Once a year, UBC students who are training to become dietitians do a project where they write short articles for dietitians. This article was written by Nicki Kontogiannis and Frankie Reinbolt. Now, what to ask them to write about? That was easy. I think that you’d have to be living under a rock to not have noticed the explosion of coconut oil in grocery stores and on menus. Coconut oil is being marketed as a healthy fat, that it causes weight loss, and all sorts of other benefits. So, I asked them to look into the scientific research to find out if it’s really a healthy choice. Here’s what they found out.
What is Coconut Oil?
Coconut oil is a highly concentrated form of saturated fat. It comes in two forms – unrefined and refined:
- Unrefined coconut oil, also called ‘virgin coconut oil’, has a sweet, light coconut flavour and is great for baking or lightly sautéing.
- Refined coconut is more processed, tasteless and is better for cooking at higher temperatures.
Is Coconut Oil Healthy or Unhealthy?
- Raises HDL (good) Cholesterol: Coconut oil has been associated with high HDL cholesterol levels. It also does not increase LDL (bad) cholesterol and total cholesterol levels to the same extent as other saturated fat sources, such as butter.
- Good for Cooking: Coconut oil has a higher smoking point making it suitable for frying as it can withstand high heat. It also works particularly well in baked goods as it has a “nutty” flavour.
- RaisesLDL (bad) Cholesterol and Total Cholesterol (TC): As mentioned above, coconut oil does not raise LDL and TC levels to the same extent as butter; however, it still increases both to a greater extent than vegetable oils, and a rise in overall cholesterol levels in the blood can be linked to cardiovascular disease.
- High in Saturated Fat: Coconut oil is 86% saturated fat. The scientific community is learning more about saturated fat’s effect on our bodies, and that not all saturated fats (e.g. butter vs coconut oil) may have the same effect on us. Not enough has been learned yet to clearly say whether the saturated fat in coconut oil is healthy or harmful for our health.
- Significant Source of Calories: Like all fats, coconut oil is a concentrated source of energy (calories).
Coconut Oil Frequently Asked Questions:
Can coconut oil burn fat?
- The studies that have been done so far on weight loss should be viewed through a critical lens. These studies had small sample sizes, short study periods and subjects were also exercising and eating healthier. Thus coconut oil may not have been the determining factor for weight loss.
Can it prevent cancer and boost immune function?
- There is no scientific evidence to prove this.
The Bottom Line:
- Nicki & Frankie: It is important to remember that regardless of the type of fat, all fats contain 9 kcal/gram and too many calories in any form can lead to increased weight gain. Coconut oil should be enjoyed in moderation.
- Kristen: I’m not jumping on the coconut oil bandwagon until we learn more about how different saturated fats affect our heart health. And, I’ll want to see much more research before I believe that coconut oil causes weight loss. I use it occasionally in baking – it’s great when you don’t know if there may be vegan people you’re baking for. Otherwise, I stick to olive oil for most of my cooking. I like to support local farmers, and I love the taste, so I continue to use butter on the occasion that I want a solid fat. I put milk in my coffee.
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Eat Right Ontario. (2015). Coconut Oil. Retrieved from https://www.eatrightontario.ca/en/Articles/Fat/I-ve-heard-that-coconut-oil-is-the-best-oil-to-use.aspx#.VVfIx6aGtUQ
Machowsky, J. (2011). Coconut Oil: The Great Debate. Retrieved from http://www.nutrition411.com/content/coconut-oil-great-debate
McGee, H. (2004). On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York, NY: Harold Scribner.
Marina, A.A., Che Man, Y.B., Amin, I. (2009). Virgin coconut oil: emerging functional food oil. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 20(10), 481-487. doi:10.1016/j.tifs.2009.06.003
Davis, B., Vesanto, M.(2014). Becoming Vegan. Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Co.