What are the latest research findings on the health benefits of virgin coconut oil, whether positive or negative?
Coconut oil is one of those ingredients we've been told for years is bad, bad, bad, just like palm oil. Both are rich in saturated fats, which are on most health experts' no-no list. Virgin coconut oil is processed from fresh coconut meat and is considered stable, with a long shelf life.
There may be some health benefits to coconut oil, although it doesn't appear to be the disease and illness cure-all some oil manufacturers tout it as being.
Saturated fats have gotten a bad rap because they're believed to contribute to heart disease, weight gain and higher levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol. But not all saturated fats are created equal. They're distinguished by their molecular makeup; specifically, how many carbon atoms they contain (anywhere from 1 to 24). There are short, medium, and long-chain fatty acids (or triglycerides), and each is processed differently by the body.
Coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides. A 2003 study showed increased calorie burn in 24 healthy, overweight men who consumed food rich in medium-chain triglycerides compared with those who consumed long-chain triglycerides (in this case, olive oil). In the study, published in the journal Obesity, the medium-chain triglyceride group also decreased their upper body adipose tissue — the fat that's mostly found under the skin and around the internal organs.
These results have to do with how the body metabolizes medium-chain triglycerides, says Marie-Pierre St-Onge, the study's lead author and a research associate at the New York Obesity Research Center.
While some saturated fats are metabolized in muscles or fat, the majority of medium-chain triglycerides go into the liver, where they are burned off by the body. St-Onge adds that it's not known exactly what proportion of the MCTs go into the liver. Another, a 1981 study, found that among two groups of Polynesians — whose diets are high in foods containing medium chain fatty acids — the group that obtained twice as much energy from coconut than the other had serum cholesterol levels 35 to 40 milligrams higher than the other group, but showed very low levels of vascular disease and no deleterious effects from the high amounts of saturated fats they consume. (The study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.)
Health experts say that other lifestyle factors — not just the coconut oil — could influence these low levels of vascular disease, such as active lifestyles and high consumption of fruits, vegetables and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown in some studies to be beneficial to heart health.
Some people like cooking with coconut oil because it has a higher burning point and doesn't go rancid as quickly as some other fats. However, it's still unknown how much oil needs to be incorporated to see a health difference.
"I don't know if there's a threshold effect," St-Onge says. "If you eat a little bit in one meal, maybe you don't get any benefit whatsoever."
Also, the American Heart Assn. recommends that only 7% of total daily calories come from saturated fat.
"It's still a saturated fat," says Lalita Kaul, a nutrition professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. "If you use it once in a while, you probably shouldn't be concerned. But if you're using it every day, maybe you should stop and think about it."
— Jeannine Stein