Once in a while an article starts to circulate the internet stating that coconut oil is unhealthy.
Some of these articles go as far as saying that it’s never been healthy and advice against consuming it.
It’s nothing new really, this kind of news has been appearing since the 80’s.
Before I continue, I want to emphasize that not all coconut oil is created equally.
I recommend using virgin (unrefined) coconut oil, preferably cold-pressed or centrifuged.
Unfortunately there is also a lot of bad quality (usually refined) coconut oil available, so make sure to always research how a specific oil has been produced.
I explain about the differences in quality of coconut oil and what to pay attention to in these articles:
Coconut oil has been used throughout history in countries in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Oceania where it has always been considered a healthy product.
In recent years coconut oil’s popularity has spread to the rest of the world.
The oil is extracted from the white ”meat” from the coconut and is known for its many health benefits and versatility. It can be used for different kinds of food preparation, skin and hair treatments, dental care and more.
The saturated fats in coconut oil, known as medium chain acids (MCT’s) support many important body functions.
MCT’s are essential fuel for our brain, they aid with metabolism, energy supply, mineral absorption, the immune system, hormones etc.
They also contain powerful antibacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal and anti-parasitic properties.
About 50% of MCT’s consists of Lauric acid. The largest source of Lauric acid in nature comes from coconuts and the second largest is found in breast milk – the first and essential source of nutrition for babies!
Something that coconut oil is less known for, but which is an important asset and one of the main reasons why coconut oil is healthy: it’s the most heat-stable fat in the world. More about that in a bit.
Everyone is talking about coconut oil
The ‘’Coconut oil isn’t healthy. It’s never been healthy’’ article on USA Today has been causing a lot of buzz on the internet over the past few days.
It’s been a hot topic on social media; lots of confusion, anger and luckily also some jokes (‘’1992 called, it wants its BS story back!’’)
This shows how coconut oil has evolved from being just another popular product into something much bigger.
Since a lot of people have been asking me if coconut oil is healthy and whether it is still safe to use, I figured I should give you my take on the current coconut oil debate.
This article isn’t about summing up the many health benefits of coconut oil or explaining what makes this saturated fat different from other types of saturated fat.
I wrote about this before and have added the links to the bottom of this page for further reference.
There are also links to relevant websites with science-based information on the topic.
What I want to discuss in this article is why I strongly disagree with what the American Heart Association suggests we should use instead of coconut oil.
What this is about
If you haven’t read USA Today’s article: The AHA says that ‘’The Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease advisory reviewed existing data on saturated fat, showing coconut oil increased LDL (‘’bad’’) cholesterol.’’
They mention that they didn’t see a difference between coconut oil and other oils high in saturated fat, like butter, beef fat and palm oil.
The article doesn’t mention anything new, but gives rather incomplete and incorrect information about saturated fats and cholesterol.
Our body actually needs saturated fats and what might come as a surprise to some people; cholesterol has its own important function.
Dr. Mercola’s article New Science Destroys the Saturated Fat Myth explains what I’m referring to;
”A new meta-analysis involving a half million people found that those eating more saturated fats do NOT have more heart disease than those eating less.
Fat has been misidentified as the culprit behind heart disease, when all along it’s been sugar.
A high-sugar diet raises your risk for heart disease by promoting metabolic syndrome—a cluster of health conditions that includes high blood pressure, insulin and leptin resistance, high triglycerides, liver dysfunction, and visceral fat accumulation.”
Since the American Heart Association’s focus is primarily on heart health, it’s interesting to read the opinion of cardiologist Dr. Pearson about coconut oil and vegetable oils.
Professor Frank Sacks, lead author on the AHA report advices against the use of coconut oil.
He states that ”he has no idea why people think coconut oil is healthy.” and that ”it might not be a bad idea to opt for vegetable oils or olive oil.”
Using vegetable oils is actually a very bad idea and I will tell you why.
Vegetable oils are industrial oils made from seeds such as sunflower, rapeseed (canola), corn and soybean.
They are very unstable, heavily processed fats that are already oxidized when you buy them.
Unlike natural fats such as coconut oil and olive oil that are extracted by pressing them, these oils are produced differently.
They contain a lot of chemicals, pesticides and additives and many of them are genetically modified (GMO) oils.
Vegetable oils have been promoted as a ”heart-healthy” alternative in the campaign against saturated fat.
The problem is that they are not healthy at all and even less so when you cook with them.
The worst thing is what happens with them when they are heated; they oxidize very easily.
When a fat is heated, it changes its chemical property; the more sensitive a fat is, the faster it oxidizes.
Oxidation is what happens when fat interacts with heat, oxygen, moisture and light.
This results in harmful free radicals that can cause a lot of damage to our health, especially to the brain, heart and liver.
From all the oils and fats out there, vegetable oils are the most sensitive to oxidation. But isn’t that exactly what they are used for, to cook or fry food with?
So should we even cook with them? The answer is very simple – no.
Oxidized oils not only make the food they are prepared in very unhealthy, their fumes also cause serious danger to people who are regularly exposed to environments where these oils are heated.
I will get back to oxidation in a bit, let’s first take a look at the different types of fat;
The four types of fat
1. Monounsaturated fats
Found in avocados, olive oil, peanuts etc.
2. Polyunsaturated fats
Plant sources: nuts, seeds and vegetable oils.
Animal sources: fish such as salmon, mackerel and herring.
3. Saturated fats
Plant sources: coconut oil, palm kernel oil and cacao butter.
Animal sources: meat, dairy and eggs.
4. Trans fats
Fats that are the result of chemical processing.
They are found in many processed and fried food, some types of margarine and anything (partly) hydrogenated.
Margarine is an example of a very unhealthy product that used to be promoted as a ‘’healthy” butter-alternative for many years.
It’s actually one of the worst things you can eat.
The fact that trans fats are finally given the attention they need is largely due to Professor Kummerow. He discovered back in the 1950’s how harmful trans fats are.
Professor Kummerow was one of the first scientists who believed that saturated fat in meat, butter and other dairy products did not contribute to the clogging of arteries and that it was actually healthy in moderate amounts.
It was a very long and slow process – 58 years after the publication of his research, the FDA ruled that trans fats are dangerous and will not be added to food after June 18, 2018 (exactly a year from now).
Professor Kummerow died earlier this month at the age of 102 having lived on a diet that included red meat, whole milk and eggs scrambled in butter.
Much gratitude to Professor Kummerow for his valuable work and endless dedication to help improve our health!
Now that we’ve looked into the existing types of fats, let’s see how oxidation affects each of them:
Oxidation in different types of fats
1. Oils high in polyunsaturated fats such as canola, soybean, corn, sunflower, grapeseed and peanut oil are very sensitive to heat. They oxidize easily and should not be eaten at all, but should especially not be used to cook with.
2. Oils high in monounsaturated fats such as avocado oil and olive oil are more stable than polyunsaturated fats, but they are not recommended for cooking.
Extra virgin olive oil and sesame oil are exceptions due to their high content of antioxidants which protect against oxidation. They are safe for brief low temperature cooking.
3. Fats high in saturated fats such as coconut oil, butter and ghee are the most heat-resistant fats, which makes them the healthiest option for cooking.
To help you understand better why it’s good to cook with certain fats and less so with others, I created this fat chart.
You can easily see the fat components of some of the most used cooking oils and fats here.
Coconut oil is healthy if you use the right kind
Fat is a complicated subject. There is so much contradicting information about it and unfortunately a lot of it isn’t aimed at improving our health.
Luckily there is also good, objective information available, we just have to look for it.
If we want to get a better understanding of what makes a fat (un)healthy, we have to inform ourselves. This also means looking into how a fat is produced and how heating it affects it.
Coconut oil is healthy when you use the right kind and there is no reason to stop using it.
With its 92% saturated fats it’s a very stable oil, which is why coconut oil is very suitable for cooking at high temperatures.
Make sure to buy a good quality, organic virgin coconut oil from sustainable produce and use it as part of a healthy diet.
Our health is our foundation. Let’s make it our priority to take care of ourselves and others the best way we can.
Keep doing your own research, see what resonates with you and stay mindful about what feels good to your body!
Sources and further reference:
Earlier articles on This Is Coco: