Is Coconut Oil as Good For You as Everyone Says? Hype vs. Hard Facts

May 31, 2017

A cursory skim of the web left me distraught over why I haven't been adding coconut oil to all vegetables I roast, all smoothies I blend, all cups of coffee I brew, and all spoons I put within tongue's reach of my mouth.

Hellooo coconut oil, goodbye problems!
My naiveté

I found 28 Science-Verified Health Benefits of Coconut Oil, 11 Surprising Benefits of Coconut Oil, and 20 Coconut Oil Benefits & Side Effects (#5 is Life Saving) (!), and read assertions that the oil, extracted from the meat of mature coconuts, protects organ function and heart health, wards of neurodegenerative disorders, UTIs, and cancer, and is a "long term, weight loss godsend" (speaking of subtle messaging, there's even a brand of coconut oil called Skinny & Co.).

And this was all before I dug into coconut oil's beauty benefits (goodbye acne, cellulite, stretch marks, dry skin, mind-of-its-own hair, big ears).

Photo by James Ransom

As Grant Stoddard summed it up on, "a growing body of research shows that adding coconut oil to your diet and your person could be one of the easiest ways to improve your health, well-being, appearance, and even your sex life." Hellooo coconut oil, goodbye problems. If only I could live on coconut oil alone!

Rarely has a food gone through as dramatic a transformation from dietary villain to superhero as coconut oil and, indeed, all things coconut.
Berkeley Wellness

But not so fast. Coconut oil might be the it oil of the moment (and yes, it helps that it's vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, Paleo, and Whole30-compliant, too), and a branch of the rapidly-growing tree of commercial coconut products, but is it all it's advertised to be?

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Just thirty years ago, writes Melissa Clark in the New York Times, coconut oil was demonized as "the devil himself in liquid form, with more poisonous artery-clogging, cholesterol-raising, heart-attack-causing saturated fat than butter, lard or beef tallow."

So what is true and what is, uh, gobbledygook?

While coconut oil has certain distinct characteristics that may confer health benefits, "the evidence to support those claims is very thin," says Dr. Qi Sun, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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Top Comment:
“Once you understand and research that and stop being so afaraid of good fat that is so very important for our brain, skin, and everything in our body that gets pummeled on a daily basis by environmental factors as well as processed chemically changed products including ridiculous "low-fat" we keep consuming, we can have an entirely different conversation about coconut oil (and butter and lard while we are at it)”
— Liza M.

Below, we'll explore what we do know for certain about coconut oil, from heart health to weight loss claims—and what's still up for debate (or, at least, for more research).

Heart health

1. There is a significant health difference between partially hydrogenated coconut oil and virgin coconut oil, which has not been chemically treated.

Much of the demonization of coconut oil in the 1980s and 90s can be attributed to the fact that those studies were conducted using partially hydrogenated (aka trans fat–containing) coconut oil, explains Thomas Brenna, a professor at Cornell University's Division of Nutritional Sciences. "Virgin coconut oil, which has not been chemically treated, is a different thing in terms of a health risk perspective," he tells Melissa Clark, and it still contains the antioxidants and essential fatty acids that are destroyed in the hydrogenation process.

2. Coconut oil that is not partially hydrogenated, however, is still one of the most concentrated food sources of saturated fat (more so than butter, beef fat, or lard).

Coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat (for context, butter is about 64% saturated fat, and beef fat and lard are about 40%, and olive oil sits at 14%). Coconut oil has about 12 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon as compared to butter’s 7 grams. Considering the American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to 13 grams per day, that's only a little more than one tablespoon of coconut oil per day.

3. Yet there is evidence to suggest that the distinct composition of coconut oil makes it less detrimental—and maybe even neutral or beneficial—for heart health as compared to other saturated fat sources.

While research in humans is limited (and far from conclusive), "the saturated fats in coconut oil (like those, for example, in chocolate and dairy products) appear to be more neutral in their effect on blood cholesterol than those in, say, meat," explains the team at Berkeley Wellness, an online resource for evidence-based wellness information out of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health.

Much of the research has important limitations that warrant caution when interpreting results, such as small sample size, biased samples, inadequate dietary assessment, and a strong likelihood of confounding.
Eyres et al., Nutrition Reviews

The main saturated fatty acid in coconut oil is lauric acid, and some research has shown that lauric acid (which is a medium-chain triglyceride, or MCT) raises levels of the "good" cholesterol HDL. It raises levels of the "bad," plaque-forming cholesterol LDL, as well—though, as an April 2016 article in Nutrition Reviews concluded, but not as much as butter did.

The net effect of coconut oil depends, of course, on what it is replacing (if anything) in the diet: If it's replacing butter and lard, both of which raise LDL levels more than coconut oil, than increasing coconut oil consumption might lessen or stabilize LDL; but if coconut oil is replacing unsaturated oils (like olive oil), which do not raise LDL levels to the same extent, it will likely increase LDL.

Studies have shown that South Pacific islanders who eat a lot of coconut oil have low levels of heart disease, but these findings cannot be extrapolated to people outside of the region, as South Pacific Islanders have an entirely different activity level and diet.

Photo by James Ransom

4. But even the benefits of HDL—the "good" cholesterol boosted by coconut oil—are not entirely clear.

HDL has long been touted as the hero of the cholesterol crew—the good guy that carries excess cholesterol to the liver, where it can be excreted—but there are new studies that show that "good cholesterol alone has little ability to lower heart-disease risks, and more is not necessarily better" (read more about the evidence in the Washington Post).

5. The moral of the story? We don't know very much about coconut oil and heart health.

Compared to the "wealth of data showing that diets rich in unsaturated fat, especially olive oil, may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease," writes Julie Corliss for the Harvard Health Blog, there is "no evidence that consuming coconut oil can lower the risk of heart disease, according to an article in the April 2016 Nutrition Reviews." That 2016 review paper ("Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans" by Eyres et al.) pointed out that "evidence of an association between coconut consumption and risk factors for heart disease is mostly of very poor quality."

“I really stick with olive oil,” Kristin Kirkpatrick MS, RD, LD, manager of wellness nutrition services for the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, told Huffington Post: "It’s not as sexy, but there are so many more studies about its benefits."

Update: On June 15, the American Heart Association published a study on the relationship between particular fats and cardiovascular health and advised against the use of coconut oil for its LDL-raising properties. (Even though it raises HDL levels, too, the "changes in HDL cholesterol caused by diet or drug treatments can no longer be directly linked to changes in CVD [cardiovascular disease]." The AHA also pointed out a discrepancy between the percentage of the American public that considers coconut oil "healthy" (72%) and the percentage of nutritionists (37%), pegging this variance on "the marketing of coconut oil in the popular press." ("It had a good run," wrote Ashley Weatherford for New York Magazine's The Cut, "but coconut’s reign as favorite fat just ran into the pesky wall of science.")

The coconut family! That's Ma and Pa in the middle. Photo by James Ransom

Weight Loss & metabolic function

6. Evidence that coconut oil can lead to significant weight loss is not likely to have significant real world application.

But what about coconut oil as a weight loss "godsend"?

The assertion that coconut oil can promote significant weight loss is based on the fact that lauric acid is a medium-chain triglyceride, with lab research showing that MCTs are metabolized differently than other fats, with slightly more calories burned in the process. But, as explained on Berkeley Wellness, the few human studies have had inconsistent results and “any calorie-burning effect would be insignificant” compared to the total nutritional value of the oil.

In more detail, Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Associate Professor at Columbia University Medical Center, who has researched the relationship between MCTs and metabolic rate, told Time that her studies have shown that eating medium-chain triglycerides may increase the rate of metabolism more than eating long-chain triglycerides. But in order for the results of her studies—which were done "using a 'designer oil' containing 100% medium-chain triglycerides" (compared to coconut oil's 13% to 15% MCTs) —to have any real world application, people would have to consume a ton of high-calorie coconut oil, thereby offsetting any metabolism-revving weight loss benefits.

St-Onge's March 2017 study, in fact, showed that smaller doses of MCTs, like the amount found in coconut oil, did not increase calorie burn in overweight adolescents, Time reported.


7. Coconut oil is a source of antioxidants—but so are foods that don't contain nearly as much saturated fat.

"Virgin coconut oil contains small amounts of antioxidant compounds that may help curb inflammation, a harmful process thought to worsen heart disease," says Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Bruce Bistrian. "But to date, proof of any possible benefit is limited to small studies in rats and mice."

You can get antioxidants from a balance of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

Antimicrobial properties

8. Lauric acid, which makes up about half of the fatty acids in coconut oil, has strong antimicrobial properties, but how that plays out within the human body is less known.

And we're back to lauric acid, which, as Fabian M. Dayrit wrote in a 2014 review paper in the Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society, has "demonstrably significant antimicrobial activity against gram positive bacteria and a number of fungi and viruses."

As Dr. Glen D. Lawrence, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Long Island University, explained in the Wall Street Journal, however, even if lauric acid kills a wide range of viruses and bacteria in the laboratory, it remains unknown whether the fatty acids of coconut oil have this same effect in vivo.

Alzheimer's Disease

9. There is no clinical evidence that coconut oil can treat Alzheimer's (though anecdotal evidence and theoretical research does exist).

The theory behind claims that coconut oil can treat Alzheimer's disease goes like this: MCTs (again, lauric acid) boost the liver's production of ketones, which are byproducts of fat breakdown; these ketones act as an alternative energy source for the disease-affected brain cells that have lost their ability to use glucose. There are no published studies to back these claims, and the 2012 book that publicized the assertion was based on theoretical research, animal studies, and anecdotal evidence.

The Alzheimer's Association has stated that while a few "people have reported that coconut oil helped the person with Alzheimer’s, [...] there’s never been any clinical testing of coconut oil for Alzheimer’s, and there’s no scientific evidence that it helps."

So what can you make of this information?

If you're avoiding dairy-based fats for whatever reason, coconut oil is a viable, plant-based substitute for recreating the tender flakiness that's normally associated only with butter. Unlike olive or canola oil, coconut oil is solid at room temperature (that's those saturated fats at work!), which means you can use it for vegan waffles, sticky buns, doughnuts, cake, scones, and pie dough.

Even if you are a butter-eater, you may still use coconut oil to make moist, fragrant desserts, like this Banana, Coconut, Chocolate Chip Snack Cake. Virgin coconut oil, in particular, has a nutty, almost sweet, and distinctly coconutty taste and aroma that lends great flavor to roasted sweet potatoes; or use it to sauté vegetables for the base of a coconut milk curry.

It seems safe to say that if I eat it just once in a while, coconut oil probably isn’t going to give me a heart attack, make me thinner or ward off the flu.
Melissa Clark, The New York Times

So coconut oil is delicious and versatile, yes. But will it fight my cold, fire up my metabolic rate, volt me to supermodel status, or give me the power to fly? Nope. (I've shed a tear.)

But used in moderation, it probably won't clog up my arteries either. Onward with the coconut oil!

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Marie-Pierre St-Onge is a professor at Cornell University Medical School; she is actually an Associate Professor at Columbia University Medical Center.

Update! This article was updated on June 21, 2017 to reflect a new study from the American Heart Association.

Do you cook with coconut oil? For health purposes, taste purposes, or both? Tell us in the comments below.

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X June 19, 2018
A year ago, I had a clogged artery which led to a (thankfully) minor heart attack and the need for a stent. I have been a lifelong vegetarian, and the only change I made to my diet was that I began using coconut oil in cooking a year or so before. In that year, my cholesterol level, which has never been particularly high before, had soared.

My sister, who'd been using coconut oil for longer than I and in larger quantities, also had a (more severe) heart attack, and now has 2 stents. Our cardiologists both told us to quit the coconut oil immediately. Mine called it "poison". I went back to using olive and grape seed oil, and since then, my cholesterol level has dropped back down to near-normal, and that's WITHOUT the use of any cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins, etc). My sister has had similar results.

That experience was enough to prove to me that contrary to all the claims that coconut oil is a "heart-healthy" food, it can actually be a potential killer for people who have the propensity for high cholesterol.
tamater S. June 19, 2018
Thank you, X, for sharing another perspective in this.
Laura L. February 28, 2018
Interesting article, thanks! As for me, I prefer olive oil, I think that coconut oil is more useful in cosmetology. For example, it helps to cure acne
Nancy C. February 21, 2018
I have evolved a skin oil that I like very much: 2 parts virgin coconut oil, one part argan oil (Trader Joes), half part sea buckthorn oil (get it from SIBU in Utah, and about the same high grade olive oil. I make up about a third of a cup at a time. I rub it on scars, use it on my hair and work it into my cuticles. I frequently do "oil pulling," i.e. swish coconut oil around in my mouth, and it "pulls" out mucus. I always do this before speaking it public. See the vast website Wellness Mama for many more uses.
John December 21, 2017
This video was extremely helpful and helped reduce body fat extremely fast. In fact there is this book guide that i was referred to which helped me reduce fat so fast!
take a look:
Amy S. August 24, 2017
I find this article informative and for me coconut oil is a tree of life that is good for everything. I have my own website about the benefits, recipes and other stuff about coconut oils. You can check on my link:
Brionna P. August 18, 2017
Man, whoever copy edited this really wasn't paying attention. So many typos...
Rastus F. June 23, 2017
Have had red splotches on my face, been to two dermatologists and used countless prescription creams, did no good. Started using coconut oil on my face as a moisturizer. Within 2 days the red spots were gone and haven't come back. Yes, it's great stuff.
Jimmy J. June 23, 2017
Use it as a moisturizer and for cooking. Wonderful.
Laura June 11, 2017
Sri Lankans consume all forms of coconut in their cooking and use coconut oil exclusively; they have very low incidence of heart disease, however their diet is also rich in vegetables, spices (especially turmeric and chilli's), so point is: overall diet more important than any one single item.
Rose June 6, 2017
I've been using coconut oil for years on my face as a moisturizer. I'm sure genetics has something to do with my skin but as I approach 70 I don't have a wrinkle on my face.
petalpusher June 4, 2017
Never substitute coconut oil for melted butter for brushing on phyllo for baklava. Even if it is 'butter' flavored, it does not work well. It's great to have a choice of oils, but where butter is best, use it!
SpeshulK June 4, 2017
I love coconut oil, olive oil, grass fed butter (K2 baby!), flax oil. I use ozonated coconut oil on my skin. Unprocessed it and moderation is the key! Be healthy ppl! Reading a book called "Aging Backwards" by Esmond Miranda White and its so interesting. May we all age healthier and eat better.
Sally F. June 4, 2017
tamater S. June 4, 2017
Great post, Sarah. It sort of reminds me of the Agave bandwagon. I switched to it because I kept reading on the net, that it had a much lower Glycemic Index than other sugars. Well, it's one of those things that you read over and over again, until you subconsciously believe it. So you reach for it (at the 'health food' store, where it first appeared) and all of a sudden agave was EVERYwhere, for about 10 years, until the truth started leaking out.
I guess there's a reason why so much money is spent on MARKETING.
X June 19, 2018
I SO agree with you on this! I also jumped on that agave bandwagon some years ago, thinking it was a healthier alternative than sugar or artificial sweeteners until I learned that it's not. I'm now using xylitol (which tastes great), and so far, I haven't seen any negative information on it but I'm keeping my eyes open anyway. You never know if/when something may come to light.
Zensister June 4, 2017
Coconut oil has its place in my kitchen alongside olive oil, avocado oil, butter, and nut oils. My overall cholesterol is a little bit high, but well balanced, so my doctor isn't too concerned. I also use it on my skin, but it seems to work better for my particular skin type mixed with tallow and other oils. I think since everyone is different, our fat needs vary, but what seems to work best for me is a balanced combination of fats- for me, heavier on the olive oil with coconut, nut, and animal fats thrown in for flavor and fatty acid variety.
FamilyCook June 4, 2017
Hi this is an interesting story. However, i just noticed a factual error.
I know Marie-Pierre St-Onge, she is not at Cornell but at Columbia School of Medicine - you may wish to correct your story.
Author Comment
Sarah J. June 4, 2017
Thanks for pointing out that error, FamilyCook. I'll correct the article and add a note acknowledging the change.
Melissa June 4, 2017
The American myth that fat is the devil is why we have the health crisis that we do in the US. Fat is good. Whole grains and refined carbohydrates are the real enemy. I wish more people knew this.
tamater S. June 4, 2017
I'm with you on this, 100% - I'm STILL trying to lose the fear of fat. "Fat makes you fat!" is something I heard my whole childhood. The other thing I heard was, that if you're going to have fat, have the smallest bit possible, and make it margarine...And it was hydrogenated!
Lorena June 5, 2017
Liza M. June 4, 2017
My humble opinion is this article is based on outdated research that vilifies saturated fat included the one found in coconut oil, butter and lard. Part of this vilification was generated by sugar industry and really LDL/HDL data is not anymore interpreted as straight-forwardly as it used to be. Once you understand and research that and stop being so afaraid of good fat that is so very important for our brain, skin, and everything in our body that gets pummeled on a daily basis by environmental factors as well as processed chemically changed products including ridiculous "low-fat" we keep consuming, we can have an entirely different conversation about coconut oil (and butter and lard while we are at it)
sullymorgan June 4, 2017
Totally agree. The overall diet matters a lot with respect to the health benefits of coconut oil (or any other fat source). UCSF's Robert Lustig's works are great at explaining carbohydrate, fat, insulin response, etc. I'm not surprised at the commenters below who said their LDL went up when simply adding coconut oil to an existing diet rather than adding it to a keto or other low carb plan.
X June 5, 2017
I'm vegetarian. I eat no white flour or sugar and only small amounts of fat free dairy. I cook all my own food and am very diligent about reading labels and avoiding trans fat, saturated fat, excessive sugar (even natural sugar) and sodium. I eat a high fiber diet with lots of vegetables and legumes and only whole grains. My cholesterol level was good until I made the singular change of adding coconut oil to my diet. When my cholesterol went up 30 points, my doctor told me to stop eating it because it's too high in saturated fat.
X June 4, 2017
I switched from butter and olive oil to coconut oil for "health" reasons and my cholesterol jumped 30 points. My cardiologist asked me what the hell I was eating since my last visit and when I told him coconut oil, he said to "Knock it off!".
dzatz June 4, 2017
How much sugar were you consuming?
X June 5, 2017
Aside from natural sugars in fresh fruit (mostly berries), 1 teaspoon of coconut sugar in my coffee once per day.

The coconut oil is the only change I made to my diet.
Joan June 4, 2017
The discover of using coconut oil on my skin was a god send and helped me win a three year battle with eccema/ psoriasis that started in my late 40s. it absorbs quickly and easily and doesn't ruin my clothes and sheets the way other options did.

My cat craves it too...
Hilary M. June 4, 2017
That's interesting, Joan. I must have used just a bit too much on my face at night. Perhaps I will try it again :-)