Is Coconut Oil Pure Poison?

Coconut-Oil

Coconut oil had been touted as a “health-food” all across the world in the past decade. But, coconut oil has been surrounded by some serious controversy for the past few months regarding its health benefits and potential role in CVD. So, is it really harmful to our health? Are all the health benefits of coconut oil we heard from our mothers and grandmothers a myth?

Like most things in life, the answer is not a simple yes or no. It is important to understand why is there such a drastic difference of opinions regarding coconut oil in the scientific community? We’ll explore both sides of the argument in this article.

A Brief History of Coconut Oil

The use of coconut and coconut oil dates back to thousands of years. People who live in places where coconuts occur naturally such as India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Polynesia, and Indonesia have been reaping the benefits of coconut oil for centuries. The uses of coconut oil were documented by Ayurvedic medicine as early as 1500BC! The ancient Ayurvedic scriptures talk about the positive effects of coconut oil in areas relating to the mind, body and spirit.

The 19th Century and Early 20th Century

Coconut oil attracted the attention of European traders in the late 19th century, a time of increased demand for edible oils in Europe and the United States. As a result, Europeans established coconut plantations in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific from the 1890s to the 1920s. This resulted in increased consumption of coconut oil across Europe and the United States until about 1940s.

But, all of this changed after World War II during the 1950s.

The mid 20th Century 

Mike Foale, a coconut consultant in Queensland, Australia and retired agronomist at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) says, “There was quite a desperate shortage of edible oil in the U.S. and the soy industry got a huge boost from that. The price of coconut oil was prohibitively high for a large segment of the population creating a new market for unmet demand of edible oil. This  paved the road for alternates, and the soy oil industry expanded very rapidly during that period.”

Conveniently for the emerging industry of edible oil alternates, around the same time,  several studies reported that coconut oils are rich in “saturated fats” that raises cholesterol levels and causes heart diseases. These studies built the case of the soy oil industry amongst other alternates.

The Coconut oil industry, still being quite massive and powerful, reacted. A series of studies and statements by researchers and scientists followed which seemingly laid the debate, at that point, to rest. These can be summarized as “due to study design flaws and incomplete knowledge about saturated fats, the true nature of these fats and its effect on health was unknown and studies de-meriting Coconut oil’s case should be ignored.” Some of such scientific opinions are often heard, even now:

“Most of the studies involving coconut oil were done with partially hydrogenated coconut oil, which researchers used because they needed to raise the cholesterol levels of their rabbits in order to collect certain data,” Dr. Brenna said. “Virgin coconut oil, which has not been chemically treated, is a different thing in terms of a health risk perspective. And maybe it isn’t so bad for you after all.”

All of this led to decreasing use of coconut oil during 1960s-2000s, with many believing it to be harmful to health.

..and Advent of the 21st Century

It was only recently, during the 2000s, that coconut oil started reemerging as a “health-food”. There were three key factors behind this:

    • Saturated Fats are not the main villain, at least not always: With growing research in the area of how fats function within our bodies, human understanding about the subject has clearly grown. Our body requires several types of saturated fats to function. Marisa Moore, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, a nonprofit association of nutritionists, said, “Different types of saturated fats behave differently.”
    • Lauric Acid is an emerging Hero: The main accusation against coconut has been the high percentage of saturated fats it has. Although, this is true, but within saturated fats,  lauric acid – a medium chain fatty acid, constitutes the highest percentage. Several studies show lauric acid increases high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in the blood. But is not thought to negatively affect the overall ratio of the two. Thus, seemingly ending the argument against Coconut oil.
    • The forward march of the Vegan community: Veganism is here to stay. The increasing awareness on the environment due to animal protein, growing awareness of benefits for a plant-based diet, increasing levels of lactose intolerance and many more such reasons have led to veganism is one of the fastest growing trends in the food world globally.

Central to this debate really is to understand oil better, through a scientific lens.

Coconut oil: Elixir or “pure poison”?

Karin Michels, an adjunct epidemiology professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the director of the Institute for Prevention and Tumor Epidemiology declared that “coconut oil is pure poison” and “one of the worst foods you can eat”.
coconutoil
The American Heart Association has taken a similar position over coconut oil. This is because the results of some studies and the consideration that coconut oil is rich in saturated fatty acids. However, the jury is still out on whether coconut oils are good or bad for health. There are firm arguments and significant research on both sides of the argument.  Let’s have a look at both sides.

The Argument: Coconut Oil is Bad

The American Heart Association’s Advisory

According to an advisory update published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, in order to prevent heart disease, you should replace saturated fats with PUFAs and MUFAs. This is because saturated fats can contribute to raising LDL levels. Since coconut oil has 82% saturated fat, many people are thinking in the lines of Karin Michels.

“ However, because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD, and has no known offsetting favourable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.”
– Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease, A Presidential Advisory from the American Heart Association

What is LDL and Why is it Relevant?

Low-Density Lipoprotein or LDL is often referred to as “bad cholesterol”.

LDL cholesterol is responsible for mobilizing and delivering fat molecules to different cells of the body. It is during this process that LDL particles are susceptible to oxidation.

If this oxidation occurs within the walls of arteries, the risk of arterial clogging and blood clots increases. If a blood clot breaks away and blocks an artery, a heart attack or stroke may ensue.

Learn how cholesterol affects heart health here!

Coconut Oil vs. MUFA and PUFA

Monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils are chemically very distinct from saturated fats. This is because they are “unsaturated” i.e., they have one or more double bonds in their chemical structure.  Due to this structural difference, the body has a different biochemical approach to metabolize them as compared to saturated fats. This ultimately results in a lowering of our LDL levels and a consequent increase in our HDL level. Know more about unsaturated fats here!

What is HDL and why is it good for me?

High-Density Lipoprotein or HDL are sometimes referred to as “good cholesterol”.

This is primarily because HDL particles ferry fat and cholesterol molecules throughout the body effectively maintaining a balance between the supply and demand and reducing accumulation. HDL also helps your body get rid of excess cholesterol so that it doesn’t end up in your arteries. It is due to this biological role that HDL helps prevent and even reverse heart conditions such as atherosclerosis.

This forms the basis of the argument in favour of replacing coconut oil, which is primarily a saturated fat with unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

“A recent systematic review found 7 controlled trials, including the 2 just mentioned, that compared coconut oil with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils. Coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol in all 7 of these trials, significantly in 6 of them.”
– Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease, A Presidential Advisory from the American Heart Association

The Counterarguments: Coconut Oil is Not Bad

The Unique Chemistry of Coconut Oil: Medium Chain Fatty Acids

As par the USDA’s estimates, coconut oil is 99% fat. Out of that, 82.5% accounts for saturated fat whereas only a measly 6.3% and 1.7% are monosaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats respectively.

The saturated fat in coconut oil consists seven different fatty acids. They are:

  • Caproic acid
  • Caprylic acid
  • Capric acid
  • Lauric acid
  • Myristic acid
  • Palmitic acid
  • Stearic acid

Out of these, Caproic acid, Caprylic acid, Capric acid Lauric acid are the Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs). Lauric acid also happens to be the most predominant saturated fatty acid among these seven. Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs) are different in several respects as compared to the Long Chain Fatty Acids (LCFAs) which dominate our diets. 

coconut rich foods

A study published in The Journal of Lipid Research pointed out critical differences between the processing of MCTs and LCFAs: 

“Interestingly, not all dietary fats induce the same degree of metabolic dysfunction. Our group and others have shown that intake of equal-caloric diets rich in medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) decreases adiposity, increases energy expenditure, and avoids many of the detrimental effects associated with LCFA intake”
– The Journal of Lipid Research

According to the researchers, MCFAs helps reduce fat accumulation in the body and makes the body spend more energy. Thus promoting exertion induced weight loss and preventing lipid accumulation and insulin resistance in muscles.

What’s even more encouraging is that the body prefers to use MCFAs to produce energy rather than storing them as fat for future use. As a result, this negates a major part of the traditional negative effects of LCFAs on our health.

Since coconut oil has a high saturated fat content, many consider it to be as unhealthy as butter. However, given the unique chemical identity of MCTs, this argument should be soon up for scrutiny as our understanding of MCTs deepen.

Coconut Oil vs. SFAs (Saturated Fatty Acids)

The same paper by the American Heart Association which suggests limiting the use of coconut oil also mentions:

“Clinical trials that compared direct effects on CVD of coconut oil and other dietary oils have not been reported.”
– Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease, A Presidential Advisory from the American Heart Association

Moreover, there is still a distributed consensus regarding how bad coconut oil is relative to traditional saturated fats. The following excerpt is from the same paper as mentioned above.

“Both butter and coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol compared with safflower oil, butter more than coconut oil, as predicted by the…”
– Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease, A Presidential Advisory from the American Heart Association

Thus, as far as negative health consequences go, coconut oil occupies a middle ground with unsaturated (or polyunsaturated) oils at one pole and saturated cooking oils at the other.

Other Reported Benefits

Coconut Oil and Dental Health

Oil pulling is an ancient Ayurvedic dental technique. It involves swishing a tablespoon of oil in your mouth on an empty stomach for around 20 minutes.  Oil pulling can help draw out toxins from the body.

oral health_0

It significantly improves oral health while also contributing to improving one’s overall health. Coconut oil has well documented anti-microbial properties. Therefore many individuals are trying this ancient technique to rid their body of toxins.

Coconut Oil Helps Reduce Belly Fat

Some studies on the effects of MCFAs in the body have pointed towards the fact that MCTS can promote higher feelings of fullness and satiety, as compared to other cooking oils. This can lead to an automatic reduction in calorie intake.

coconut oil reduces belly fat

A study published in the Journal Lipids indicates that coconut oil consumption actually promotes the reduction of harmful abdominal fat.

“It appears that dietetic supplementation with coconut oil does not cause dyslipidemia and seems to promote a reduction in abdominal obesity.
– Journal Lipids

Coconut Oils Are Good for Skin and Hair Health

Coconut oil not only has natural antibacterial and antimicrobial properties but it is also an excellent moisturizer. As a result, it is an irreplaceable part of many natural health products.

Closeup on young woman combing hair

It can also penetrate the scalp better than other oils and hence can effectively nourish the hair follicles. Many people throughout the globe use coconut for their natural skin and hair beauty benefits. 

Learn more about the health benefits of coconut oil here!

Closing Statements

We do not have enough scientific evidence to objectively state how good or bad coconut oil really is. Although there are a lot of scientific studies exploring various aspects of this argument, there are a lot of contradictions. Scientists have been unable to reach a unilateral consensus.

Human health and the genesis of CVD is extremely complex. Thus, we still are unable to scientifically grasp the subtle nuances and complexities of the entire picture.

The Framingham Offspring Study is an ideal example of the above. It was traditionally believed that blood HDL levels are a good indicator of CVD risk. However, a study supported by the National Institute of Health, USA pointed out that the reality of the situation was much more convoluted. Factors such as blood triglyceride concentration and their relative values also play a significant role in CVD risk prediction.

We all are looking at isolated segments with no regard to the holistic bigger picture.

As time passes and our grasp of the subtleties of human health grows we will ultimately reach a unilateral consensus. Till then, we have to make sure our diet has a variety and doesn’t rely heavily on one or two ingredients.

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