(Check out the other articles in this series if you haven't seen them yet)
"What's the deal with coconut oil?"
I get this question a lot, so it's about time I answered it.
First and foremost, let's separate virgin coconut oil from hydrogenated coconut oil. The hydrogenation process, in very simple terms, pumps a bunch of hydrogen atoms into the chemical makeup of the oil. This will turn a liquid oil into a solid oil at room temperature, give it a longer shelf life, and allow it to cook at higher temperatures. That's why hydrogenated coconut oil is often used in packaged baked goods and for deep-frying things. The problem is, hydrogenated coconut oil is really un-good for you. Hydrogenating oils results in the formation of trans fats, which are extremely bad news for your heart and your health. So let's just not even consider eating this stuff.
Virgin coconut oil is a very different animal. While it is, indeed, a saturated fat (meaning it is naturally solid at room temperature), about 60% of this is comprised of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA). The data out there about MCFA's is mixed, and there is not a ton of it out there (although it is a growing body of research). Some data shows an unfavorable cholesterol profile stemming from a diet high in MCFA's. However, other data demonstrates that MCFA's can lower body fat levels, regulate insulin levels, and decrease triglyceride levels.
Coconut oil's chemical makeup looks a little something like this:
Caprylic Acid (C8:0) 8%
Capric Acid (C10:0) 6%
Lauric Acid (C12:0) 47%
Myristic Acid (C14:0) 18%
Palmitic Acid (C16:0) 9%
Stearic Acid (C18:0) 3%
Oleic Acid (C18:1) 6%
Linoleic Acid (C18:2) 2%
As you can see, coconut oil is almost half lauric acid. Lauric acid is a component of triglycerides that soap and cosmetic companies like to use, since it is cheap, stable, and doesn't spoil easily. Sodium laurel sulfate is an ingredient derived from lauric acid, so I'm pretty sure you've seen it before. Inside the body, some studies show that its consumption results in a better cholesterol ratio, meaning a better lipid profile. (1) Others show that it raises both good and bad cholesterol (1) (2). One oft-quoted study appears at its surface to show that lauric acid is beneficial to the lipid profile, but a closer look at this study shows that this is in comparison to trans-fats. And let's face it-- most fats are going to look pretty good if you compare them to trans-fats.
Myristic acid is the next largest component of coconut oil. It has been shown to raise total cholesterol significantly (1) (2) (3), and even raise Factor VIIIc activity levels (which is a risk factor for thrombus-- something you don't want).
Coconut oil is considered a Medium Chain Fatty Acid (MCFA). MCFA's are being touted all over the interwebs and even on product packaging as being a healthy type of fat. However, the limited research out there is not promising in this regard-- MCFA's appear to contribute to a worse lipid profile. (1) (2) (3) There are a few other studies that say that it may not make cholesterol worse. (1) At this point, there isn't enough concrete evidence to side one way or the other about MCFA's.
This having been said, different fatty acids act differently when consumed with other kinds of foods. So when you put all this stuff together in a coconut, how does the human body take it? Many of the unfavorable coconut studies out there were done with hydrogenated coconut oil, so let's eliminate those and look at only those studies done on virgin coconut oil (VCO).
VCO and Obesity: There have been a few studies showing that inclusion of VCO in the diet may have a favorable effect on bodyfat percentage, particularly in men (1) (2) However, it's important to note that this was generally in conjunction with an allover healthy eating plan and exercise. Here's the thing: coconut oil is not exactly low-calorie. As a matter of fact, there are about 125 calories per tablespoon of coconut oil. So don't go nuts with it (heh, get it?)-- you still need to burn off more calories than you take in, no matter what the source of the calories.
VCO and Cholesterol: There is some promising evidence that virgin coconut oil can help improve, or at least does not alter, cholesterol profiles (1) (2)
VCO and Antioxidant Power: If there's one thing that coconut oil seems to consistently have, it's antioxidants (which is a very good thing for your health). (1) (2) (3)
VCO and Alzheimer's Disease: A popular story has been going around the internet, showing how a woman reversed a case of Alzheimer's disease using coconut oil. However, there is not to date any peer-reviewed clinical data showing this connection. Although there are aspects of coconut oil that could prove useful for this purpose, all we have right now is a small amount of anecdotal evidence. Stay tuned on this one.
VCO and Antibacterial/Antiviral Properties: Virgin coconut oil has been shown to have some antimicrobial activity, which could prove useful for fungal infections/candida, acute inflammation, dermatitis, and other bacterial and viral conditions.
VCO and the Liver: Limited data suggests that VCO may have some hepatoprotective properties. (1)
The bottom line is this: is coconut oil necessarily bad for you? Nope. Is it necessarily good for you? Possibly. Is it a miracle oil that you should consume like crazy? Probably not. Add it to your diet in moderation and use it as a moisturizer, and you should be good to go.
Questions? Comments? Post 'em here!