The health benefits of coconut oil aren’t so cut-and-dried; in fact, it’s a very controversial topic. One Harvard University professor commented that coconut oil is reines Gift, or “pure poison,” in a talk she gave in Germany. (In the viral video, the professor, Karin Michels, also says in German that the trendy oil is “one of the worst foods you can eat.”)
On the one hand, coconut oil advocates acknowledge that it’s high in saturated fat, which has been implicated in increased heart disease risk. But they point out that there’s something unique about the saturated fat found in the tropical oil: It’s rich in a medium-chain fatty acid called lauric acid, which may behave differently from other saturated fats.
Why? These fatty acids may have a different impact on cholesterol levels than other saturated fats. One study notes that while saturated-fat-rich coconut oil raises total and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels more than unsaturated plant oils, it didn’t do so by as much as butter.
One randomized clinical trial looked at the health result of consuming about 1.75 ounces of extra-virgin coconut oil, butter, or extra-virgin olive oil daily for four weeks. Much as previous research has shown, butter upped LDL levels more than coconut and olive oils. Coconut oil also increased HDL levels more than butter or olive oil. While this wasn’t a study on weight loss (so no one was told to, say, cut calories), the researchers noted that no one in the groups lost (or gained) weight or belly fat by adding any of these fats.
Concerns about coconut oil’s saturated fat prevent many experts from recommending it. Indeed, top nutrition and health researchers have recommended that people replace saturated with unsaturated fats to reduce heart disease risk. Likewise, a review and meta-analysis on the health effects of coconut oil suggest that people avoid it because of its high levels of saturated fat, which they found raise LDL cholesterol significantly more than other types of (nontropical) cooking oils, making you more prone to conditions like heart disease.
Someone could jump to the conclusion that if saturated fat isn’t all that bad, and coconut oil’s fatty acids may even be health-promoting, they have carte blanche to eat it, as some past research has suggested.
The facts as they stand are that the effect of coconut oil on health isn’t quite clear.
The reality may be that when placed in the typical standard American diet (dubbed the SAD diet), coconut oil may behave differently. The entirety of your eating habits may matter more than whether or not you include this oil. Baseline heart disease rates may be lower in South Asian cultures, which frequently consume coconut oil, and that may not be the case if the oil is included in any diet, research suggests.
“Observational evidence suggests that consumption of coconut flesh or squeezed coconut in the context of traditional dietary patterns does not lead to adverse cardiovascular outcomes. However, due to large differences in dietary and lifestyle patterns, these findings cannot be applied to a typical Western diet,” the authors of one review wrote.
Another plus of coconut oil is that it remains stable under heat, meaning it’s not as likely as other oils to oxidize and create harmful compounds like free radicals during cooking. Different types of coconut oil are suitable for different cooking methods. Virgin coconut oil has a smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit (F) — meaning you can heat it up to that temperature before it begins to smoke and oxidize; refined coconut oil has a higher smoke point, of 400 degrees F, allowing you more leeway.