The Truth about Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is a fat that has become very popular as of late.  Do a simple internet search and you may find claims that this tropical fat is capable of just about anything.  But is coconut oil really all that it is hyped up to be?  Some may even remember a time when the oil was on the “foods to avoid” lists.   Here, we will break down the facts and help explain the reason behind some of the hype.

People make claims that coconut oil may speed metabolism, promote weight loss, improve brain function, and heart health.  However, there is no scientific evidence in the form of well-designed controlled trials to prove any of these claims. When combing through various articles and blogs on the internet, it is important to stick with unbiased, fact-based information, such as controlled research that is published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Let’s break down some nutrition facts:

  • Coconut oil has the same about of calories per gram (9cal/g) as other oils and fats, making it a calorie dense food. 
  • Additionally, roughly 90% of the fat in coconut oil is saturated fat.
  • It is well known that too much saturated fat (no more than 10% of total calorie intake for most adults) is not healthy for your heart. 
  • A single tablespoon of coconut has 12 grams of saturated fat.  This means that a person following a 1500cal diet will have almost reached the recommended upper limit of saturated fat in a day, without eating any other foods. 

Given these basic facts, it is understandable how one would be confused!  Where does coconut oil fit in a healthy meal plan?

The Chemistry of Fats and Oils

All fats are a blend of fatty acids, and coconut oil contains an unusual blend of short and medium chain fatty acids, primarily lauric (44%) and myristic (16.8%) acids.  It is this unusual composition that may offer some health benefits.  Medium chain fatty acids, also called medium chain triglycerides (MCT), are metabolized differently than shorter and longer chain fatty chains.  MCTs are transported directly from the intestines to the liver, where they are more likely to be burned as fuel rather than stored as fat, like shorter and longer chain fatty acids. 

Is Coconut Oil the Best Source of MCT Oil?

The natural question one might ask is “Where can I get MCT oil?”  The truth is that no food is made up solely of any one type of fat.  For example, olive oil has well known health benefits due its monounsaturated fat content, but olive oil still contains small amounts of saturated fat. It’s just that most of the fat found in olive oil is the healthy kind.

Many of the positive health claims about coconut oil are likely based on MCT oils in the purest form, which can only be manufactured.  It is true that MCT can be distilled from coconut oil, but this is not the same thing you will see on the shelves in the grocery store.

The Bottom Line

Though you would get more health benefits from using olive oil, if you like the taste of coconut oil, go ahead and use it.  As with all fats, the key is to use it in moderation.  Try melting 2 tablespoons in the microwave and drizzle over vegetables before roasting in a hot oven for a delicious buttery taste.  (Coconut oil is solid at room temperature and liquid above 78°C, and it is perfectly normal for it to go back and forth between these states depending on where it is stored.)

*Bonus* The solid form of coconut oil is a great skin moisturizer and smells wonderful, so rub a little on your hands while waiting for those veggies to roast!

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