Coconut oil: superfood or super-myth?

Coconut oil dietitian

Coconut oil is having it’s time in the sun. Used in everything from moisturiser and hair masks to salad dressing and raw desserts, coconut-everything has seemingly hit the shelves. The coconut hype will have you believe the oil can boost your metabolism, ease digestion and even control sugar cravings, but research has shown these claims are not entirely true. Here is the science behind it.


What is coconut oil?

Coconut oil is made from the pressed white flesh of a coconut . At room temperature (25 degrees Celsius), coconut oil is a liquid, but at cooler temperatures, its solid. Why? Because coconut oil is composed of 92% saturated fat, which is solid at room temperature but melts under heat.


Is coconut oil good for heart health?

Saturated fat gets a bad rap (and for good reason!) due to its negative effect on total and LDL cholesterol, which are both risk factors for heart disease. 


You see, LDL cholesterol is a type of cholesterol that can lead to a build-up of plaque on your arteries – which obviously isn’t desirable. That’s why it’s known as ‘bad’ cholesterol. On the other hand, ‘good’ HDL cholesterol works to remove LDL cholesterol from the bloodsteam and promotes heart health. When it comes to cholesterol, what you want is a happy balance between the two types. 


So, what’s the catch with coconut oil? Well, the saturated fat in coconut oil actually acts differently in your body compared to the saturated fat in animal products. But that doesn’t mean you should go hell for leather! Research has shown that while coconut oil can increase your level of good HDL cholesterol, it also increases total blood cholesterol and LDL cholesterol – which overshadows any positive benefit of boosting HDL cholesterol. 


Currently, there is no evidence to show that coconut oil is beneficial for heart health. The various health claims that surround coconut oil originated from studies looking at the effect of medium chain triglycerides (or MCTs, for short). In these experiments, an oil made of 100% MCT was used, and this is not reflective of the composition of coconut oil, as it is only made up of 13-15% MCT. 


The bottom line

Coconut oil does not stack up against other plant oils, like extra virgin olive, canola or peanut oils, which have proven health benefits.  As part of a healthy balanced diet, coconut oil can be consumed in moderation, but rest assured it’s not a magic bullet! With good heart health in mind, current research suggests your best bet is to consume foods rich in healthy unsaturated fats, like olive oil, avocado and nuts.