White, flaky and sweet coconut is eaten fresh from the gourd or dried and flaked in candies, cakes and pies. Coconut butter is used in suntan lotions and emollients. And some say that coconut oil may be the next great health craze, citing it as heart healthy and a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s and obesity.
There is no question that coconut oil is flavorful and makes an excellent frying oil due to its high smoking point, but there isn’t enough data to show that it has any overriding healthful properties. There are no reliable studies proving that it’s better than using poly- or mono- unsaturated oils such as olive, canola or corn, and the major health organizations still feel that it falls squarely in the realm of the unhealthy fats.
The reasons some scientists believe it has beneficial properties are three-fold: populations survey data, its high composition of medium-chain triglycerides and its proportion of lauric acid.
Coconut oil is commonly used for food preparations in many tropical nations and there are epidemiological studies showing that in these populations there is a positive association with higher high density lipoprotein (HDL) levels (the “good” cholesterol). However, there is also considerable research showing that coconut oil increases low density lipoprotein (LDL) levels (the “bad” cholesterol).
Like the fat in red meat and whole milk, coconut oil is saturated. In fact, it is far more saturated that most of the oils we use in cooking, including butter. But some say that although saturated, its fat doesn’t cause the same elevations in LDL cholesterol that other saturated fats do
Coconut oil’s predominant fat is lauric acid, which has the positive benefit of raising HDL cholesterol more effectively than other saturated fats (All saturated fats raise HDL along with raising LDL). This gives it a better lipid profile than other saturated fats but that is similar to substituting cigars for cigarettes.
The fats in coconut oil are medium chain triglycerides (MCT) as opposed to the long-chain (LCT) versions in most other saturated fats.
Medium chain triglycerides (MCT) don’t require bile for digestion. Since they are transported directly into the liver’s blood supply instead of being bundled into lipoproteins they don’t deposit fat and cholesterol into the arteries
In fact, most MCTs are burned for energy rather than stored as fat; a fact used as corroboration for coconut oils putatively weight loss properties.
There have been some studies showing that people fed 100 percent MCT oil compared with LCT oils have had modest reductions in weight, although this hasn’t been replicated with pure coconut oil.
And although ketones, a preferred brain nutrient source in Alzheimer’s patients which can be produced using MCTs found in coconut oil, can help maintain brain function, the amount required is beyond what can be generated ingesting coconut oil either fresh or in the form of supplements.
So at present, there is not even close to enough evidence to support those incredible heart health and Alzheimer’s cure claims. So continue to enjoy coconut oil occasionally for its flavor but do the majority of your cooking with unsaturated oils.