Pearly white coconut oil looks harmless enough. Coconut oil is growing a reputation as being a healthful alternative for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils. However, coconut oil, a saturated fat, may not be good for everyone; therefore, the claims need close examination and you may be surprised at some conclusions!
There are three well-known saturated fats of the vegetable kingdom. First, there is coconut oil. Second, there is palm oil which is extracted from the fleshy part, or mesocarp of the palm fruit. Carotenoids make the mesocarp reddish in color. Palm oil is approximately 43% saturated fat. Third, palm kernel oil is derived from the white, center kernel, of the same fruit. Eighty-one to eighty- five percent of the fatty acids in both palm kernel oil and coconut oil are saturated.
How do Coconut Oil and Palm Oil Differ from Most Saturated Fats?
Palm oil is high in saturated fatty acids. Palm oil gives its name to the 16-carbon saturated fatty acid palmitic acid. However, a medium-chain saturated fat, lauric acid, composes half of the saturated fats found in palm kernel and coconut oil. Medium-chain saturated fatty acids act differently than the long-chain fatty acids found in meat.
Lauric Acid: Another Biological Hero?
Athletes use oils that have lauric acid to get quick energy because they are metabolized quicker and easier. Medium-chain fatty acids such as lauric acid are quickly digested and absorbed more efficiently than long-chain saturated fats found in meat and the long-chain fatty acids in vegetable oils. Why?
Medium-chain fatty acids are transported into the blood right from the gastrointestinal track and go directly to the liver. This allows these fats to enter the cells’ power plants independently instead of being transported into the cell by other biological mechanisms. The shorter chain fatty acids are used preferentially by the cells to give us energy. They also may have potential for weight reduction because medium-chain fats are easier to burn off than long-chain fatty acids.1
Lauric acid, deemed a medium-chain fat, composes 47% of coconut’s fat content. Please note: lauric acid also behaves as a long-chain saturated fat in the way it is metabolized. So, not all the benefits of medium chain fats are applicable to lauric acid. Many studies has found that lauric acid-rich coconut oil is not particular effective for weight management.2
The Cardiovascular Dangers
Consumption of long-chain saturated fats from meat raises LDL cholesterol levels. Elevated LDL cholesterol levels are a risk factor for cardiovascular disease while a good level of HDL cholesterol is seen as protective.3 Replacing saturated with polyunsaturated fats may help to reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease.
Diets high in saturated fat raises levels of endothelial lipase (EL), an enzyme associated with the development of atherosclerosis and inflammation. On the other hand, a polyunsaturated fat diet showed a significant decrease in EL and beneficial changes in inflammatory factors.4
Long-chain saturated fats impair the ability of the blood vessels to expand, decrease protection from HDL, and allow more inflammatory agents to accumulate in the arteries. In contrast, modest amounts of cold-pressed polyunsaturated fats, a healthier form of fat, can increase the anti-inflammatory properties of HDL and help to protect the inner lining of the arteries.5 A single meal of junk food consisting mainly of saturated fats reduces the ability of blood vessels to dilate by 24%.6
Frequent consumption of large amounts of saturated fat is toxic to the heart muscle cells. Evidence indicates that saturated fats accumulate in the heart muscle. They stress the transportation system found in the heart muscles and can actually cause the death of these cells.7 In some studies, compounds in meat, other than long-chain saturated fats, could also contribute to increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
Do Saturated Fats in Coconut and Palm Oils Act Differently?
Eighty-one to eighty- five percent of the fatty acids in both palm kernel oil and coconut oil are saturated. The cardiovascular effects of coconut have not been studied extensively. Coconut oil can boost HDL levels.8 It is important to use virgin coconut oil because the more processed coconut oil can elevate total and LDL cholesterol as well as HDL. In other words, the regular processed coconut oil is not beneficial to cardiovascular health! 9
Several epidemiological studies reveal that the residents of the South Pacific who eat lots of coconut and palm oils do not suffer from lipidemia, a high amount of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood. This, however, might be attributable to their consumption of omega-3 fat rich foods rather than coconut or palm oil.
In an attempt to sort this out, scientists fed mice various diets. The mice who ate the diet supplemented with coconut oil exhibited elevated levels of plasma cholesterol and triglycerides, an increase in plaque development, and increased inflammation in the aortic tissue. However, when flax seed, an omega-3 rich food, was included in the diet, atherosclerosis was reduced through a reduction of circulating cholesterol levels.10
Needless to say, anyone eating coconut and/or palm oil needs to include the balancing omega-3 fatty acids in their diets. Plant sources for omega-3 fats include chia, flaxseed, soybeans, walnuts, and spinach.
Then, too, the Filipinos who also consume a large amount of coconut oil have a substantial incidence of metabolic syndrome.11 Metabolic syndrome is characterized by obesity, elevated blood sugar, high triglycerides (blood fats), hypertension, inflammation, and strong activation of the sympathetic nervous system,–all of which increase the risk of serious cardiovascular consequences like heart attack and stroke. Diabetes and hypertension are common in the Philippines. Studies also show that coconut oil does not protect our heart and blood vessels if we eat an unhealthful diet like the typical Filipino diet which includes patis (fish sauce), and bagoong (shrimp paste), anchovies, and pork.12,13,14
It is premature to say that coconut oil is heart healthy without more controlled and randomized studies. The mechanisms by which coconut oil protects the heart and blood vessels (if it does) need to be confirmed by a variety of studies.
What Scientific Studies Show about Palm Oil
The studies on the cardiovascular effects of palm oil are conflicting. Even though palm oil does contain palmitic acid, many studies show that it does not raise cholesterol levels.15 A 17-year study showed that palm oil is associated with increased risk for coronary artery disease in dose related fashion.16
At this time the oils from coconut and palm do not seem to affect plasma homocysteine and inflammatory markers associated with cardiovascular diseases.17
Palm Oil: Harmful?
Palm oil is not a healthy substitute for trans fats.18 Much of the palm oil that is consumed as food is to some degree oxidized due to processing, and this oxidation appears to be responsible for part of the health risk associated with consuming palm oil.19 One caveat here: much of coconut oil you find in the grocery store has been adulterated with palm oil. So, if you want to try coconut oil, get the virgin coconut oil.
Is Coconut Oil the Best Fat for Your Heart?
In the Harvard Health Letter, the world-renown scientist and researcher, Dr. Walter Willet, was asked by a reader, “I have started noticing more coconut oil at the grocery store and have heard it is better for you than a lot of other oils. Is that true?” In part, his response was to take caution because even though coconut oil seems to give a boost to the good HDL cholesterol, studies have not been perused that would prove the long term health risks of consistently using this saturated fat. Interestingly he said, “Fat in the diet, whether it’s saturated or unsaturated, tends to nudge HDL levels up but coconut oil seems to be especially potent at doing so… Saturated fat is divided into various types, based on the number of carbon atoms in the molecule, and about half of the saturated fat in coconut oil is the 12-carbon variety, called lauric acid. That is a higher percentage than in most other oils, and is probably responsible for the unusual HDL effects of coconut oil.” Concluding with a balanced word of advice, “Coconut oil’s special HDL-boosting effect may make it “less bad” than the high saturated fat content would indicate, but it’s still probably not the best choice among the many available oils to reduce the risk of heart disease.20
Coconut Oil Elevates LDL
Coconut oil raises LDL cholesterol more than it increases HDL. A review of 16 recent studies found that coconut oil consumption significantly increased LDL cholesterol by 10.47 and HDL cholesterol by 4.00 mg/dL as compared with non-tropical vegetable oils. These effects remained significant after excluding nonrandomized trials, or trials of poor quality. Coconut oil consumption did not significantly affect markers of blood sugar, inflammation, and fat measurements as compared with non-tropical vegetable oils.21
Cold-Pressed Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO)
Cold-pressed virgin coconut oil is superior to regular coconut oil. A rodent study suggests that VCO may help to reduce the cholesterol and triglyceride levels, inhibits LDL oxidization and maintains the levels of blood coagulation factors.22. Cold-pressed virgin coconut oil also behaves differently than regular coconut and palm oil and may exert anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties.23 Unfortunately, really good randomized controlled studies demonstrating the cardioprotective benefits of coconut oil (including virgin coconut oil) in human beings is currently lacking.24
Individuals with Diabetes, Beware.
There are some rodent studies that suggest VCO may be useful in diabetes.25 However, the results of using VCO for six weeks in individuals who have diabetes is concerning. VCO significantly increases FBS (fasting blood sugar) and decreases HDL. VCO also increases creatinine and platelet count and decreases WBC (white blood cell) count.26 Except for the reduction in the WBC count, these effects would seem to promote unhealthy conditions in diabetic persons. Until more and definitive human studies on the effects of VCO are done, individuals who have diabetes should refrain from using any kind of coconut oil including VCO and get their fat intakes primarily from consuming nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives.
Well, what are the best fats for your heart? Fats from nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives,–all high in phytochemicals, are the best fats that protect your heart and your brain. When using oils, use cold-pressed virgin oils such as olive and avocado. Frying food in any kind of fat or oil creates harmful byproducts and should be avoided. For those who do not have cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or other risk factors, a very occasional use of virgin coconut oil may be permissible.
- Papamandjaris AA , Medium chain fatty acid metabolism and energy expenditure: obesity treatment implications. Life Science 1998; 62(14):1203-15
- Renan da Silva Lima. Coconut oil: what do we really know about it so far? Food Quality and Safety, Volume 3, Issue 2, May 2019, Pages 61-72, https://doi.org/10.1093/fqsafe/fyz004
- Virtanen, JK. Dietary Fatty Acids and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in Men: The Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 2014; September 25, 2014, doi: 10.1161/ATVBAHA.114.304082
- Jung, UJ. Fatty Acids Regulate Endothelial Lipase and Inflammatory Markers in Macrophages and in Mouse Aorta: A Role for PPAR. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 2012; DOI: 10.1161/ATVBAHA.112.300188 American College of Cardiology. “Meals High In Saturated Fat Impair ‘Good’ Cholesterol’s Ability To Protect Against Clogged Arteries.” ScienceDaily, 8 August 2006. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/08/060808091635.htm
- Cantin J. S. 390 Does the Adherence to a Mediterranean Diet Influence Baseline and Postprandial Endothelial Function? Canadian Journal of Cardiology, 2012; 28 (5): S245 DOI: 10.1016/j.cjca.2012.07.367
- Bousette N. Saturated fatty acids induce endoplasmic reticulum stress in primary cardiomyocytes, Endoplasmic Reticulum Stress in Diseases. Endoplasmic Reticulum Stress in Diseases, Volume 2, Issue 1, 2015 DOI: 10.1515/ersc-2015-0004
- Karupaiah T. The chain length of dietary saturated fatty acids affects human postprandial lipemia. J Am Coll Nutr. 2011 Dec; 30(6):511-21
- Menick, M. Is Coconut Oil Really All It’s Cracked Up to Be? Huffington Post, 04/024/2014
- Dupasquier CM, Dietary flaxseed inhibits atherosclerosis in the LDL receptor-deficient mouse in part through antiproliferative and anti-inflammatory actions, American Journal of the Physiology of Heart and Circulatory Physiology 2007 Oct;293(4):H2394-402
- Sy, RG.Socio-demographic factors and the prevalence of metabolic syndrome among Filipinos from the LIFECARE cohort. J Atheroscler Thromb. 2014; 21 Suppl 1:S9-17
- Kaunitz, H., Coconut oil consumption and coronary heart disease, Dayrit, C.S. (Columbia Univ., New York (USA
- Ofori, S. Palm oil and the heart: a review. World J Cardiol. 2015 Mar 26; 7(3):144-9
- Chen, BK.Multi-Country analysis of palm oil consumption and cardiovascular disease mortality for countries at different stages of economic development: 1980-1997. Global Health. 2011 Dec 16;7:45
- Voon PT Diets high in palmitic acid (16:0), lauric and myristic acids (12:0 + 14:0), or oleic acid (18:1) do not alter postprandial or fasting plasma homocysteine and inflammatory markers in healthy Malaysian adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Dec; 94(6):1451-7
- Bliss, Rosalie Marion (2009). “Palm Oil Not a Healthy Substitute for Trans Fats”. www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2009/090415.htm
- Edem, D.O. (2002). “Palm oil: Biochemical, physiological, nutritional, hematological and toxicological aspects: A review”. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition (Formerly Qualitas Plantarum) 57 (3): 319–341. doi:10.1023/A:1021828132707
- Willett MD, Walter C., Harvard School of Public Health, Department of Nutrition, Harvard Health Letter Editorial Board, May 2011
- Neelakantan N. The Effect of Coconut Oil Consumption on Cardiovascular Risk Factors: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Clinical Trials. Circulation. 2020 Mar 10;141(10):803-814. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31928080/
- Govindan N. Influence of virgin coconut oil on blood coagulation factors, lipid levels and LDL oxidation in cholesterol fed Sprague–Dawley rats. February 2008. e-SPEN the European e-Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism 3:1
- Intahphuak S. Anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antipyretic activities of virgin coconut oil. PharmBiol. 2010 Feb;48(2):151-7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20645831/
- Zheng FM. Virgin Coconut Oil and Its Cardiovascular Health Benefits. Nat Prod Communication 2012. Aug;11(8):1151-1152. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30725578/
- Rajagopal P.L. Virgin Coconut Oil: AnUpdated Pharmacological Review. WWJMRD 2017; 3(12): 87-92. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20645831/
- Cecille dela Paz, M.D. The Effect of Virgin Coconut Oil on Lipid Profile and Fasting Blood Sugar: A Phase I Clinical Trial. Philippine Journal of Internal Medicine. Vol.48:2. July-Sept. 2010.