Coconut Oil: Just a Fad or a Powerful Healthy Fat?

Coconut oil
Coconut oil with fresh coconut half on wooden background

Coconut oil is a tropical and digestible oil that is derived from the coconut fruit which comes from the coconut palm tree (Cocos nucifera).

Coconut oil that comes from the Copra is acquired by heating the coconut fruit and extracting the oil – it then goes through a process to lessen the ‘coconut’ smell emitting from the fruit. This process includes degumming, neutralizing, and finally deodorizing. This form of coconut oil is referred to as refined or copra-oil.

Coconut oil can be refined or unrefined, also known as processed (refined), or extra virgin coconut oil (unrefined) – this is ideally the kind you would want to purchase to retain the most nutritional benefit derived from coconut oil. As well, you want to avoid ingesting highly refined oils in general. Especially those that have been through the process of hydrolyzation, as this can produce trans-fatty acids – a harmful by-product of making oils more shelf stable and refined for packaging that can increase bad LDL cholesterol levels. 

Still, even with refined coconut oil, the amount of trans fatty acids produced through this process will be significantly less than that of refined vegetable oils because it is the unsaturated fat portion that undergoes this change to take on the physical properties of saturated fat. Coconut oil is only around 6-10% unsaturated fat, compared to vegetable oil’s 60% (the highest among all cooking oils).

The unprocessed form of coconut oil is often labelled as virgin coconut oil, meaning the oil is extracted by squeezing the meat of the fruit, and collecting the oil – no further steps are implemented once the oil has been extracted. Coconut oil can be used as a cooking fat, body oil, hair oil, in cosmetics, soaps, and industrial processes.

Unrefined or virgin coconut oil has smoke point temperature of 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and it shouldn’t be used for deep frying as this is fairly low. Refined coconut oil or olive oil can be used in cooking where a higher smoke point of 400 degrees is required. However, as a primarily saturated fat, it tends to be more stable to high heat especially when compared to vegetables oils that can oxidize and release harmful compounds. You should still be mindful of not burning food while cooking with coconut oil, as charred and burnt foods and smoke emitting from the pan can produce carcinogens – something you’ll want to avoid if you’re looking at reducing your risk of cancer.

Coconut oil, regardless of this smoke point, is perfect for cooking, as it is easy for the human body to digest. It doesn’t require much heating for it to become a liquid, the natural antimicrobial, antifungal, and antibacterial properties (from monolaurin – i.e., lauric acid) help to prevent rancidity, and it has a delightful taste!

Virgin coconut oil is unrefined, meaning it hasn’t been processed any further after the oil has been heated and extracted from the milk of the outer shell of the coconut. Coconut oil contains lauric acid. Lauric acid is what contributes to many of the benefits of coconut oil use internally and topically, and especially those that we see regarding coconut oil’s antibacterial and antifungal properties. 50% of the fatty acid content in coconut oil is lauric acid, while the remaining content is myristic acid, caprylic acid, and palmitic acid. 

Coconut oil is recognized by many as a good source of MCFAs, which stands for medium-chain fatty acids, and MCTs, meaning is medium chain triglycerides – this is where ‘MCT oil’ comes from, which is now another popular health supplement. MCFAs are saturated and unsaturated fatty-acids.

These types of fatty acid are known as ‘healthy fats,’ meaning they aid the human body in such activities like the development of body lipids, can help the liver in recovering from damage caused from drinking alcohol, and support the immune system.

Coconut oil is predominantly made up of saturated fat and the smaller fatty particles are referred to ‘fatty-acids’. Studies have shown that these fatty-acids may reduce the dangerous levels of LDL in the cholesterol. LDL signifies low density lipoprotein, which is found most commonly in the body’s cholesterol and at high levels can raise the chances of one developing heart disease or the risk of having a stroke.

Coconut oil in some cases seems to help reduce this level of LDL in the cholesterol, while in others it can raise both the LDL (bad) and HDL (good). Numerous studies have been conducted on the benefits of coconut oil, however, most of these studies focused on coconut oil that made up of 100% medium-chain triglyceride, also called MCTs. As well, this benefit from coconut oil may be from the protective immune and cardiovascular effects of the particular types of fatty acids in coconut oil, not because it is high in saturated fat.

This specific atom arrangement of MCTs have a specific benefit as the human body can break them down more quickly than the average fatty acid, which is then digested and stored in the liver and transformed into energy. Thus, it can be utilized more effectively and fuel both the body and brain more effectively (and efficiently).

HDL, high density lipoprotein, is often referred to as “good” cholesterol as it helps cholesterol breakdown and get consumed by the liver, which is then flushed from the body. High levels of HDL prevent heart related complications, such as heart disease. One study conducted on volunteers with a coconut oil diet was studied and found that coconut oil did raise the good HDL levels.

Coconut oil is part of the family of botanical oils, which have shown to be a topical benefit for both the skin and hair. Virgin coconut oil’s fatty composition is where most of the skin benefits are derived from – when used as a hydrating oil, it can help to keep hair soft and shiny. It can help rejuvenate and accentuate curly hair and nourishes dry scalp thanks to the vitamin E found in coconut oil, along with the medium and long-chain fatty acids. Just be sure not to use too much, as coconut oil can weigh the hair down.

Coconut oil can also naturally be used as a make-up remover. Many traditional make-up removers are too harsh and can contain ingredients that act as xenoestrogens or skin irritants. We recommend still washing after, and cleansing as normal as coconut oil’s high fat content can make it comedogenic, meaning it can clog pores. All you need is a teaspoon to effectively remove make-up!

Many plant oils have antioxidants which helps the hair contain its protein. Coconut oil has the highest concentration of lauric acid, which is a MCT that is responsible for raising the “good” cholesterol levels in one’s body. Lauric acid. When used before and after washing the hair, some studies have shown that coconut oil strengthens the hair follicles on the scalp, nourishing dry and itchy scalp and keep the hair strong and maintaining its protein, thanks to its lauric acid properties.

There are some risks to ingesting coconut oil, but only at high doses. Due to the high percentage of saturated fatty acids contained in coconut oil, even though they are beneficial – they still can, in excess, contribute to an overall high saturated fat intake. While this will not be a problem for those who eat a diet rich in fiber and vegetables, those who have pre-existing medical conditions or already consume a high-fat diet may want to use reasonable portions or replace other, less healthy dietary fat with virgin coconut oil instead.

While the benefits of coconut oil cannot be disputed, many of the claims toward reversing heart disease and lowering cholesterol levels cannot be fully supported. Heart disease and cholesterol levels involve many different variables – many of the proponents of coconut oil point toward cultures and people that consume a moderate to high intake of coconut oil or coconut milk, while still having a lower level of heart disease and stroke. However, it is important to understand that these populations also have a diet extremely rich in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, low in sodium, and free of smoking or alcohol intake. They are also extremely active people, and not sedentary.

When coconut oil is ingested at high doses for an extended period of time, it does raise the LDL levels, the “bad” cholesterol, which can lead to all the symptoms associated with high cholesterol levels – chest pains, obesity, and decrease the blood flow to the heart due to arterial plaque. Not all forms of saturated fat are equal – and this should be no surprise for people educated on health food and supplements. Stearic acid, the primary form of saturated fat found in cacao (chocolate) for instance, has not been shown to raise LDL or bad cholesterol even though it can be as high in saturated fat as butter.

Most of the saturated fat content in coconut oil does raise LDL cholesterol, and this has been demonstrated in research and clinical trials. What we do know is that if one is eating a healthy diet high in fiber (and is active), adding some coconut oil to the diet will not have a harmful or adverse impact. The immune benefits from the phenols and lauric acid in coconut oil as well as the cardioprotective effects may mitigate the high amount of saturated fat content.

Additionally, opting for a product like MCT oil can provide many of the easily utilized energy benefits without having to ingest a large amount of coconut oil directly. As always, the best recommendation is to consume things in moderation and ensure you’re eating a healthy diet rich in fiber and whole foods. No one is stating that coconut oil is unhealthy, and is a wise replacement for unhealthy oils like soybean or canola – just ensure you’re being mindful and eating your vegetables with it!

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