How Coconut Oil Went From Superfood to 'Pure Poison'


Is coconut oil really a superfood, the beneficiary of good marketing, or something in between? RUSS ROHDE/Getty Images

Just a couple of short years ago, it seemed that coconut oil could do no wrong. Practically out of nowhere, it was being touted incessantly as a "superfood," thanks to claims that it helps burn fat and curbs hunger, among other impressive feats. Just recently, however, a Harvard professor fired the metaphorical shot heard 'round the world by saying that coconut oil is "pure poison." This came not too long after the release of updated guidelines by the American Heart Association (AHA), which urged people to steer clear of saturated fatty acids, among them coconut oil.

The leap from "superfood" to "pure poison" is pretty big. Like, Grand Canyon big. So, which is it?

Not surprisingly, the answer lies somewhere in the middle, and could even change again once more research is done. Melissa Majumdar is a registered dietician and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She points out that, despite popular and prevalent claims to the contrary, currently there's insufficient evidence to rate the effectiveness of coconut oil for issues like diabetes, weight loss, Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome and thyroid problems.

"Many of the 'health' claims have been blown out of proportion and are not yet validated," she explains in an email interview. That's not to say that coconut oil is therefore the devil, though. "At the end of the day, coconut oil may have some beneficial properties that we're still exploring, but it's still a fat and should fit onto our plate in moderation."

Properties of Coconut Oil

Much of the confusion lies in our scientific understanding of how coconut oil operates. A tablespoon of coconut oil has the same number of calories as other oils, like olive and canola (120 calories). However it also has 13 grams of saturated fat, 63 percent of your daily RDA (recommended dietary allowance) of saturated fat. That was why people watching their cholesterol were advised to stay away from it in the past.

In the last decade or so, some people began reclassifying coconut oil as "healthy." Here's why: The proponents said coconut oil has medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), unlike most other oils, which have long-chain triglycerides. Medium- and short-chain triglycerides are more quickly absorbed and sent into circulation than long-chain triglycerides. A 2003 study had shown that MCTs can speed up your metabolism, which helps you lose weight, while another study showed that MCTs prevent hardening of the arteries, which lowers risk of heart attack and stroke. However, these studies were done with oils that were pure MCT and not with coconut oil, which is only partially MCT.

According to Majumdar, there's controversy over whether coconut oil behaves like a medium- or long-chain triglyceride. This distinction could be something of a moot point, however, since the body doesn't process coconut oil the way it would other oils containing MCTs, she notes. "What we do know is coconut oil is majority composed of a fatty acid called lauric acid, which contributes to both elevated HDL (the 'good' cholesterol) and elevated LDL (the 'bad' cholesterol) and is therefore not a great idea for anyone battling high cholesterol or with a family history of heart disease."

Majumdar, like most nutritionists, urges people to limit their daily saturated fats to 7 to 10 percent of the overall 20 to 35 percent calories from fat allowed per day. Not surprisingly, it doesn't take much coconut oil to hit that marker. (Majumdar notes coconut is more like butter, calorie- and fat-wise.)

Instead of using coconut oil, look to fats like canola or olive oil. A tablespoon of canola oil has 1 gram of saturated fat or 5 percent of your RDA, while a tablespoon of olive oil has 2 grams of saturated fat or 9 percent of your RDA.

As to whether Majumdar agrees with the Harvard professor who vilified coconut oil, "I can't think of a food I would call poison," she says. "There's no food I'd want people to be afraid of, but I wouldn't put coconut oil in the healthy corner. I don't have it in my house."


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