Coconut oil: health or hype?

Coconut oil is not usually recommended in healthy diets because of its high saturated fat content yet the media is awash with reports about the wonderful health benefits of coconut oil. Is this new science or marketing hype?

Among vegetable oils, coconut oil is one of the richest in saturated fat – about 86-87% of all its fatty acids are saturated. Given the latest advice to replace saturated fat with unsaturated fat it would appear that coconut oil is the last vegetable oil a credible nutritionist would recommend. Wouldn’t all that saturated fat just raise blood cholesterol and increase heart disease risk?

The case for coconut oil

Coconut oil advocates argue that not all saturated fat is the same and that the health effects of coconut oil are better than might be expected. It is true that saturated fat is not a single entity – it’s a collection of different saturated fatty acids, each with its own effect on blood lipids. Medium-chain length saturated fatty acids (6-10 carbons) appear to have little effect, whereas the longer-chain saturated fatty acids (12-16 carbons) all raise total blood cholesterol. Stearic acid, which has 18 carbons, is cholesterol neutral but continues to be treated with suspicion (see below).

By far, the major saturated fatty acid in coconut oil is lauric acid (12 carbons), which the coconut oil lobby conveniently re-badges as medium-chain length and therefore a ‘good’ saturated fatty acid.

This is hard to justify – lauric acid strongly raises total blood cholesterol, which places it with the other longer-chain saturated fats. But this is where it gets interesting. Most of the rise in blood cholesterol with lauric acid comes from an increase in HDL-cholesterol, thought to be the protective fraction, and the effect lauric acid on the total/HDL-cholesterol ratio is more like that of unsaturated fatty acids. So does the coconut oil lobby have a case?

The case against coconut oil

The observational evidence tells a different story about coconut oil and lauric acid. Hu and colleagues investigated the effects of individual saturated fatty acids on the risk for coronary heart disease in a large cohort of women. They found that short- and medium-chain saturated fatty acids were not associated with heart disease risk, consistent with their neutral effect on blood lipids. In contrast, each of the longer-chain saturated fatty acids, including lauric acid, was associated with increased risk.

Another Harvard study also found that intake of all the longer-chain saturated fatty acids was associated with increased risk for heart disease.

Interestingly, in both studies intake of stearic acid was also associated with increased coronary risk. As stearic acid is cholesterol neutral we have to assume that it may have adverse effects on heart health via other mechanisms, perhaps an effect on blood clotting or blood vessel function (CSIRO study).

Countries that use coconut oil as the predominant fat don’t stand out as pillars of heart health. On the surface the Sri Lankan diet may look pretty good, just 25% of energy from fat, yet heart disease rates are much higher than would be expected. Not much support for coconut oil from this quarter.

Image: source

HDL functionality

How can we explain these conflicting lines of evidence? The key may be lauric acid’s effect on HDL-cholesterol – the assumed strength may actually be a weakness. We have all learned that HDL-cholesterol is protective against heart disease yet recent research is showing that the reality is much more nuanced.

HDL is complicated. When researchers put a new class of HDL-raising drugs to the test in recent trials the results were perplexing. HDL-cholesterol levels in the blood rose markedly yet the risk for heart disease did not fall and was even increased in one study. There was plenty of HDL but apparently it wasn’t ‘functional’. As discussed in a recent review on HDL functionality, the question about HDL is not simply how much is present but also how effective the HDL is.

Lauric acid and the other longer-chain saturated fatty acids all raise HDL levels but is it giving rise to ‘good’ HDL that lowers heart disease risk or non-functional HDL that does nothing? A study conducted in Sydney was the first to show that the quality of HDL could be changed by the food we eat. It showed that feeding saturated fat impaired the anti-inflammatory effects of HDL i.e. it lowered HDL functionality.

Image: source

The marketing push

With a variety of good unsaturated vegetable oils available I would certainly not recommend coconut oil for inclusion in a healthy diet.

But it’s all a bit academic because the coconut oil marketing machine is already in overdrive. The claims are totally over-the-top with coconut oil being positioned as some sort of wonder drug that lowers the risk for just about everything. Here’s a taste:

The health benefits of coconut oil include hair care, skin care, stress relief, maintaining cholesterol levels, weight loss, increased immunity, proper digestion and metabolism, relief from kidney problems, heart diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, HIV and cancer, dental care, and bone strength.

Don’t you love it? Eat coconut oil to treat HIV! If it wasn’t so cruel it would be funny.

The carriers of the coconut oil message are primarily alternative practitioners, presumably because scientifically trained dietitians and nutritionists would run the risk of being barred from their professional associations if they carried on like this.

The problem for us is that the general public is now hearing dietary advice that’s not supported by good science and, if implemented, would probably damage public health.

So what are you going to do about it?

 

 

78 thoughts on “Coconut oil: health or hype?

    • Hi Rudi. Chocolate crackles are made with copha which is hydrogenated coconut oil, so even the 2% of essential fatty acids that were present in the original coconut oil are gone. 100% saturated fat. And then we feed it to our kids! Cheers, Bill

  1. Hi Bill,
    This is really an interesting article with pretty supportive evidence against coconut oil’s “perceived” benefits. What is of particular interest to to me is that so many health professionals recommend coconut oil to people with under active thyroid conditions for its so-called immunity and metabolism effects. However as I suspected, and this article put to rest for me, it is more harmful than good, especially given that people with under active thyroid conditions have a (slightly) elevated risk of CVD.
    Thanks for the clarification.

  2. As a university student studying Naturopathy, I couldn’t help but do a few minutes of my own research into possible sources of the following that you had stated were from “primarily alternative practitioners, presumably”.
    “The health benefits of coconut oil include hair care, skin care, stress relief, maintaining cholesterol levels, weight loss, increased immunity, proper digestion and metabolism, relief from kidney problems, heart diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, HIV and cancer, dental care, and bone strength.”
    One was from a digital medias blog on paleo diets and the other was a cancer surviving aspiring magazine writer, neither stated any qualifications in the nutrition or health sectors. I also find it frustrating, given the statements are ambitious, however the internet allows everyone to have a say.
    Its up to the qualified critical thinkers to set people straight.

    • Ange, the point of my post was to contrast what conventional nutrition science says about coconut oil with claims being made as part of the marketing push behind it. The marketing exercise relies on ‘experts’ carrying the message – a tried and true formula, which is fine if there is a solid scientific base behind it and the ‘experts’ are credible. But there isn’t a solid nutrition science base behind the coconut oil push and the more gullible sections of the community are being misled.
      The ‘experts’ carrying the message are not just alternative practitioners but also ageing medical practitioners authoring books to order. And I suspect the lure of research funds is also leading some more conventional nutrition scientists to make bland, reassuring comments about coconut oil.
      I haven’t seen any alternative therapists speaking out against the current approach to the marketing of coconut oil but some leadership from this sector would be welcome. Regards, Bill

        • I think people should eat what they want to too. But it’s good to be informed about what you eat and not deliberately misled about nutrition science. Regards, Bill

          • Is coconut oil good for us or not? read the article and the discussion and don’t have an answer one way of the other…

  3. If you have an open mind and take a proper look at the evidence out there I think you will find that there is plenty of evidence for the benefits of coconut oil and saturated fat in general. If you consider how saturated fats behave in the body, from a physiological and biochemical perspective, it is easier to see why these are far more nutritious than the over hyped and heavily marketed vegetable oils. And dieticians are not scientifically trained. They are taught what the text book says and this information is backed up by selected studies. I dropped out of dietetics study because I was told I had to write what the text book said in an exam situation, even though I have pages of evidence opposing the text books views. Nutrition is a constantly changing discipline when it comes to good and bad food, but dieticians are taught information that has been passed down for years. Absolute rubbish that the gullible public are expected to believe them or articles like this. When it comes to nutrition everyone is best to do their own research and make their own informed decisions because no body really knows!

    • Hello Jay
      A university lecturer once told me that most nutrition students arrive at university with firmly entrenched beliefs about nutrition and the next 3-5 years of study are spent trying to get them to understand science and what it actually tells us about food and health. It’s a pity you didn’t stay the distance.
      I suggest you re-read your comments and contemplate.
      Regards, Bill

      • If everyone ate whole foods, including coconuts and cold pressed vegetable oils (not hydrogenated, highly processed seed oils), less packaged frankenfoods, we would have very few western illnesses, which include heart disease and stroke. Vegetables and fruit help to protect against free radicals; nuts and seeds in their natural state are incredibly beneficial – and pasture raised eggs, meat and wild caught seafood are also healthy in moderation. Sugar is added to so much processed food and it’s causing an avalanche of inflammatory diseases.

        The problem with “nutritionism” is that it breaks everything down into small pieces and yet we don’t fully understand the complexity of how food works in our bodies. Cholesterol here, saturated fat there…. This explains why the science changes all the time. Eat close to the source, including your coconuts and coconut oil, rest up, be happy, get some sunshine and watch as health problems evaporate!!!

        • Hmmm, some big claims here Lisa. You would have difficulty arguing many of them to a scientific audience. You say that we don’t understand the complexity of how food works in our bodies but then criticise ‘nutritionism’ (not a real word, let’s call it nutrition science), which actually tries to work out this complexity.
          I know science is a mystery to those who are untrained in it but as Bob Dylan once wrote “Don’t criticise what you can’t understand”. If a food or component actually has an effect on health there is a reason for it: digestion and absorption may be enhanced or retarded, a receptor may be up-regulated or down-regulated, or a gene may be switched on or off. There is no magic – something is happening inside the body that affects health. The scientist simply asks the question: what’s going on? Regards, Bill

          • Bill – the generations befire us ate lots of saturated fat and they rarely suffered from early illness (be in heart disease in your 40s or a stroke before 50). Our grandparents generation and those before them haven’t had a formal scientific paper prepped on them so does this mean we should ignore this as scientific proof and go on feeding our kids man made vegetable oil – I think not!

          • Hi Penne. We can’t just imagine that the good old days were really good – you really need to back statements like these up with some scientific evidence. In 1901 people in Australia did eat more saturated fat than we do today, but the average life expectancy for a man was only 55 years. Now it’s 80 years. Here is what the Aust Institute of Health and Welfare has to say about life expectancy.

            “Life expectancy in Australia has improved dramatically for both sexes in the last century, particularly life expectancy at birth. Compared with their counterparts in 1901–1910, boys born in 2010–2012 can expect to live around 25 years longer and girls live an extra 26 years.
            In Australia, a boy born in 2010–2012 can expect to live to the age of 79.9 years and a girl would be expected to live to 84.3 years compared to 55.2 and 58.8 years in 1901–1910 respectively.”

            Regards, Bill

          • Hi Bill , looks like Lisa knows what she’s talking about after all. Trans fats are taking a belting at the moment from all quarters. Saturated fats and cholesterol issues are out the window. We can now begin to deal with the main issues of ill health and that’s poor food quality.

    • I’m curious as to where you went to university and how long you attended?

      I personally do not remember learning a lot at all from a textbook. In fact, in the later years of the course, certainly the focus was being able to critically appraise evidence so that we can decipher (as best as is humanly possible) how substantial the evidence from an article or a group of articles is.

      I worry about the growing number of people doing their own ‘research’ as researchers and popular authors alike are very skilled at writing their material in such a way that makes it appear well-substantiated. For example, there have been whole, apparently peer-reviewed, ‘systematic reviews’ aimed at debunking the current saturated fat advice – it’s odd though that they ‘forgot’ to discuss some of the better research that argued against their case.

  4. I don’t eat coconut oil, but I put it in my hair once a week. It makes it healthy and dark and strong. I also do a mouth wash where you swish a tablespoon of coconut oil for 20 minutes then spit it out. For the first 15 minutes the oil cleans the mouth and the saliva breaks down the fat then the last 5 minutes of the 20 minutes the coconut oil is in a state where your mouth can absorb all the broken down nutrients. The effects are a clean mouth, good breath, really bright pink/red gums, teeth soreness goes away, teeth sensitivity goes away, tongue becomes red and healthy, general feeling of a healthy mouth. Also, coconut bras are awesome on girls..

    • Saliva doesn’t have any enzymes in it to break down coconut oil. Saltines, sure, but not oils. Also, absorption doesn’t occur in the mouth. You may want to rethink the benefits of that 20 minute mouthwash.

      • Actually Chelle I think you will find that a lot of absorption does occur through the mouth. That is why a lot of people chew medication before swallowing to get pain relief faster – why drug users of cocaine rub the remnants on their gums, and acid users place the “tab” of acid soaked paper on their tongue. Also, saliva actually contains various enzymes but the 3 main types are:
        1) Alpha-Amylase. Amylase starts the digestion of starch and lipase fat before the food is even swallowed.
        2) Lingual Lipase which assists the stomach in digestion
        and
        3) enzymes that kill bacteria (antimicrobial):
        Lysozyme, lactoferrin, and immunoglobulin A.

        • First of all, good on you for sticking out a mouth wash routine for 20 minutes, wow! (I get bored around the 30s mark)
          You will find that amylase begins the breakdown of carbohydrates in the mouth, but this does not extend to fat. Fat is mostly broken down in the digestive tract, with the help of bile.
          We can also look to the basic taste sensations for clarification on this. We can taste sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami. Non volatile flavor chemicals mix with saliva, which allows us to taste them. No mixing of chemicals = no breakdown = no taste sensation. There is a small amount of mixing and breakdown happening, however but there is no way that it is broken down to the level where the nutrients are absorbed. Your time could probably be better spent.
          When you refer to people biting pain killers for faster pain relief you are referring to the general class of “lipids” that are able to pass straight through the epithelial layers of skin because of the drugs’ similarity to skin cells. Coconut oil is not the same as this.

          • I agree with Courtney, good on you for sticking it out for 20 minutes. It lasted in my mouth for 30 sec and I was gagging for most of that time. I tried it in my hair and no difference there as well.

  5. Super foods are all well and good but responsibility must be taken by the individual in order to have a balanced diet.

  6. Wow! Thanks again Bill. I think I enjoyed reading the comment section almost as much as reading the article. Thanks for putting some clarity into this issue.

    Cheers
    Rachel

  7. what about the strong bactericidal properties of lauric acid? I have read there seems to be a link between the anti-microbial effects of the lauric acid and microbes with a lipid layer – the good gut flora (lactobacillus and his friends) don’t have a lipid outer-layer. Is this correct?

  8. Hi Jay,

    I too am interested where you did your dietetics course study? I have just completed my Masters in nutrition and dietetics and your accusations that we just learn from textbooks is insulting. By the way dietitians is spelt with a “t” not a “c” here in Australia. From what I know dietitians are very much scientifically trained as I have studied extensively in the fields of human physiology, chemistry and medical biochemistry in which underpins much of what I learnt further during my Masters degree. Basic chemistry and molecular structure does not change so when I hear people say that saturated fat is “good” for them, I cringe as I know that if you look back at the chemical structure, its really not “good” for the body. This is where critical thinking comes into play. Much of my Masters was based upon scientific studies (that’s right journal articles, not textbooks) and much of the evidence based guidelines are based on these studies, not from text books. It’s a shame that you could not continue in the field of dietetics but I guess as Bill has said, many people come to study nutrition with a closed mind (with firmly entrenched belief’s about nutrition) and they are unwilling to expand their knowledge which doesn’t make a very good practitioner. As you say “nutrition is constantly changing” and it feels as though some “health practitioners” are not willing to change with it. Dietitians for one are not one of these :)

  9. Excellent article, couldn’t have worded it better myself. In fact, would you mind Bill if I shared it in my own blog? And and I am glad it was drawn to Jay’s attention the spelling of dietitian. I hate to say it but how can you possibly put down an entire profession when you can’t even spell their name?

  10. This morning, coconut oil was “taken” from me. I saw a few videos on nutritionfacts.org on coconut oil, water, milk, etc. What I found interesting was how the coconut logic parallels beef logic. So I googled for more info and found this article.

    I will still eat coconut oil–but my opinion on it has certainly changed. It helps to “wake up” out of health food hype now and again.

    • Hi Maria. No, coconut oil wasn’t ‘taken’ from you. You just heard a different perspective and maybe took some of that on board. Another day on your journey through nutrition. Regards, Bill

  11. I assume then that coconut oil could be particularly harmful to someone like myself who already has an increased risk of CVD? (I have T-1 Diabetes). Does that risk outweigh the proposed immunity-boost benefit that has been mentioned? Thanks.

    • Hello Tori. If I had diabetes and the increased risk of cardiovascular disease that goes with it I would not include coconut oil in my diet. I don’t accept that there is any immunity benefit from coconut oil. Regards, Bill

  12. What most of you are overlooking is that half of all heart attacks aren’t happening in people with high cholesterol. In fact much of it is caused by spasm. Inflammation is the real problem, many people with high cholesterol never have a cardio event. Enjoy your coconut oil and eat things in your diet such as Ginger and Tummeric which reduce inflammation thereby reducing your risk. I followed heart foundation guides for years and ate a low fat diet with poly oils, guess what? I got high cholesterol. Now I stick to Olive oil, coconut oil and feel better than I have in years.

    • Hello Michael. There is no one cause of heart disease. Elevated cholesterol is definitely a risk factor but there are others and they interact with our genes, our age and so on. Elevated cholesterol confers RISK but it doesn’t guarantee that someone will get heart disease.
      High cholesterol is to heart disease is a bit like speeding is to motor vehicle accidents. If everyone drives above the speed limit you can be sure that there will be more accidents. You don’t necessarily know who will have an accident, just that there will be more of them. There might be one fellow who really speeds but it doesn’t mean that he will actually have an accident. He’s just at high risk of having one.
      When a population has high cholesterol you know there will be more heart attacks, but you can’t say who will suffer. An individual with very high cholesterol is at particular risk but he may not have a heart attack. That’s just the nature of risk. Regards, Bill

  13. I am neither a nutritionist, nor a dietitian, but just happened to stumble across this very interesting article in my pursuit of finding out whether it would be beneficial to start using coconut oil or not, either in my diet or just as a “beauty regimen”. So my question to you, or anyone who has a bit more of a clue than I do is simple and straight-forward: would you recommend the use of coconut oil, in any sort of way?
    Thanks in advance!

    • Hi Angie
      Coconut oil is fat so it’s concentrated calories. If I was a peasant in a third world country and was struggling to feed my family coconut oil would offer cheap calories that would keep everyone alive.
      My article assessed the health effects of coconut oil in the context of a modern western diet. And it doesn’t shape up too well. Of course, optimal health in a wealthy western country is a totally different scenario to alleviating hunger in a poor country. Regards, Bill

  14. Hi Chris on July 8, 2013 at 11:35 am: Can you please give your thoughts on the benefits of coconut oil consumption? I have just had my 1st teaspoon this morning whilst reading this article and its comments. I may have to think twice before purchasing another jar.

    Tom :)

  15. Hi Bill,

    Can you clearly explain how the increase in HDL with no reduction in heart disease could not mean a neutral effect rather than a negative effect?

    • Hi Jenna. The key point here is that everyone agrees that LDL-cholesterol (or maybe non-HDL cholesterol) is associated with coronary risk. So changes in LDL-C (or non-HDL cholesterol) are the best guide to whether lipid-related coronary risk is changing.
      However, there is no consensus on HDL cholesterol. It appears to be protective in some circumstances but not others and this greatly complicates the science underpinning dietary advice. I can’t direct you to a good article that explains it all because it hasn’t been written yet. Regards, Bill

  16. For all the academic experts out there who find a subject like this frustrating. Maybe if so many ‘experts” had not gotten it so wrong in the past… ( Eg…. all cholesterol is bad for you )…… people would trust your opinions more.

    The fact is. The list of “professional advice” that has turned out all wrong is so long. It is astounding anyone takes anybody seriously anymore.

    The only winners are marketers who feed like sharks off the confusion and lack of trust.

    One day when I see an academic quit and apologise over giving out incorrect advice for years. Voluntarily giving up the title “expert”. We might see some respect being earned.

    Until then, this is what we will hear….. ” Oops…Studies now show……”

    Note: The populations who heavily use Coconut oil in their cooking. also use extreme amounts of condensed milk and salt. Why do I know this…

    As a mortician I was perplexed why so many Indians had arteries like egg shells. So I took the time to get off my ass and find out what was in their food. 1 + 1 + 1 = hard arteries.

    The funny thing about this argument is, both the academics and marketers are guilty of the same thing.

    Simplifying the cause / effects. Because they are both lazy and need to justify their existence with the least possible effort.

    Academic = Grant to mouth ( publish or die )

    Marketer = Scam to mouth ( next product to push )

    • Hi Lloyd. I did my best to provide a balanced view of the science. But sometimes the science is not cut and dried. We don’t have perfect knowledge so we assess what’s there and come to a conclusion. What’s the alternative? Regards, Bill

    • Hi Lloyd, Science accumulates, and settles disputes when the preponderance of evidence becomes clear. This doesn’t stop some people from preferring to think that flat earth proponents should be given credence.

  17. Hi bill,
    I couldn’t get past your comments about Lauric Acid…

    Based on what you’ve said above, it would seem that you’re not actually aware that Lauric Acid is the prominent saturated fat in human breast milk. Lauric Acid is a medium chain fatty acid, it’s converted into monolaurin in the human or animal body. Monolaurin is the antiviral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal monoglyceride used by the body to destroy lipid-coated viruses such as HIV, herpes, cytomegalpvirus, influenza, various pathogenic bacteria, including listeria monocytogenes and helicobacter pylori, and protozoa such as giardia lamblia.
    Obviously, human breast milk gives vital immune-building properties to a child’s first stage of life….and outside of human breast milk, the most abundant source of Lauric Acid is coconut oil (which you have also recognised, and stated the high levels above).

    Coconut oil is a medium chain fatty acid/medium chain triglyceride (MCT). Medium chain fatty acids ARE different from the common longer chain fatty acids found in other plant-based oils. Most vegetable/hydrogenated oils are composed of longer chain fatty acids or triglycerides (LCT). LCT’s are typically stored in the body as fat, while MCT’s are burned for energy. MCT burn up quickly in the body. Coconut oil is the richest source of MCT’s that increase metabolic rates and DO lead to weight loss. MCT’s promote thermogenesis, which increases the body’s metabolism, producing energy. People in the animal feed business have known this truth for quite some time…if you feed animals vegetable oils, they put on weight and produce more fatty meat. Feed them coconut oil, and they will be lean.

    Also, perhaps do some research on Ayurvedic medicine and the link between medium-chain fats/Lauric acid and coconut oil….it may be of interest to you.

    Aside from the “fats” topic on coconut oil….there’s also been studies done on the positive effect coconut oil has on alzheimer’s disease. Read testimonials, look at the anecdotal evidence…the studies are remarkable.

    Perhaps you need to look at some “pro coconut oil” testimonials – anecdotal evidence. Maybe even incorporate coconut oil into your own diet and test the benefits for yourself….There are lot’s of misconceptions out there, about everything…the best thing we can do is listen to our bodies and judge for ourselves.

    • I’m sorry Jemma, I don’t pay any attention to testimonials as these are inevitably part of a marketing package. Is that what you are doing? I get my information from scientific journals.
      You make some interesting claims. Yes, coconut oil contains lauric acid and yes monolaurin is an antibiotic. But where is the evidence that lauric acid from coconut oil is “converted into monolaurin in the human or animal body. Monolaurin is the antiviral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal monoglyceride used by the body to destroy lipid-coated viruses …”
      You really need to support such claims with references. Can you tell me where in the body is lauric acid ‘converted’ to monolaurin? Monolaurin may be fleetingly produced when dietary fat is digested and absorbed, but then it’s converted back to triglyceride. Monolaurin doesn’t circulate in the body in any quantity. Are you saying that coconut oil has a brief protective effect in the gut?
      If so, can you cite one human study to support this? Or what about some animal studies? I can find some animal studies that don’t support your hypothesis that coconut oil is antimicrobial (Manohar V et al. J Med Food. 2013;16:499-503 and Tangwatcharin P et al. Southeast Asian J Trop Med Public Health. 2012;43:969-85).
      Monolaurin is an emulsifier and can be used in food processing. But studies into its antimicrobial properties are mainly considering potential use as an additive to tampons or wound dressings. Regards, Bill

      • Have you seen the latest episode on Catalyst (ABC) and the relationship between saturated fats, cholesterol and heart disease? Dr Keys who drove this connection is guilty of some very dodgy science and now it has come under question. So which science do you trust? Just because it is accepted doesn’t make it right it seems. Now the ‘enlightened’ argument is that the inflammatory effect of insulin and omega 6 is primary cause of heart disease. So then the argument about coconut oil and saturated fat may become irrelevant. You can watch the show on iView. Mindblowing.

        • Hello Pete. The vilification of Ancel Keys on the internet and elsewhere is an interesting phenomenon. I think it’s despicable. The man’s dead and can’t defend himself. I question the motives of those involved. The strategy is obvious – suggest something was rotten in the diet-heart disease hypothesis from the beginning (and totally ignore all the research that’s been published since).
          Catalyst was not about science; it was about commerce. Regards, Bill

          • Pete,
            You should take a look at the Media Watch episode that critiqued the sources used on the Catalyst episode. (http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s3888657.htm)
            As a private practice Dietitian I had lots of clients come in to my practice in the following weeks after the airing of the Catalyst episode saying that they had switched to saturated fats or ceased their statin medication. That episode has caused so much trouble and had terrible sources on it.

  18. Hi Bill,
    I found this a very interesting read – both the article and the comments.
    My wife and I recently began using coconut oil for frying foods as we were told it was more stable than most other vegetable oils at high temperatures (and that many other vegetable oils convert to trans-fats at high temps).
    In addition we were advised that coconut oil benefits by lowering bad cholesterol and increasing good cholesterol.
    It seems that your article places serious questions on advice number 2, and by extension of its questionability re coconut oil’s effect on cholesterol, also indicates another oil may be preferable to use for high temperature cooking.
    What oil would you advise for high temp cooking?

    • Hi Neville
      Firstly, in the domestic kitchen context, virtually no trans fatty acids are produced when vegetable oils are over-heated. If an oil is heated past its smoke point it effectively starts to burn, which is not good but it doesn’t produce appreciable trans fats.
      In relation to the stability of oils under heat, from highest to lowest it goes like this: saturated > monounsaturated > polyunsaturated. This is the reverse of the nutritional benefits (polys best; saturated worst). High stability does not translate into ‘good for you’.
      In practice, you really need to find a compromise that works for you. For short, one-use cooking, most unsaturated oils work fairly well. Maybe not canola (its omega 3 breaks down readily).
      For longer-term, high temperature cooking I would recommend an oil high in monounsaturated fat, such as high oleic (high mono) sunflower oil or peanut oil. Regards, Bill

  19. Have enjoyed reading all this blog from top to bottom. We have friends staying who cooked chickens in coconut oil last night, and told us of all the wonders of using coconut oil. Coming from a med lab science background I am always skeptical of “new” discoveries, and consulted the information guru Google. So… I won’t be using coconut oil except very occasionally as a special treat. The chickens were DELICIOUS!

    • Hi Judy. Coconut oil certainly works well as a frying medium. It’s just not the oil of choice from a health point of view. Regards, Bill

  20. There is nothing wrong with coconut oil people, it’s delicious and nutritious!! Plus! Different foods suit different people and lifestyles. Therefore there is no wrong or right. So those who are all like ‘oh thanks Bill now I know that coconut oil is bad’ *rolls eyes, you might now be avoiding something that could benefit your health. I personally believe vegetable oils are the devil though, I ensure I eat plenty of healthy fats instead, like avocados, and those in fish!

    • Kat, I never said there was anything wrong with coconut oil people. I’m sure they are all very nice and that they are just trying to earn a living like everybody else.
      Seriously though, how do you define a healthy fat? You appear to be putting coconut oil (high in saturated fat, low in fat-soluble vitamins) in the same category as avocados (monounsaturated fat) and fish (long-chain omega 3 polyunsaturated fats). What nutritional criteria are you applying? Regards, Bill

  21. Great article Bill!

    I do not understand how anyone doesn’t hear alarm bells when the hear all the ridiculous claims made for coconut oil!

    Can you clarify one thing for me. I have heard coconut people go on about the fat makeup of coconut oil being the same as breast milk; is this true?

    Thanks, Emma

    • Emma, the fatty acid make-up of coconut oil and breast milk are totally different. Breast milk actually contains essential fatty acids to help the baby grow, whereas coconut oil is almost devoid of them. The lauric acid content of breast milk is much less than that of coconut oil. Don’t pay any attention to people trying to sell coconut oil. Regards, Bill

  22. Over here in India, particularly, southern part of India, coconut is widely used for cooking. We use coconut everyday for curries and chutney’s and also as garnish for for steamed/sauteed vegetables. We have’t seen any adverse impact on our health attributed to coconut usage. I can definitely say, many Indians share the same belief. I do agree science does not backup this belief. On the other hand, science has not always been right and there are many examples where a particular food considered bad by nutritionists is proven wrong. I think we should give due to credit to dietary traditions followed by various communities for centuries. Many of these communities rely on coconut as primary fat in cooking.

    Also, pharmaceutical industries have no incentive to fund or support the research of dietary traditions. They have every reason to prove these traditions are wrong to further their interests.

    • Rates of cardiovascular disease in India are escalating rapidly as obesity and type 2 diabetes become prevalent. A traditional diet rich in coconut oil can sustain a lean, active population with low CVD risk. But the same diet may cause real problems in the modern context. A traditional diet is not necessarily a healthy diet. Traditional Mediterranean diets perform well in the modern era, but high-starch Asian diets don’t. Regards, Bill

      • Just wondering, could an increase in obesity and heart disease in India be due to their diet being westernized? I have no opinion either way, just wondering if the influence of the western world might not be a contributing factor.

        • Hello Yeshe. The short answer is yes. With westernisation (or perhaps urbanisation) physical activity tends to go down and diets change a lot due to more available income and freer access to a wide range of foods and beverages. It’s called the nutrition transition and is typically associated with increased rates of the diseases of affluence. Regards, Bill

  23. Once again a magnificent answer to the hot topics ! I particularly enjoyed the latest one on Catalyst and will be sure to spread your reply around :)

  24. I am very surprised that on here you are still claiming saturated fats are unhealthy. Most recent studies and researches dted from 2010 upwards will show, that there is no evidence with leads saturated fats to heart and colesterol problems.

    • I disagree Thomas. Suggest you review the positions of the Heart Foundation, the American Heart Association and the World Health Organisation. They all agree that replacing saturated fat in the diet with unsaturated fats (or polyunsaturated fats in particular) lowers the risk for heart disease. Regards, Bill

  25. Ok Bill. I hear your desire for evidence. Could you direct me to the evidence that coconut oil leads to an increase in CVD? Yes Bill, the direct epidemiological support for your argument based on regional populations. Please don’t take me on a lauric acid extract study tour as an associated justification. Why?
    I find it interesting when beta carotene is extracted from whole food it has very little protective effect, in fact quite the contrary. As an extract, isolated from whole food, it performs poorly as an antioxidant and different from its role when part of a complete diet. My Question – Maybe when lauric acid is delivered as an isolate in controlled studies without accompanying phytonutrients, it hypercholesterolemic effects are amplified and more importantly its real impact on the potential for CVD is overemphasized (an extrapolated risk- perhaps even a little side show trying to give support to a consensus belief – SFA’s increase risk of CVD). Validity of this correlation in the lab doesn’t extrapolate to causality in the real world but it is a convenient story.

    Amazingly, the French Paradox talks freely about saturated fats and antioxidants, the Mediterranean Diet talks about monounsaturates but understands the role of antioxidants – why isn’t it probable that coconut oil as part of a traditional equatorial diet also delivers a high intake of antioxidants thus reducing any direct impact on CVD. Consequently, under natural circumstances, coconut oil being part of an Equatorial Paradox (low CVD with Inc. SFA’s). May be that’s the reason I don’t think you can show me a published study supporting diets based on coconut oil as part of a traditional regional diet (not poisoned by Western culture) increases the risk of CVD. However maybe you’ve got something up your sleeve that no one has yet revealed in the literature.

    Also consider – Maybe fat (amount /type) is not the number 1 driver of environmentally induced CVD (in fact an overemphasized poor cousin) – maybe waistlines, salt, high GI’s, pro-inflammatory gut bacteria, seated screen viewing, office chairs and a lack of broad spectrum phytonutrients are a far more potent collection of CVD agonists than whether or not we consume coconut oil as culinary extra. Maybe if the source of coconut oil also delivers supporting antioxidants e.g. virgin cold pressed extract, the potential as a CVD agonist is also reduced. These are the questions that need real answers.

    By the way, diverting the coconut oil discussion to the “growing hair on scalps” argument is a poor way adding negativity to the whole coconut oil discussion. The facts are, the evidence on cause and effect (of CVD) is weak, very weak and the negative argument is currently generated by a join the dots, guilty by association extrapolation exercise – which is the basis for many dietary cause and effect beliefs.
    More evidence please?

    • Hello Peter
      My apologies for failing to reply to your comments. Others are also interested so, belatedly, here is my response.
      Firstly, no food causes heart disease or prevents it. There are many risk factors for heart disease and diets can affect these. My comments and recommendations are made in the context of modern western diets. It is very difficult to draw insights from less developed societies because of the confounders at play, especially poverty, low body weights and sometimes high physical activity. Lean, active populations tend not to suffer the ‘diseases of affluence’, irrespective of the composition of their diet. For example, the traditional Asian diet – high in starch and low in fat – looked like a good model for a healthy diet when the populations were relatively lean and active. But the same diet doesn’t look good when the populations are more urbanised, overweight and sedentary.
      You will never hear me say that eating too much fat causes heart disease – it doesn’t. But there is ample evidence that the type of fat is relevant. Throughout this blog you will find many references to the evidence from randomised controlled trials and prospective cohort studies supporting the cardiovascular benefit of replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat. Most of the human evidence comes from European and US studies so it’s relevant to us.
      These are supported by mechanistic studies – saturated fats raise blood cholesterol relative to unsaturated oils, which would explain the cardiovascular benefit of the exchange. All lines of evidence indicate that coconut oil should be restricted, along with palm oil, palm kernel oil, meat fat and dairy fat, in favour of more unsaturated oils.
      Some people argue that although coconut oil raises LDL-cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease, it also raises HDL (the good cholesterol) more than other saturated fats. But when you consider good and bad cholesterol together in the ratio of total cholesterol/HDL-C, coconut oil is still worse than olive oil, canola oil, sunflower oil and soybean oil. If you had a choice of these, why would you recommend coconut oil – the oil that performs the worst?
      Antioxidant content is not a good argument in favour of coconut oil. Firstly, antioxidants have not been proven to affect heart disease risk and refined coconut oil is low in antioxidants anyway. The most prevalent antioxidant in oils is vitamin E but coconut oil is lower in vitamin E that any unsaturated oil. Coconut oil is dead low in essential fatty acids too, making one of the most nutrient-poor oils. Extra virgin coconut oil has some polyphenols which may be beneficial but so does extra virgin olive oil which has a better fatty acid profile. If you want to boost the polyphenol content of your diet there are much better ways of doing it than eating coconut oil.
      There are lots of reasons to choose unsaturated oils like canola, sunflower and oil in preference to coconut oil. Regards, Bill

  26. Thanks Bill, keep up the intake of the healthy oils, we can’t afford to lose you. . You are putting nutrition science into a form where it is clearly, picked up by many. Well Done

  27. Interesting article…I have been on a clean eating/paleo inspired diet since May 2013 and have lost 14 kgs. The 2 oils I use are olive oil and coconut oil, but your arguments have me thinking twice. What’s your view on olive oil, and other coconut products, such as coconut water and COYO coconut yoghurt?

  28. Thanks, Bill for your input.
    I always appreciate a good skeptic, somebody that counters a prevailing thought with sound logic. Unfortunately, people who care about their health often tend to go to extremes and seek a firm “Yea or Nay” on food. If the answer is “Nay” they want a law banning it. If the answer is “Yea” they want to brush their teeth with it and add it to their coffees and wait for the promised magic. Moderation, although widely touted, is often the source of endless fretting for an extremist.
    If anything, your skepticism on coconut oil at least adds some needed balance to the hype. Personally, I believe there’s room in the world for an occasional coconut treat.
    My own interest in coconut oil began with looking for a better skin lotion. I bought a bottle of liquid coconut oil. Even though it’s food grade, I was skeptical about eating it. After reading your article my skepticism is even more on hype alert. Anyway, for anybody interested, it does work fairly well as a skin lotion.

  29. Finally someone who isint blindly touting all of the ‘benefits’ of coconut oil, diets should be balanced, one diet does not fit all and we are all different.

  30. I am told by a coconut enthusiast that he is taking 4 tablespoons of virgin coconut oil a day and he claims his HDL cholesterol is twice as high as his LDL and is around 40 years old. I am doing the same experiment now and am planning to get tested by the end of this year, 2014. The body uses coconut oil very well so long as one has a healthy diet along with it. Not all saturated fat is the same. It’s time people quit thinking too simply.

    • Hi Garry. No need to do any small, uncontrolled experiments – it’s all recorded in detail in the scientific literature. All saturated fats raise HDL-C relative to carbohydrate and so do all unsaturated fats (except trans fats).
      However saturated and unsaturated fats have very different effects on LDL-cholesterol – saturated fats raise LDL-C; unsaturated fats lower it. LDL-C is by far the best-established lipid risk factor for coronary heart disease – much better understood than HDL.
      No-one who knows this field would recommend coconut oil rather than an unsaturated oil, such as olive oil, sunflower oil, canola oil or soybean oil.
      Regards, Bill

  31. For me as someone who knows nothing about the subject this is all very confusing. One study says this another days that. Who knows what is true and what is backed by the industry trying to make a buck. I know my triglycerides where high, so my doctor said to cut down how much fat I eat. Well, I didn’t. A little while layer I cut out as much high fructose corn syrup out of my diet as possible. About a year later another blood test showed my triglycerides were normal. Go figure.
    So, how do we truly know what information to trust when even or doctors don’t know?

  32. Perhaps, what the problem is ……… obtaining oils from plant sources or nut sources and providing a concentrated dietary input.

    Eating a coconut with its fat content and associated fiber is very different from spooning coconut oil into your morning coffee.

    All things in moderation.

  33. Nice article, good to see things from a different perspective for a change.
    I would like to point out however, that many scientists now do view the 12-chain lauric acid as a medium fatty acid. (see for instance http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11746-014-2562-7). So perhaps it’s not as bad as the longer saturated fatts.
    They do however agree with you on the complicated relationship with HDL and LDL, showing contradicting results on cholesterol.
    Another article that caught my eye showed lower stress levels (in mice) when virgin unrefined olive oil was administered (http://www.spandidos-publications.com/etm/9/1/39?text=fulltext). Perhaps these new studies using virgin instead of refined oils will show some new interesting insight.
    I agree with you that this surely is not the superfood some people want to make you believe. (the HIV claim… utterly ridiculous)
    Keep up the good work :)

  34. Hi,

    So, it seems you’ve shown us possible reasons for doubt in an unfishined conversation about coconut oil. Clearly it is being hyped, but as for whether it’s bad for us? I’m not convinced.

    What you haven’t addressed are practical uses. I use virgin coconut oil for cooking, it holds up better than canola under heat & it’s less toxic (by which I mean it’s not highly processed with chemicals and bleaching, and it’s also not GMO). And it’s not palm oil, which is being harvested in a way that is destroying rain forests.

    With regards to fats– the science does seem to be showing that earlier predictions and insanity about fat causing heart problems, were not based on solid evidence. In my house we grew up with the evil margarine, (what the heck was that stuff?).

    At least with virgin coconut oil, we are eating real food, minimally processed.

    • Hi Mel
      I have to disagree with your definition of toxic. Toxic means poisonous. Canola oil is perfectly safe for human consumption. It’s simply against the law to market any food known to be toxic. Regards, Bill

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