A couple of the registered dietitians on staff have been getting questions about coconut oil and people raving about using it for making soaps, cosmetics & in food preparation! So, we decided to research a bit on the oil to see if there was any new research that we had missed.
As dietitians, we know that coconut oil is very high in saturated fat. Looking at the chart below it happens to be ~91% saturated fat-the oil that contains the most saturated fat! It contains some myristic fatty acids ("heart healthy"), but more lauric fatty acids ("heart unfriendly") which stirs the controversy on whether this should be touted as something to add to ones meal plan. Potential health benefits include weight loss, cures Alzheimer's, reduces diabetes/regulate blood sugar, increases bone and dental health by improving calcium absorption, etc....but as stated above they are POTENTIAL.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends "limiting saturated fat intake to less than 7% of total daily calories" and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that "saturated fats have been linked to chronic disease, specifically coronary heart disease". Both claims have been supported by many research studies with outcomes that are statistically significant linking saturated fat intake with increased risk for heart disease due to raising the levels of LDL or "bad" cholesterol.
The findings so far on coconut oil are intriguing at best, but the research can not support claims that it is harmful or beneficial. Additionally, there is increased interest in the oil because it is plant based and many think it can have beneficial plant chemicals, but those have yet to be discovered, states Harvard's own Dariush Mozaffarian MD, DrPH.
Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD of Penn State University states that coconut oil is better than butter and trans fats but not as good as liquid vegetable oils. What she means is that coconut oil, a saturated fat, is better than other saturated fats and trans fats, but is NOT better than oils such as canola or olive oil. Even though this particular type of oil is cholesterol free, because it is plant derived, it is still majority saturated fat and therefore should be limited in consumption.
Fats that are often encouraged are "heart healthy" because they raise HDL "good" cholesterol and lower LDL "bad" cholesterol. Those fats are made up of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) and are found in vegetable oils such as canola or olive oil (see chart for compositions high in PUFA's & MUFA's), fatty fish, nuts or avocado.
The research suggest that coconut oil can be included in a persons meal plan, but should be done in moderation (less than 7% of total calories) until further research concludes health benefits. Remember that one food will not make or break your meal plan, it is what your overall dietary pattern provides that can tell the real story. Be aware of those who tout certain nutrients or foods as "health life savers" as those have done with coconut oil recently.