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In light of new evidence: the marketing around Coconut oil.

I recount the time few years back, while I was in New York, when suddenly coconut oil was being touted as the new magic weight reduction and health boosting oil. All of a sudden, the aisles were full to the brim with all sorts of cold pressed coconut oil, extra virgin coconut oil, coconut oil this, coconut oil that. Overnight, as if the world had realized their Eureka moment in terms of Health and Wellness.

Everyone was replacing other oils being used with coconut oil. Not paying attention to exercise or other dietary components, they believed that coconut oil was all they needed to shed off those extra pounds and get all the benefits of a great oil.

I was skeptical then since we had studied that using too much of coconut oil causes elevated lipid profiles and maybe a precursor to heart disease. Nonetheless, the journals, magazines, newspapers were flooded with reports citing the miracle – that is coconut oil. Emphasizing that it is rich in MCT’s which makes it the ideal choice of fat, since MCT’s are broken down in the body differently than other fats.

It made me rethink and re-evaluate the effectiveness of the coconut oil magic. I must admit that being surrounded by studies everywhere citing its goodness I was swayed for a bit. Luckily for me, I interacted with many dietitians, nutritionists, researchers, physicians and Cardiovascular specialists who were of the view that in moderation it can be a good oil to use rather than replacing other “good” oils completely with it. I have till date stuck to that advise.

Thankfully so as a review article published in ScienceDirect on 13th October 2020, "Effect of coconut oil on cardio-metabolic risk: A systematic review and meta-analysis of interventional studies" states three important highlights

  • Coconut oil significantly increased TC, LDL, HDL overall and sub-group analysis of corn, palm, soybean, safflower oils.

  • However, coconut oil raised HDL-C and lowered LDL-C in comparison to butter.

  • The results for anthropometric and glycaemic control were inconclusive, though significant reduction in HbA1c was observed.

The conclusion of the review states “Our results suggest that coconut oil consumption results in significantly higher TC, LDL-C and HDL-C than other oils. Consumption of Coconut Oil can be one of the risk factors for CVDs in South Asian.”

Let us revisit some basic information about coconut oil. Coconut oil, or copra oil, is an edible oil extracted from the kernel or meat of mature coconuts harvested from the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). It has various applications. Because of its high saturated fat content, it is slow to oxidize and, thus, resistant to rancidification, lasting up to six months at 24 °C (75 °F) without spoiling.

Nutritionally speaking, coconut oil is 99% fat, composed mainly of saturated fats. In a 100-gram reference amount, coconut oil supplies 890 Calories. Half of the saturated fat content of coconut oil is lauric acid (41.8 grams per 100 grams of total composition), while other significant saturated fats are myristic acid (16.7 grams), palmitic acid (8.6 grams), and caprylic acid (6.8 grams). Monounsaturated fats are 6% of total composition, and polyunsaturated fats are 2%. Coconut oil contains phytosterols, whereas there are no micronutrients in significant content.

Due to its high levels of saturated fat, the World Health Organization and other food regulatory authorities advise that coconut oil consumption should be limited or avoided.

Marketing of coconut oil has created the inaccurate belief that it is a "healthy food. Instead, some studies have found that coconut oil consumption has health effects similar to those of other unhealthy fats, including butter, beef fat and palm oil. Coconut oil contains a high amount of lauric acid, a saturated fat that raises total blood cholesterol levels by increasing both the amount of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Although lauric acid consumption may create a more favourable total blood cholesterol profile, this does not exclude the possibility that persistent consumption of coconut oil may actually increase the risk of cardiovascular disease through other mechanisms, particularly via the marked increase in total blood cholesterol induced by lauric acid. However, the weight of evidence to date indicates that consuming polyunsaturated fats instead of coconut oil would reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

A 2020 systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials, as mentioned above, on whether chronic consumption of coconut oil might affect risk factors for cardiovascular diseases found that low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholestrol (but also high-density lipoprotein (HDL) ("good cholesterol")) concentrations were elevated compared with nontropical vegetable oils. The review stated that "coconut oil should not be viewed as healthy oil for cardiovascular disease risk reduction, and limiting coconut oil consumption because of its high saturated fat content is warranted."

Coconut oil has a long history in Asia, particularly in tropical regions where the plant is abundant, where it has been used for cooking. It is the oil of choice in Sri Lankan cuisine, where it is used for sautéing and frying, in both savoury and sweet dishes. It also plays a prominent role in the cuisines of Thailand and Kerala.

As an oil relatively recently introduced to Western countries, coconut oil is commonly used in baked goods, pastries, and sautés, having a nut-like quality with some sweetness. It is sometimes used by movie theatre chains to pop popcorn. Coconut oil adds considerable saturated fat and calories to the snack food while enhancing flavour, possibly a factor increasing further consumption of high-calorie snack foods, energy balance, and weight gain.

Without going overboard with the use of coconut as the end all and be all oil for every use, I advise it to be used in combination and alternating with other oils like olive oil, mustard oil, safflower oil, rice bran oil, sunflower oil etc

It is always better to talk to a qualified dietitian or doctor before blindly following media reports touting the miraculous health benefits of a particular food product.

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