Coconut oil has been all the rage for some time. Endorsed by a number of celebrities as a superfood, this tropical-smelling fat — often liberally applied to our skin and scalps — is a favorite of many. The question remains: is it healthful or not?
“There are many claims being made about coconut oil being wonderful for lots of different things, but we really don’t have any evidence of long-term health benefits,” said Dr. Walter C. Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Coconut oil is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum in terms of types of fats. It’s probably better than partially hydrogenated oils but not as good as the more unsaturated plant oils that have proven health benefits, like olive and canola oil,” Willett said.
“It’s probably not quite as ‘bad’ as butter but not as good as extra virgin olive oil,” agreed Kevin Klatt, a molecular nutrition researcher at Cornell University who is studying the metabolic effects of coconut oil. Klatt cautions that we should not develop too strong of an opinion about coconut oil without more data. The current evidence reflects benefits for olive oil, fish, nuts and seeds — so that should be the focus in the diet.” Like other saturated fats, coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, the “bad” cholesterol associated with increased risk of heart disease. In fact, coconut oil has more saturated fat and raises LDL more than butter, according to Willett.
But coconut oil does a particularly nice job of raising HDL, the “good” cholesterol, especially when replacing carbohydrates in the diet. Although the increase in HDL seen with consumption of coconut oil may offset some of the disease risk, it’s still not as good as consuming unsaturated oils, which not only raise HDL but lower LDL, according to Willett. Complicating matters is the fact that we still don’t know for sure what exactly a high HDL translates to in terms of health risk. In small amounts coconut oil can have a place in one’s diet. “It’s not that you have to absolutely avoid coconut oil but rather limit coconut oil to where you really need that special flavour, like for Thai food or for baking a special dessert,” Willett said.