Cracking the Case of Coconut Oil: To Toss It or Not?
Just like fashion and music trends, health fads wax and wane, and the latest word from the American Heart Association is that coconut oil isn’t as health-conscious as it has been made out to be.
In the recent Presidential Advisory from the AHA, which has caused a firestorm in the health community, a case is built around the adverse effects of saturated fat, how coconut oil is primarily composed of saturated fat, and thus, it’s concluded that we should cut coconut oil from our diets.
So, what’s a coconut oil lover to do?
Well, before you go raiding your pantry, let’s take a look at more of the underlying facts because there’s a lot more than meets the eye in this proclaimed health debacle.
The Composition of Coconut Oil
Nutritionally speaking, a USDA nutrient report confirms that coconut oil is 100 percent fat, has trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, and doesn't provide any source of protein.
Coconut oil is comprised of approximately 50%+ lauric acid, 8% capric acid, 6% caprylic – all saturated fat, but medium chained triglycerides or MCT’s, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Take these numbers at face value, and the generalized statement that “saturated fat is bad,” which must mean that coconut oil must be “bad” as well…well, not really.
The Skinny on Saturated Fat
The truth is, not all saturated fats are equal.
Dependent on the number of carbon atoms in the molecule, saturated fats can vary in length causing them to have vast differentiations in their metabolic profile and rate of absorption.
For example, some saturated fats are made up of long-chain fatty acids and triglycerides (LCFAs or LCTs), which are difficult for the body to breakdown and can contribute to raised LDL cholesterol levels.
Coconut oil, on the other hand, has a high amount of medium-chain fatty acids or triglycerides (MCFAs or MCTs) which are easier for the body to metabolize and burn off than LCTs. This results in beneficial effects including improved cell function, insulin regulation, and most importantly, raised levels of HDL cholesterol, which negates many of the AHA’s claims.
Using research that supports these facts, the AHA did make an attempt, albeit haphazardly, to close the gaping hole in their argument with conclusions drawn from 2003 meta-regression analysis published by Mensink et al., which states:
The Mensink meta-regression analysis determined the effects on blood lipids of replacing carbohydrates with the individual saturated fatty acids that are in common foods, including lauric, myristic, palmitic, and stearic ac- ids. Lauric, myristic, and palmitic acids all had similar effects in increasing LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol and decreasing triglycerides when replacing carbohydrates.
In summary, the common individual saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol. Their replacement with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats lowers LDL cholesterol. Differences in the effects of the individual fatty acids are small and should not affect dietary recommendations to lower saturated fat intake.
However, when we analyze the full text of Mensink et al.’s research (full text available here), their conclusions are wholeheartedly contradictory to the AHA’s stance:
Lauric acid greatly increased total cholesterol, but much of its effect was on HDL cholesterol. Consequently, oils rich in lauric acid decreased the ratio of total to HDL cholesterol. Myristic and palmitic acids had little effect on the ratio, and stearic acid reduced the ratio slightly.
Given these findings, we can conclude that it’s both irresponsible and inaccurate to classify saturated fat as a “bad” dietary component because, as the research demonstrates, there are significant differences between individual fatty acids. A notable difference is the correlation and relevance of how those lipids impact the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The Good and Bad of Cholesterol
We have been told that HDL is the “good” cholesterol and LDL is the “bad” cholesterol. However, it’s critical to note that even LDL cholesterol isn’t “bad” across the board. LDL comes in two forms: small dense LDL and large buoyant LDL, the former being the LDL cholesterol that's been attributed to increased risk of heart disease.
In The Coconut Oil Miracle, Dr. Bruce Fife explains that large buoyant LDL cholesterol is the cholesterol that is used by the body to make bile, hormones, and vitamin D, which makes it an essential component of our life’s processes.
According to Dr. Fife, “Coconut oil increases HDL, large LDL, and reduces small dense LDL. The overall effect is that coconut oil reduces the cholesterol ratio, thus lowering the risk of heart disease.”
Coconut oil’s structural composition has also been shown to improve glucose tolerance and reduce body fat accumulation when compared to diets high in LCTs.
Despite these findings, the American Heart Association still recommends limiting all saturated fats regardless of their chemical composition and whether they contain beneficial MCTs.
Additional Coconut Oil Benefits
Beyond the limited scope of research, the content of the AHA’s article also neglects to cover additional facets of coconut oil other than its saturated fat content.
For example, with over 50 percent of its fatty acid composition being lauric acid, coconut oil is rich with antimicrobial, antiviral and antifungal properties.
These antimicrobial benefits have proven to be beneficial for a variety of additional health factors such as reduced inflammation both in the body through consumption and reduced plaque and gingivitis through an oil pulling practice.
Furthermore, coconut oil’s high triglyceride of lauric acid content, makes for an excellent moisturizer and treatment for dry, rough, or scaly skin as well as a powerful preventative agent for hair damage.
Reading Between the Lines
One of the most important things to note about the AHA article that has thrust coconut oil back into the limelight it wasn't an entirely dedicated article on the topic of coconut oil.
It was an article focused on cutting saturated fat but used coconut oil as a prime example of an ingredient that shouldn’t be consumed as part of a healthy diet, which is where the uproar ensued.
As Dr. Bruce Fife, one of the leading authorities on coconut oil, points out, “The AHA has always maintained the stance that saturated fats are bad and increase cholesterol levels, which they claim increases the risk of heart disease.”
However, “What they conveniently fail to mention is that total cholesterol is not an accurate indicator of heart disease risk,” Fife states.
Gary Taubes has an enlightening take on the AHA article: “So even if the AHA hypothesis is as reasonable and compelling as the AHA authors clearly believe it is, it has to be tested. They are literally saying (not figuratively, literally) that vegetable oils — soy, canola, etc — are as beneficial as statins and so we should all consume them. Maybe so, but before we do (or at least before I do), they have a moral and ethical obligation to rigorously test that hypothesis, just as they would if they were advising us all to take a drug. And then, well, they should probably do it twice, since a fundamental tenet of good science is also independent replication. And what we need here is good science.”
It’s also worth mentioning that there are substantial conflicts of interest within the AHA as the majority of their chairs on the Industry Nutrition Advisory Panel Roster are tied to industries and corporations with agendas that don’t align with providing healthy eating options and products with high nutritional value.
These conflicts of interest could make for another full-length article, so to wrap up our reading and research, we think it goes without saying that not everything is as straightforward as it reads.
And rather than listening blindly to health articles, we prefer to dig deeper into the issue, find more sources with varying backgrounds and motives, and come to our own conclusions based on our findings.
After all, the biggest factor of preventative health is being informed and taking control of your own choices.
And we’re choosing to keep our coconut oil.