Mercy Miami Hospital - July 18, 2017

Coconut oil is being touted as a cure-all in many health circles but is it actually beneficial to your health?

Coconut has become an increasingly popular super food. After preliminary research claimed that coconut could cure everything from heart disease, to Alzheimer's and even aid in weight loss, coconut oils, margarines, milks, yogurts and ice creams have flooded the market.

There's a lack of validated scientific research on the benefits of coconut, so it remains unclear whether or not the trend is the result of marketing hype. The Alzheimer's Association notes that there is not enough credible science to support coconut oil as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease; the American Heart Association (AHA) does not recommend the use of coconut oil because it is high in saturated fats. The AHA recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 13 grams a day, which is one tablespoon of coconut oil.

What's in coconut oil?

Coconut oil is extracted from the meat inside the hard-shelled fruit of the coconut palm. Made up of 90 percent saturated fat with 13 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, it has one of the highest concentrations of saturated fat of any food even more than butter! In comparison, butter is about 64 percent saturated fat, and beef fat and lard are only about 40 percent saturated fat.

It's well known that saturated fat has been shown to increase LDL cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease and is linked to higher incidence of heart disease and stroke. Not all saturated fats are the same, however. They differ based on the number of carbon atoms present, and this structural difference affects the impact of the fat on cholesterol levels and our health.

  • Butter contains butyric acid, which has 4 carbon atoms.
  • Coconut oil and palm kernel oil contain lauric acid with 12 carbon atoms.
  • Cow's milk and other dairy products contain myristic acid with 14 carbon atoms.
  • Palm oil and meat contain palmitic acid with 16 carbon atoms.
  • Cocoa butter and coconut meat contain stearic acid with 18 carbon atoms.

Lauric and myristic acids are most commonly found in "tropical" oils, such as coconut and palm kernel oil, and dairy products. The saturated fat in meat, eggs, cacao and nuts is primarily the triglycerides of palmitic and stearic acids. Lauric tends to raise both LDL and HDL levels, while stearic acid has been shown to have a neutral effect on cholesterol levels.

The roles of lauric and myristic acid

Coconut oil is about 50 percent lauric acid and 16 percent myristic. Lauric acid is a medium-chain saturated fat, also referred to as a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT). MCTs are more easily assimilated, digested and converted to energy. The MCTs in coconut oil are what have linked to weight loss and cognitive function for Alzheimer's disease. Some studies have shown that lauric acid has a neutral effect on cardiovascular health because it tends to raise both HDL along with LDL, showing a neutral impact on the cholesterol ratio. The overall role of lauric acid on cholesterol and health remains unclear.

Myristic acid, which is also a component of coconut oil, is the same type of saturated fat found in beef, dairy and many processed foods. It has been shown to increase LDL cholesterol and risk of vascular disease.

Disclaimer

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.