Please Calm Down: Coconut Oil Is Fine

Who doesn't love logging on to the good old 'net on a Saturday morning to the headline "Coconut oil 'as unhealthy as beef fat and butter'"? It has everything. "Ah," you might think, "my favourite health product is as bad as butter!" Or you might even say to yourself, "Those coconut oil-huffing liberals are really getting what's coming to them!"

Image: Srinayan Puppala/Flickr


This round of panicked news isn't coming from new data. Instead, the American Heart Association has reviewed the existing data, again reiterating that saturated fats are bad. Coconut oil has been recently touted as a healthier oil, and also the butt of a health nut-bashing meme going around, "If you stir coconut oil into your kale, it makes it easier to scrape into the trash." To all of this I say: Coconut oil isn't a health food and it isn't junk food. Calm down.

The AHA released a review yesterday because "meta-analyses of observational studies and randomised clinical trials have come to discordant conclusions about the relationship between dietary saturated fat and risk of [cardiovascular disease]," they write, "creating confusion."

The review is fine. It's free, easy to read, and you should check it out. The news coverage is not fine, and has added to the confusion.

So let's break it down: Fats are actually a slew of different molecules, stacked in three prongs. Unsaturated fat molecules' prongs are curly from the presence of a double bond in their prongs, so they're liquid at room temperature. Saturated fats' prongs are straight, so they stack into solids. Trans fats have the double bond, but have been straightened (and form solids) through a process called hydrogenation.

The fats you eat such as butter, coconut oil and olive oil are actually a mixture of different fat molecules, both saturated and unsaturated. Coconut oil has lots of saturated fat molecules, but its melting point is just above room temperature.

The AHA looks through a lot of scientific studies from people who replaced saturated fat with other things in their diet. The main confusion, they say, comes from the fact that studies replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates saw fewer benefits. Those studies that replaced saturated fats with unsaturated fats found a somewhat lowered cardiovascular disease risk. After all of this work, I think they have done a convincing job showing that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats can have a benefit for reducing risk of cardiovascular disease.

They don't say whether eating more saturated fats will increase your risk, though.

I'm here to talk about coconut oil. Only a handful of studies in the AHA report deal with coconut oil specifically. The large-scale trials don't detail what kind of saturated fats folks were eating, but I have a hunch that coconut oil wasn't Finnish hospital patients' main source of saturated fat -- they were probably eating more meat and butter. The coconut oil studies that the AHA does cite show that it raises both HDL (what people call "good") cholesterol and LDL (what people call "bad" cholesterol).

The studies don't link eating more coconut oil to heart disease -- they link it to changing cholesterol metric. A metric that, if you look for it, has lots of conflicting data as to how it makes things worse and how badly (may I point you to Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories).

So, coconut oil is fine. It's not fantastic. It's not horrible. It's just a source of saturated fat probably not as bad as butter.

The AHA's conclusions are that you shouldn't try to lower your total fat intake, but instead, replace saturated fat with unsaturated fat, combined with a healthier lifestyle.

But this is what everyone has been saying all along, because the ultimate message is to basically just eat less meat and dessert, eat more vegetables, and don't overdo it with the coconut oil.

News writers, calm down. Please.

[Circulation via BBC]

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    Tastes crap on popcorn, though. I'd rather have butter-and-truffle-salt once a month than coconut oil every night. And I do.

    In countries such as Sri Lanka, coconut oil has been used exclusively in cooking since early history. A number of countries in Asia and the Pacific share this practice. Obtaining data on cholesterol levels and heart disease should not be beyond the reach of researchers. So a more definitive answer on the effects of coconut oil on our health might not be so difficult to find.

    I've pretty much given up on all these studies - good or bad. I remember years ago butter was vilified but I've read a study this year that says it's actually nowhere near as bad as it was made out. When you get contradictory studies who do you believe?

    I think I'll just work on the simple "everything in moderation" mantra.

      You fool, random items suddenly marketed as super foods are the only thing that can save us!

        Wrong, your current super food of choice have been shown now to give ball cancer (Yes, that's the medical term for it) and MY super food of choice has been shown to increase Penis length by at least 12", so you're going to die on cancer and I'm going to enjoy my death by snu snu!

    These studies are always so ridiculously silo'd. So what, even if lowering saturated fat lowered heart disease risk? When it can also lower your body's ability to make STERoid hormones from choleSTERol because you don't have enough sat fat in your diet? So you won't die from a heart problem, but one associated with endocrine functioning instead.

    Of course it's bad for you, it's saturated fat. If you're going to use oil, it's going to be bad. You just need to pick the most suitable oil for the task, weighing up the health benefits with the flavours you're after. If you're wanting to deep or shallow fry something, canola oil would be a healthier option than those with high amounts of saturated fat. If you're looking for flavour alone, butter or animal fats have loads of flavour, but more unhealthy for you. If you're after a coconut flavour, use coconut oil...

    All oils aren't exactly great for you, it all depends on the intake and how you cook with them. It just turns out that coconut oil is in the same category as some of the worser ones. Just keep that in mind when selecting the oil to use while cooking.

      you read that from the 70s diet recommendation chart. DDT is also recommended for keeping the fruit fly at bay.

    "The AHA errs in its uncritical bundling of coconut oil with animal fats in its health advisory against saturated fats. The AHA should take into account that there are two families of saturated fats — those with MCFAs like coconut, and the rest of the vegetable oils which contain LCFAs. In the same manner that it distinguishes the healthier omega-3 unsaturated fats from the not so healthy omega-6 unsaturated fats."

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