Coconut Oil: Good or Bad For You?

Coconut oil is solid at room temperature.

Coconut oil is solid at room temperature.

Controversy surrounding coconut oil raised its greasy head in a big way when a prominent physician recently called it “poison.” Fans of coconut oil went wild, so I decided to do some in-depth research on this miracle oil or poison, depending on what team you are on, and here is my take.

Coconut oil has become extremely popular, hailed by proponents as good for you in place of most other oils. Opponents claim the saturated fat it contains probably raises your LDL-cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease.

Personally, I’m a butter, canola and olive oil fan. I have resisted jumping on the coconut oil bandwagon and any recipe that calls for coconut oil I substitute my three aforementioned favorites, depending on the recipe, and go on my merry way.

To understand the current information about coconut oil, you first have to know a little about fatty acids. In food, fatty acids are found in triglycerides, which is a glycerol molecule with three fatty acids attached to it. During metabolism, the glycerol portion is stripped off and the fatty acids are set free to float around in our blood stream. Having a lot of the wrong kind swimming through your veins and arteries is not ideal if they clump together and clog things up. Hello heart disease and stroke!

The composition of fatty acids differs in big ways. They are all made with a carbon chain (string of carbon atoms connected to each other) and each has a different length of chain, the number of carbon atoms, which dictates how they are metabolized in the human body. The number of double bonds between carbon atoms is important too. The more double bonds there are, the less hydrogenated the fatty acid is and the more likely that fatty acid will help lower your cholesterol level. These differences in fatty acids dictate what they do in our bodies.

Which brings me to – more is not always better…at least when it comes to the length of fatty acids. There are short-chain fatty acids (4-6 carbon atoms or C4 – C6 SCFA), medium-chain (C8 – C10 MCFA), and long-chain fatty acids (C12 – C18, LCFA). The media often refers to MCFA as medium chain triglycerides or MCT oils. This is not technically correct because fatty acids act individually once they are hydrolyzed (the breakdown of a substance by the addition of water) during metabolism.

The fatty acid in coconut oil in the largest amount is lauric acid (C12, LCFA), mistakenly referred to as MCT by many people. While coconut oil can technically be classified as a medium-chained fat, it behaves like a long-chain fat within biological systems like the human gastrointestinal tract.

MCFA are smaller and have a lower molecular weight and are soluble in water. This means they dissolve in the aqueous phase of the intestine and are absorbed fairly quickly. Long chain fatty acids (LCFA) do not dissolve easily and must form micelles, meaning they take longer to be absorbed. The change in solubility occurs at C10, meaning that lauric acid behaves like a long chain fatty acid (LCFA) in human metabolism.

Medium chain fatty acids (MCFA) also go a different route once in the bloodstream than LCFA. Because MCFA have a lower molecular weight than LCFA, this facilitates the action of pancreatic lipase, which hydrolyzes the MCFA quickly and efficiently. The end result is that MCFA are absorbed quicker than LCFA and used almost as fast as glucose for energy.

Coconut oil has two other saturated fatty acids, myristic and palmitic (C12 and C14, respectively), which are the main fatty acids and LDL-cholesterol raising agents. Both of these fatty acids are also found in palm kernel oil, which is used interchangeably with coconut oil in the food industry because they are so similar in composition.

You can see in the photo on the left that coconut oil is solid at room temperature like all other saturated fats, unlike medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oils, which are liquid at room temperature.

The bottom line is that coconut oil is not the same thing as MCT oil and it behaves like other saturated fats in human metabolism and may raise your cholesterol level. That’s why I recommend you stick with healthy vegetable oils that have consistently been shown to lower cholesterol levels, such as olive and canola.

The research is ongoing and nothing in nutritional science is written in stone, but for now, if your LDL-cholesterol levels are already high, avoid cooking with coconut oil.

As for my favorite fat, butter, it does falls into the saturated fat category along with coconut oil. I use it for baking, but reduce the amount to half of what the recipe calls for. I use olive, avocado, and canola oil for cooking, which work quite well in most recipes.

You can do the same with coconut oil and, swap it for a healthier unsaturated vegetable oil or just use less of it. Either method will produce good results.

If you have a huge jar of coconut oil and are now thinking, “great, what do I do with this,” I encourage you to use it for other things besides cooking. It makes a great skin softener. Smooth a dab on rough dry elbows, dry cracked heels and your hands. It absorbs quickly and smells pretty darn good.

Mix coconut oil with plain white sugar and you have yourself the makings of an excellent exfoliating and moisturizer for the shower.

So, coconut oil is not actually poison, but it’s not all that healthy for you either (bad?) but works great as a moisturizer (good!) so it does have a place in the cupboard, just the one in the bathroom rather than the kitchen.