In this article:
- Refined coconut oil can be used for cooking at high temperatures (over 400°F) due to its high smoke point.
- Coconut oil is around 90% saturated fat.
- Coconut oil has various purported health benefits. However, not all studies have shown all these benefits.
Coconut oil is a popular ingredient all over the world. It was generally considered exotic, but it is now readily available in markets everywhere. It is commonly advertised as a functional food and is endorsed by many, owing to its supposed health benefits.
Originally belonging to the tropical areas of India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Polynesia, the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and other tropical regions, coconut has been used as food and beauty agent for long. While it is relatively new in the West, coconut oil is part of traditional medicine in these tropical countries.
Coconut oil is obtained from the brown, hairy seed of the coconut palm tree. Coconuts grow in clusters, with each tree (Cocos nucifera) having 10-20 clusters in different stages of maturation. More than 10 coconuts are usually seen per tree.
The mature nut is 10-12 inches in diameter. Coconuts consist of fleshy meat covered by a hard shell. They are hollow at the center, often filled with coconut water inside.
The oil extracted from coconuts is pale yellow. Coconut oil is often used in cosmetics and topical skin applications, including eye makeup, bath products, shaving cream, hair care, suntan lotion, lipsticks, and skincare products.
Several studies showed that coconut oil might protect the skin from UV radiation and exhibits antibacterial and antifungal activity. (1)
This semisolid, edible oil is part of the staple diet in many places. Virgin coconut oil is a source of polyphenols, but refined coconut oil lacks the beneficial polyphenol content (2) due to the extensive processing, deodorizing, and bleaching involved in refining the oil.
Coconut oil can add a distinct flavor to your meals. Since it is solid at room temperature, coconut oil is commonly used as a replacement for butter or vegetable shortening in the production of baked goods such as pie crust.
Coconut oil was initially believed to be unfit for consumption due to its high saturated fat content. However, some, but not all, recent studies suggested that coconut oil may have beneficial effects on your health.
As with any other dietary component, it is important to consume coconut oil in moderation and as part of a balanced diet.
Types of Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is chiefly distinguished into the following three types:
- Virgin coconut oil: Also known as natural oil, virgin coconut oil is obtained by pressing the shredded fresh, wet coconut kernels to extract the oil and coconut milk. The emulsion formed is then separated using different techniques.
The production of virgin coconut oil does not involve any chemicals or high temperatures required for distillation or deodorization, therefore retaining all the heat-sensitive compounds.
Hence, this oil has higher amounts of bioactive compounds such as tocopherols, tocotrienols (vitamin E forms), polyphenols, and sterols, in comparison with the other types of coconut oil.
- Refined coconut oil: This oil is obtained by crushing dried coconut meat and undergoes refining, bleaching, and deodorization (RBD). Refined coconut oil is also known as copra oil. While RBD oil has the same types of fatty acids as those of virgin oil, it lacks bioactive constituents. (2)
- Partially hydrogenated oil: This type of coconut oil is processed to convert unsaturated fats (good fat) to trans fats (bad fat).
Nutritional Value of Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is regarded by some to be a superfood for its various health and beauty benefits. It is chiefly composed of saturated fatty acids, making up approximately 85% of the oil. It also contains about 2% of polyunsaturated fat and 6% monounsaturated fat. (3)
Moreover, coconut oil is considered to be unique due to its unusual liquid/semisolid state despite the high amount of saturated fatty acids. (3)
Purported Benefits of Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is believed to have various health benefits. Some of the studies on the health benefits of coconut oil focused on the medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) in coconut oil.
MCTs are readily absorbed and utilized by the body due to its short chemical structure, unlike the more common long-chain fatty acids that are usually sent for storage.
Here are the purported benefits of coconut oil:
1. May aid relief in atopic dermatitis
Atopic dermatitis, or eczema, refers to a chronic skin condition wherein cutaneous inflammation occurs, and the epidermal barrier function becomes defective.
A randomized controlled trial demonstrated that the application of coconut oil could help improve the symptoms of atopic dermatitis. However, further research is required to establish this claim. (4)
2. Can help nourish hair
Coconut oil contains the triglyceride lauric acid, which can easily penetrate the hair due to its linear chain and low molecular weight. Additionally, this triglyceride has a high affinity for hair proteins. A study conducted in 2003 demonstrated this property of coconut oil. However, clinical trials are needed to establish its use. (5)(6)
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3. May play a role in diabetes
However, the results of animal studies are not always applicable to humans. A 2020 meta-analysis concluded coconut oil consumption did not significantly affect markers of glycemia. (14)
Due to a lack of evidence about the role of coconut oil in patients with type 2 diabetes, it is recommended to use it sparingly, similar to other saturated fats.
4. May aid in weight loss
The theory for coconut oil possibly helping in weight loss is due to the medium-chain saturated fatty acids, which promote a feeling of fullness, are more likely to be used right away for energy, and are less likely to be stored.
However, studies that evaluate the effect of coconut oil on weight loss are lacking, hence the need for further studies.
Some research has also shown that coconut oil consumption, in comparison with consuming non-tropical oils, does not significantly affect weight regulation. (9)
5. May have a role in Alzheimer’s disease
Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are multifaceted diseases that are still being understood.
Some research suggested that individuals with Alzheimer’s disease are unable to use glucose efficiently, which is the key source of energy for the brain. Therefore, an alternative energy source for the brain may be beneficial for Alzheimer’s disease.
While theories suggest that MCT found in the coconut oil can act as an alternative source of energy, there is no scientific evidence to support this claim.
A few small-scale studies have demonstrated the positive effects of coconut oil on the brain health of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. However, there is a need for large-scale and direct trials to reach any conclusion. (11)(12)
6. Other health benefits
Topically, coconut oil is used as a moisturizer for the treatment of psoriasis and as part of neonatal skincare. It is also used for the treatment of lice infestation and is added to hair care products to help prevent hair damage.
However, all these commonly talked-about benefits of coconut oil are purely anecdotal, with no scientific evidence to support them.
Role of Coconut Oil in Heart Health
Coconut oil is seen to have contradicting effects on heart health.
A randomized controlled trial demonstrated that the use of dietary supplements with 15 ml virgin coconut oil, taken twice daily, helped improve the levels of HDL cholesterol in healthy individuals with no side effects when compared with control. While this treatment may help in reducing the risk of cardiovascular problems, it is essential to test the oil in patients with low HDL cholesterol levels. (13)
By contrast, a review paper published in 2020 showed that coconut oil consumption could increase LDL cholesterol levels in comparison with non-tropical vegetable oils. While it also improved HDL levels, it did not help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. (14)
Additionally, coconut oil showed no benefits on glycemic, adiposity, or inflammatory markers. Therefore, it is recommended to limit coconut oil consumption to moderation. (14)
If you have any heart health issues, consult your healthcare team regarding the best use of coconut oil for your benefit.
Safety of Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is chiefly composed of saturated fatty acids (about 90%). (15)
Because excessive consumption of saturated fatty acids often leads to an increase in the amount of low-density lipoprotein cholesteryls and, consequently, an increase in cardiovascular disease risk, it is best to consume coconut oil in moderation. (16)
A diet rich in saturated fat leads to high cholesterol levels, therefore increasing the chances of stroke and heart attack.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that saturated fats should not constitute more than 10% of the total calories taken daily. (17) This recommendation is similar to the standards issued by the World Health Organization (WHO). (18)
Hence, it is generally safe to consume coconut oil in normal food amounts as part of your diet. However, it should not be used as a substitute for other fats, including butter and lard, as it has a high content of saturated fats.
Note: Due to a lack of evidence on the safety of coconut oil for medicinal use, it is recommended to consult your doctor before taking it. Also, children, pregnant women, and breastfeeding women should use coconut oil in moderation due to a lack of information on its safety.
Consumption of Coconut Oil
The chemical and physical characteristics of coconut oil are becoming increasingly popular. As a result, coconut oil is now commonly used in cooking and as an antimicrobial agent, biofuel, moisturizing agent for the skin, and cosmetic ingredient.
It is also utilized to form soap bases and as a lubricant. For the oral consumption of coconut oil, the American Heart Association recommends complying with the limits set by the USDA for the intake of saturated fats. (19)
Storing Coconut Oil
Proper storage of coconut oil can help retain its fragrance and stability. Additionally, check the oil intermittently to ensure if it is good to use. Discard the oil if it has turned yellow (indicating rancidity) or if you find mold growing on the surface of the oil.
Save coconut oil in an airtight container in a shaded place as it can be affected by oxygen, light, and heat.
Moreover, store coconut oil in a cool space as it has a low melting point. Do not keep it in a place where the temperature often changes, such as above the stove. Also, use clean utensils when using coconut oil.
Reactions with Coconut Oil
Coconut oil, when consumed in moderation, is not reported to have any interactions with drugs.
However, it may produce allergic reactions in some cases. It is common to develop allergic dermatitis to products that contain coconuts such as shampoos, cosmetics, moisturizers, cleansers, soaps, and handwash.
This results in the appearance of a blistering, itchy rash. The allergy develops within a couple of days after exposure to the allergen and may take several days to alleviate.
It is recommended to perform a patch test of coconut-containing products to detect allergies. Some individuals may also be sensitive to coconut pollen.
Coconut Oil Versus Olive Oil
Virgin olive oil is extracted from the fruit of the olive tree by physical means, such as mechanical methods or under thermal conditions. These methods prevent alteration in the oil.
Coconut oil is obtained from the coconut fruit. Both oils are commonly used for cooking purposes and are believed to have health benefits.
The heating of an oil increases its oxidation rate, causing a rapid breakdown. Therefore, to be used for cooking, oils should be able to resist oxidation.
Refined coconut oil was found to have higher oxidative stability than other virgin oils. However, olive oil is regarded to be a healthier option due to its high content of monosaturated fats, in contrast to the high saturated fat content of coconut oil. (20)
Recipes Using Coconut Oil
Include coconut oil in your regular diet by following these recipes.
1. Coconut Kernel Popcorn
- 3-4 tbsp virgin coconut oil, divided
- ¼ cup popcorn kernels
- ⅓ cup coconut flakes, toasted
- 1-2 tbsp agave syrup
- ¼ cup sesame seeds, toasted
- 1 tsp flaky sea salt
- Take 1 tbsp coconut oil in a heavy pot and heat over medium-high flame.
- Add some popcorn kernels when the oil shimmers.
- After the kernels burst, add the rest of the popcorn kernels to the oil.
- Put on the lid and shake the pot intermittently.
- Crack the lid at regular intervals to release the steam.
- Remove from the heat once all the kernels have popped.
- Drizzle the rest of the melted coconut oil on the kernels.
- Add agave syrup, coconut flakes, sesame seeds, and flaky sea salt. Mix thoroughly.
- You may also sprinkle Aleppo pepper on top.
2. Raw Vegan Mango Coconut Truffles
- 6 ounces dried mango, chopped
- 3½ cups unsweetened coconut flakes
- 8 tbsp coconut oil
- 2 tbsp agave syrup (optional)
- Put the mango in a bowl and add cold water to it.
- Allow the mango pieces to soak for about 2 hours.
- Drain the water and add 2½ cups of coconut and coconut oil.
- Blend the mixture until a smooth consistency is obtained.
- You may add agave syrup if you want to sweeten the mixture.
- Transfer the contents into a bowl and cover.
- Refrigerate the mixture for 2 hours, until it is hardened.
- Roll the mixture into balls and cover with the remaining coconut flakes.
- Serve cold.
Coconut oil is purported to have various health benefits. However, studies on this oil were chiefly conducted on animals or in laboratories.
Therefore, limited conclusions can be drawn on the effects of coconut oil inclusion in the human diet. Currently, guidelines suggest the consumption of coconut oil in moderation.