One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 12 grams of saturated fat. Nearly 60 percent of the calories in one tablespoon comes from saturated fat. The remaining 40 percent is unsaturated fat. Coconut oil is 100 percent fat and lacks any vitamins or common minerals.
Yet a recent survey found that 72 percent of Americans believe coconut oil is a "healthy food," compared with only 37 percent of nutritionists, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
"I just don’t know who is pushing it, but it's not scientists," said Frank Sacks, M.D., lead author of the advisory and professor of cardiovascular disease prevention in the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. It may be driven by manufacturers or a country with economic dependence on coconut oil, he said in an AHA press release.
If you've been consuming coconut oil regularly, should you call your cardiologist? Or, are there some healthy coconut oil benefits that aren’t readily apparent from reading the nutrition label on the jar? Is coconut oil harmful, harmlessly neutral or healthy? Let's take a look ...
1. Coconut oil raises LDL cholesterol. Yes, LDL is the "bad" cholesterol. A new study from the AHA says coconut oil significantly increases the body's level of LDL, also known as low-density lipoprotein, in the same way as other saturated fats found in butter or beef and "has no known offsetting favorable effects." The AHA advises against the use of coconut oil.
But are higher LDL levels unequivocally a bad thing? Some research goes against popular conceptions. One small study of non-exercisers who were put through a rigorous workout determined that those who gained the most muscle mass also had the highest LDL levels. At least one doctor commented on this study, suggesting that LDL cholesterol and muscle function have a direct correlation.
2. Coconut oil is high in saturated fat but won't make you fat. The fact that coconut oil is high in saturated fat but is considered a health food by many might confound people. But not all fat is created equally; some forms are easily absorbed and utilized by the body (specifically medium and short-chain fats; coconut oil is medium chain). In other words, consuming non-hydrogenated (processed), natural forms of saturated fat will not make you fat, necessarily. One study published in the journal Lipids concluded, "It appears that dietetic supplementation with coconut oil does not cause dyslipidemia [high blood cholesterol levels] and seems to promote a reduction in abdominal obesity."
3. Coconut oil increases HDL cholesterol. Similar to the popular notion that LDL cholesterol is "bad," HDL cholesterol is generally regarded as good. Although some researchers claim that cholesterol is cholesterol; it's neither good nor bad, virtually every doctor encourages healthy HDL levels. Coconut oil was both vilified and lauded. Dr. Walter Willett says in a Harvard Health Letter that coconut oil raises both LDL and HDL levels. "What's interesting about coconut oil is that it also gives 'good' HDL cholesterol a boost. Fat in the diet, whether it's saturated or unsaturated, tends to nudge HDL levels up, but coconut oil seems to be especially potent at doing so," Willett concludes.
4. Coconut oil has anti-microbial properties. An abstract of a study in the Journal of Medicinal Food concluded: "It is noteworthy that coconut oil was active against species of Candida at 100 percent concentration compared to fluconazole. Coconut oil should be used in the treatment of fungal infections in view of emerging drug-resistant Candida species."
A paper by Dr. Jon Kabara, professor emeritus at Michigan State, states that coconut oil was recognized for its "extraordinary health properties" 4,000 years ago by the Ayurveda medicinal community in ancient India. "The medium chain fatty acids and monoglycerides found primarily in [coconut oil has] miraculous healing power. It is rare in the history of medicine to find substances that have such useful properties and still be without toxicity or even harmful side effects."
5. Coconut oil may help prevent heart disease. The Coconut Research Center claims a large number of studies prove a direct correlation between chronic infections and heart disease. Pathogenic organisms are killed by medium-chain fatty acids found in coconut oil. Therefore, says the center, coconut oil can reduce the risk of heart disease.
One of the studies the center points to is one published in the journal Lipids that concludes, "[P]olicies that prioritize the reduction of SFA [saturated fatty acid] consumption without specifically considering the replacement nutrient may have little or no effects on [cardiovascular] disease risk, especially as the most common replacement in populations is often [carbohydrates]." In other words, at the very least, some research proves that saturated fat is not necessarily bad for heart health and a diet high in carbohydrates could be much worse.
Since the science is mixed on the health benefits and harms of coconut oil — especially due to its saturated fat content — it's probably not a bad thing to work a little bit into your diet, but don't overdo it either, just to be safe.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was originally published in April 2012.