhere. In this post, we will discuss what all the fuss is about and share our thoughts. 

What is coconut oil?

Coconut oil ranges from a colourless to brown-yellow edible oil that comes from matured pressed coconuts. There are two types of coconut oil – unrefined and refined. Unrefined coconut oil (aka virgin coconut oil) has a stronger taste and rich flavour, and is not subjected to drying or chemical refining, while refined coconut oil is more processed and can be used for cooking at high temperatures, such as frying foods.  

Why is there so much controversy about the health benefits of using coconut oil?

Coconut oil is largely made up of saturated fats – the type of fat that is associated with high cholesterol and increases the risk of heart disease. However, coconut oil is made up of medium-chain saturated fats that are thought to be metabolized by the body differently than other saturated fats, meaning that it may not have the same adverse effects on blood cholesterol and disease risk as most saturated fats. In addition, there are also thoughts that consuming coconut oil will contribute to weight loss.

If coconut oil can help with weight loss and reduce our risk of heart disease, then why are we not encouraged to increase our consumption of coconut oil by public health officials? The answer isn’t so simple. Some of the evidence for those who are pro-coconut oil stems from research done by Dr. Marie-Pierre St-Onge at Cornell University Medical school in the 2000s. Her research group was examining the health effects of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are found in higher concentrations of coconut oil in comparison to most other foods. The research team found that eating MCTs may increase the rate of metabolism in comparison to eating long-chain triglycerides. The work of this research group was remarkable because it did show that not all saturated fats act in the same manner, but this does not mean that coconut oil will contribute to weight loss. Why? Because the oil used in these studies consisted of 100% MCTs, while coconut oil only has ~13-15%. The verdict? We cannot say for sure that coconut oil would behave in the same manner to contribute to weight loss.

The jury is still out when it comes to weight loss, but what about heart disease? Some studies have shown that people who consume coconut oil have higher levels of HDL cholesterol (i.e., “the good cholesterol” thought to have heart health protective effects) due to the high content of a substance called lauric acid. A 2003 meta-analysis that reviewed 60 articles found that lauric acid increased HDL cholesterol. The caveat? The same analysis showed that it increased LDL cholesterol (“the bad cholesterol”). The findings are not surprising because saturated fats have been found to increase both the “good” and “bad” cholesterol, but we don’t know if the rise in HDL outweighs the negative effects from the rise in LDL cholesterol (more research is needed). To make things even more complicated, some research has shown that some types of HDL cholesterol are considered to be non-functioning (i.e., lacking the heart health benefits that other types of HDL cholesterol possess). This means that although HDL cholesterol might increase, we don’t know for sure if it’s the type that will give us any heart health benefits. Thus, this uncertainty may explain while other studies have found contradicting findings that do not support what was found in the meta-analysis.

What about using coconut oil for other health outcomes or cosmetic reasons? The simple answer is that we don’t have enough strong evidence to support many of the other health claims out there. Many of the claims are based on studies that are extrapolated from in vitro or animal studies, or human studies that only focus on certain components of coconut oil rather than the whole product. Often, these studies also use super-concentrated doses, which is not realistic of what the average individual may consume.

Should I be consuming coconut oil?

We understand that it can be very confusing based on all the contradictory viewpoints being presented in the media. We aren’t quite sold on the fact that coconut oil is a super food, but we also do not think it should be considered a villain. What we need are large-scale studies that follow individuals long-term to determine the health outcomes related to coconut oil consumption and to determine if we should be consuming unrefined versus refined coconut oil – this is no easy feat (refer to our side-dish post about why studying diet is complex).

The bottom line? Keep in mind that too much of any type of fat is not recommended. If you like using coconut oil for cooking or baking, use it in small amounts. Also, don’t forget to occasionally swap it out for other oils, such as olive and avocado oil, which are known to have heart-health protective benefits because they contain a large amount of unsaturated fats. However, we need to move away from this idea that coconut oil is a super food and focus on consuming a diet filled with a variety of healthy foods (fruits and veggies, plant-based foods, whole grains, foods high fibre, lean meats, etc), while limiting processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages.

References:

EatRight Ontario. (2017). I've heard coconut oil is the best oil to use. Is that true?: https://www.eatrightontario.ca/en/Articles/Fat/I-ve-heard-that-coconut-oil-is-the-best-oil-to-use

Hooper L et al. (2015). Effect of cutting down on the saturated fat we eat on our risk of heart disease. Cochrane Reviews: http://www.cochrane.org/CD011737/VASC_effect-of-cutting-down-on-the-saturated-fat-we-eat-on-our-risk-of-heart-disease

Lockyer S & Stanner S. (2016). Coconut oil – a nutty idea? Nutrition Bullitin, 41(1), 42-54.

Mensick RP et al. (2003). Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of serum total to HDL cholesterol and on serum lipids and apolipoproteins: a meta-analysis of 60 controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr, 77(5), 1146-1145.

St-Onge MP et al. (2003). Medium-Chain Triglycerides Increase Energy Expenditure and Decrease Adiposity in Overweight Men. Obesity, 11(3), 395-402.

St-Onge MP & Bosarge A. (2008). Weight-loss diet that includes consumption of medium-chain triacylglycerol oil leads to a greater rate of weight and fat mass loss than does olive oil. Am J Clin Nutr, 87(3), 621-626.