Many in the coconut oil business promote it as the “good” saturated fat. But “this is a case where facts have been twisted into fiction,” states Dr. Jay Kenney, Educator and Nutrition Research Specialist at Pritikin.
Here are the facts:
All oils are a mixture of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids, though each oil is usually called by the name of the fatty acid that is most abundant. The artery-clogging – and therefore most damaging – fatty acid is saturated fat. The fat in coconut oil is 92% saturated fat.
What gets tricky is that there are different kinds of saturated fats. Some are long-chain (they have 12 or more carbon atoms), and some are medium-chain (fewer than 12 carbon atoms). These various saturated fats do not have the same impact on LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in the blood. One long-chain saturated fat, stearic acid, has little impact on LDL cholesterol. Stearic acid is the most common saturated fat in chocolate, which is why chocolate or cocoa butter raises LDL only about one-quarter as much as butter, even though both are about 60% saturated fat.
Coconut oil – bad for LDL cholesterol
But other long-chain saturated fatty acids, like the ones that make up most of the saturated fat in coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils (known as tropical oils), do in fact raise LDL cholesterol considerably. These saturated fats are called palmitic, myristic, and lauric acids. They also make up most of the saturated fatty acids in meat, poultry, and dairy fats like milk, butter, and cheese.
Other saturated fats that have little impact on LDL cholesterol levels include medium-chain varieties like caproic, caprylic, and capric acids. A small percentage of the saturated fat in coconut oil, about 10%, is made up of these less harmful saturated fatty acids, but virtually all the rest of coconut oil’s saturated fat is made up of the long-chain varieties that send LDL soaring.
And coconut oil is full of these artery-busting long-chain varieties by the sheer fact that there’s such a huge percentage of saturated fat, 92%, packed into coconut oil to begin with.
Ounce for ounce, coconut oil has more saturated fat than butter, beef tallow, or lard. “So coconut oil raises LDL cholesterol as much – or more – than animal fats,” cautions Dr. Kenney.
Coconut oil – bad for the heart
For the health of your heart, lowering your LDL cholesterol is the single most important thing to do. How low should you go? Federal guidelines from the National Cholesterol Education Program state that a desirable LDL cholesterol is less than 100 mg/dL.
For individuals who already have atherosclerosis (they have suffered a heart attack, they require heart surgery or angioplasty, they have diabetes, or testing has identified plaque formation), LDL levels below 70 mg/dL are advised.
“It would probably be very difficult to get your LDL into these healthy ranges if you were eating a lot of coconut oil,” cautions Dr. Jay Kenney.
The coconut oil industry likes to point out that the traditional Polynesian diet – high in tropical oils like coconut – is linked with relatively low rates of heart disease.
“It’s important to remember, however, that heart disease involves several variables,” counters Dr. Kenney.
“Yes, studies of people on traditional Polynesian diets have found that they have relatively low rates from heart disease despite high LDL cholesterol levels, but other aspects of their native lifestyle are very healthful, and probably help counteract the cholesterol-raising effect of the coconut fat. Their traditional diet, for example, is very high in dietary fiber and heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids from fish, and very low in sodium. Historically, native Polynesians also tended to be nonsmokers, and were physically very active. All these factors would certainly promote heart health.”
Is Virgin Coconut Oil Bad For You?
Lately, virgin coconut oil has been heavily promoted. Marketers claim that any bad data on coconut oil are due to hydrogenation, and virgin coconut oil is not hydrogenated. (Hydrogenation is an industrial process in which unsaturated fats take on the physical properties of saturated fats.)
But only a small percentage, 8%, of coconut oil is unsaturated fat, which means only 8% of coconut oil gets hydrogenated. And the yield is mostly stearic acid, the one common long-chain saturated fatty acid that has minimal impact on LDL cholesterol levels. “So completely hydrogenated coconut oil has about the same impact on LDL cholesterol as does virgin oil,” points out Dr. Kenney.
“Sometimes the coconut oil’s unsaturated fatty acids are partially hydrogenated, which will lead to the production of small amounts of trans fatty acids, although not nearly as many as there are in other vegetable oils because there are so few unsaturated fatty acids in coconut oil to begin with.”
“All in all,” observes Dr. Kenney, “you pay a premium price for the virgin coconut oil, but from a health perspective, it is hardly much better than the hydrogenated coconut oils used commercially.”
Don’t believe claims on the Internet and elsewhere that coconut oil is good for you. Coconut oil is bad news for your LDL cholesterol, heart, and overall health.