Coconut Oil Is Everywhere – But Is It A Life-Saver Or Just An Over-Hyped Saturated Fat?

Using coconut oil in food isn’t exactly new. First given its modern name by the Portuguese in the 1700s, the humble coconut’s by-products were in use well before that, as everything from conditioner and sunscreen to lamp oil. It’s also been a cooking staple for centuries, and using it in foods – even in the West – isn’t an innovation; it was the main source of non-dairy fat in the US diet until the rise of cheaper, more easily-made vegetable oils in the 1940s. What’s changed in recent years is the health claims being made for (and against) it: while Instagrammers and food bloggers present it as a cure-all, the FDA and WHO have warned that it contains more saturated fat than lard, and should be eaten with caution. So: who’s right? Have all those bloggers been duped by the all-powerful coconut lobby?

Breaking Down The Basics

Coconut oil is pressed from the meat of coconuts. Yes, it is very high in saturated fat: about 91% by calories, or 10g in a tablespoon. To remind yourself of the fat hierarchy, trans fats – the heavily processed kind – are unquestionably the worst, since the chemical transformations they’re put through make them hard for our digestive systems to process. They’ve been linked to everything from heart disease and strokes to diabetes, alongside weight gain without increased calorie intake, and in 2015 an FDA ruling was introduced that looks set to almost eliminate them from US foods within three years.

On the flipside, unsaturated fats – including monounsaturates and polyunsaturates, which are found in things like olive oil, nuts and avocado – are generally regarded as helpful, since they raise ‘good’ HDL cholesterol. So where does that leave saturated fat?

‘Cut back on processed foods and overeating generally, and a lot of the problems with saturated fats are unlikely to arise’

The Fat Of The Matter

Saturated fats, named because they’re ‘saturated’ with hydrogen molecules, are the ones that are solid at room temperature. They’re found in things like meat and butter, but also quite often in processed, prepackaged meals and snacks. The trick is that there are different kinds of saturated fat and they’re not all created equal. ‘Certainly there are “better” and “worse” saturated fats and coconut oil is at the pretty benign end of the spectrum,’ says nutritionist Drew Price, who frequently works with high-level sports teams as well as lecturing in biochemistry.

‘Remember that when you're eating coconut oil you’re either eating it in a purified form or in coconut flesh; this means you're avoiding many of the things which may be an issue in other sources. In a nutshell the evidence looking for a connection between saturated fat and disease is both very variable in the conclusions you can draw from it, and pretty unclear,’ says Price.

So, not all processing methods are created equal? ‘No. What appears to be much more of an issue than the fat itself is where you get it – for instance, from poor quality foods with other problematic compounds like trans fats – and how much you get, because overeating is always likely to cause problems. There's a great deal of evidence that shows that saturated fat per se isn't a huge problem but that when you combine it with diets that change inflammatory status, alter factors like total fat mass, insulin sensitivity and so on, then you start to get issues,’ Price says. So, what can we all do right now? ‘Cut back on processed foods and overeating generally, and make sure you’re getting enough vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytochemicals, and a lot of the problems with saturated fats are unlikely to arise.’

So far, so sat fat, but what about the pro-coconut lobby’s favourite claimed benefit, taken from research published in 2003 suggesting that eating MCTs, or medium chain triglycerides, can cause more impressive weight loss than eating long chain triglycerides: another difference between saturated fats? Follow-up studies showed similar results, and coconut lovers were quick to insist that the high MCT content of coconut oil made it good for fat loss.

Fans of so-called ‘Bulletproof’ coffee have jumped on this research – as well as studies suggesting that MCTs can increase focus and concentration – by whipping coconut or pure MCT oil into everything from coffees to sushi, occasionally with a side of grass-fed butter. The problem? More recent studies suggest that coconut oil is actually only around 13-15% MCTs, while the volunteers in the 2003 study were fed a 100% MCT oil concoction. It’s unclear if just cooking with coconut oil can provide enough MCTs to get the same fat-loss effects, but the safe answer is ‘probably not.’

‘Damage in fats leads to all sorts of nasty products such as cyclical and trans fats – but coconut oil is less reactive’

Thank You For Not Smoking

So far, so sensible. But what about the other much-touted benefit of coconut oil – that you can cook with it without worrying about any of the carcinogenic compounds that lesser oils emit when they’re highly heated? ‘The smoke point of coconut oil isn't actually all that high,’ explains Price. ‘It’s around 180ºC for the unrefined stuff and 200ºC for the refined version. This puts it below a number of other common dietary oils – but it's important to differentiate smoke point from oil damage.

‘Damage in fats leads to all sorts of nasty products such as cyclical and trans fats, and the formation of these starts to increase way before the smoke point is reached. The point is that they're far less likely to be formed in oils that are either a) saturated, because there are less of the more reactive 'unsaturated' points in the fat’s structure, or b) that have antioxidants that suppress this type of reaction, or c) both. For example, though canola and coconut fat have about the same smoke point, canola is about four times more reactive when put through oxidation tests. Neither coconut or canola has antioxidants but coconut is saturated whereas canola is composed of many unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.’

The RISING Verdict

So, what’s the overall verdict? Until science knows more about the effects of fat in conjunction with other factors, alongside confounding problems like the impact of HDL and LDL cholesterol, you’re unlikely to get anything definitive from the WHO. As ever, the sensible advice remains: eat non-processed food, not too much of it, and ideally a lot of different plants. And if you want to cook it in coconut oil, you probably aren’t doing yourself any harm – unless you’re allergic!

WHAT NEXT? Dig out a copy of the documentary Fed Up to see just how much (chilling) influence the food industry has over governmental recommendations… and what it’s doing to US health.