Coconut oil: the science

Coconut oil and coconut products have been one of the biggest health trends over the past couple of years. From “bulletproof coffee” made with coconut oil to even cleaning your teeth with it, the many impressive claims have seen it surge in popularity.

But what does the research actually show? Is coconut oil a fad, and how much is safe to actually consume?

Currently many studies that have been done into coconut oil have been on partially hydrogenated coconut oil, which is a trans-fat and not considered healthful. The product being promoted as a health food is natural coconut oil which is essentially a saturated fat.

Saturated fats: the research

Saturated fats were demonised for years, but there’s increasing evidence to suggest that they may not be as dangerous as earlier feared.

Saturated fats aren’t all the same: they contain different fatty acids that all have varying effects on blood lipids. Longer-chain fatty acids (12-16 carbons) tend to raise blood cholesterol, while medium-chain fatty acids (6-10 carbons) appear to have little effect.

Coconut oil mainly has lauric acid which has 12 carbons, and some short-chain myristic acid. The jury is still out on lauric acid. Some research shows that it tends to raise “good” HDL cholesterol, similar to unsaturated fats.

But a couple of other studies have shown that lauric acid, like other long-chain fatty acids, is associated with increased risk of heart disease.

Coconut oil and your gut

One heart specialist, Dr Michael Richman, says that medium chain triglycerides, as contained in coconut oil, can be very beneficial and necessary for certain people with gastrointestinal conditions.

“MCTs are passively absorbed in the intestine unlike other triglycerides, and those individuals who cannot absorb triglycerides for different reasons need MCTs as a source of energy for the body,” Dr Richman writes.

However he says that the idea that coconut oil is beneficial to one’s overall cardiovascular health is a “myth” with no credible peer-reviewed research to support the claim.

Types of coconut oil

It’s also important to know what kind of coconut oil you’re consuming. There are three types generally sold:

  • virgin coconut oil, extracted without high temperatures or chemicals and considered unrefined
  • refined coconut oil, made from coconut flesh that may be bleached or deodorised
  • partially hydrogenated coconut oil, which contains trans fats and should be avoided

It’s possible that virgin coconut oil contains healthful chemicals which may give it benefits over certain other oils. But currently this is speculation and not a reason to consume vast amounts.

Oil pulling debunked

Another purported health benefit of coconut oil is “oil pulling” where you swish oil around your mouth for a few minutes, which supposedly grants spectacular oral and other health benefits.

The website Snopes took a good look at the research, and found nothing to substantiate any of these claims.

They concluded that there’s no harm in swirling coconut oil around your mouth, but it’s no more effective for looking after your teeth than any other kind of mouthwash or dental rinse.

Everything in moderation

Moderate amounts of coconut oil probably won’t do you too much harm, but it’s no elixir of life. As with any foodstuff, excessive consumption is never wise. There are also many other healthful oils out there to include in your diet, such as olive oil.