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The Coconut Controversy
Is Coconut Oil Really Healthy?

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Quick Summary tl;dr

Coconut oils is 65% MCTs, which are burned efficiently for fuel.

Coconut oil has antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.

It’s important to only purchase virgin or raw coconut, never refined.

Coconut is controversial. Some people say it’s a superfood, others say it will poison your heart health. Why the confusion?

Fat Profile of Coconut

Let’s start by discussing the unique fat profile of coconut because, although coconut is almost entirely saturated fat, the saturated fats in coconut are very different from those in milk or meat.

Coconut oil is ~15% caproic, caprylic, and capric acid. These saturated fatty acids are between six and ten carbons in length and are called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).

About 50% of the fat in coconut is lauric acid, a 12-carbon fatty acid. ( Dayrit, 2015) While it is sometimes commercially classified as a long-chain fatty acid, it is metabolically classified as an MCT as well. Isn’t that confusing? Sorry about that. Bottom line, about 65% of the fat in coconut oil is MCTs, and I’ll explain why that matters in the next section.

The remaining ~35% is mostly long-chain fatty acids, including myristic, palmitic, and stearic acids (14 - 18 carbons). These are the typical fatty acids found in dairy and meat. So, as you can see, coconut is not like other sources of saturated fat.

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Medium Chain Triglycerides are an Excellent Fuel

What makes the 65% of saturated fats that are in coconut oil, the MCTs, unique?

Longer chain fatty acids, both saturated and unsaturated, begin their journey through the body in boats called chylomicrons. While in the intestines, long-chain fats get packaged into chylomicrons, then are transported via lymphatic vessels and get squirted into the bloodstream at the lymphatic duct, where the vein that runs near your left collar bone meets the vein coming down from the left side of your head.

Next, when the long-chain fatty acids get into cells, they need special transporters and transformers (carnitine shuttle) to allow them to get burned as fuel.

MCTs are different. Unlike most other fats, MCTs begin their journey by flowing, not through lymphatics and the lymphatic duct into main blood circulation, but directly through the “portal vein” to the liver. (Also, as a fun fact, MCTs are less dependent on bile acids for digestion and better absorbed directly in the stomach, which makes them easier to absorb for people with bile acid or pancreatic insufficiency.)

In this way, they are more like carbohydrates or proteins than fat. Perhaps more importantly, MCTs don’t require transporters and transformers to allow them to get burned by cells, which means that they are excellent fuels!

If that’s all very technical for you, the take away remains, MCTs are great easy-access fat fuel. Here are some data: In one human study, people were given a series of different fatty acids — palmitic, stearic, oleic, elaidic, linoleic, linolenic, and lauric — that were each labeled with carbon-13. ( DeLany et al, 2000) This just means that the researchers were able to trace how much of each fat was burned over the following nine hours. What they observed is that lauric acid was burned at a much greater rate than the other fats over this time period. You can see this very clearly on the graph, represented by the outstanding area under the curve in the back row.

Coconut oil is 65% Medium Chain Triglycerides, which get burned more quickly than longer chain fats because they don’t require the carnitine shuttle system.

The Coconut Controversy: Is Coconut Oil Really Healthy?

Benefits of Lauric Acid in Coconut

Lauric acid, being the main MCT in coconut oil, deserves further details. Lauric acid itself can also activate fat-burning enzymes in the PPAR family, including PPARα and PPARγ. In this way, lauric acid acts similar to the monounsaturated fat, oleic acid, found in extra virgin olive oil, avocado, and macadamia nuts.

Additionally, lauric acid and monolaurin (lauric acid attached to glycerol backbone) have potent antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial properties, including against  C. difficile, H. pylori, Candida, Clostridium, and E. Coli.

It’s actually pretty cool! Pathogenic microbes aren’t easily able to evolve resistance to lauric acid and monolaurin because they work through three mechanisms: destruction of gram-positive bacterial cell membranes and lipid-coated viruses, interference with microbial signal transduction and transcription, and stabilization of human cell membranes. This is just me getting on my nerdy soap box, but the simple explanation is that lauric acid may be protective against pathogenic bacterial infections.

Interestingly, lauric acid and monolaurin are among the strongest antimicrobials in human breast milk. ( Gardner et al, 2017) Evidently, our evolutionary biology would not be trying to poison our infantile microbiomes, so it’s fair to assume that lauric acid is protective for the gut at best, and neutral at worst.

The lauric acid in coconut oil is also found in human breast milk. It may protect against H. pylori, Candida, Clostridium, and E. Coli.

Refined vs Virgin Coconut Oil and Antioxidants

Another important source of the coconut controversy comes down whether the oil is refined or virgin. ( Seneviratne et al, 2008)

When oil is refined, it loses 85% of the disease-fighting polyphenols, an impressive list that include gallic acid, caffeic acid, p-coumaric acid, ferulic acid, vanillic acid, catechin, rosmarinic acid, myricetin glucoside, quercetin, and kaempferol. When recommending coconut, we are specifically recommending virgin or raw coconut.

As an example of one basic science study, treating colon cells with 100 μg of virgin coconut oil polyphenols protected the against oxidative stress-induced cell death induced by 75%. ( Illam et al, 2017) The effect was due both to the direct antioxidant effects of the above list of polyphenols and also their ability to upregulate the Nrf2 system, which controls the expression of the body’s own antioxidant enzymes.

In humans, the list of potential health benefits attributed to “virgin” and “raw” coconut products include the following: antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, protection against infection, improved gut health, and increased HDL cholesterol. ( Khaw et al, 2018)

The Coconut Controversy: Is Coconut Oil Really Healthy?

How To Use Coconut in Recipes

There are several ways you can incorporate coconut into your diet — in the form of coconut meat, coconut oil, coconut milk, coconut yogurt and cream, coconut flour and coconut butter (also known as coconut manna):

There are also so many creative ways you can use raw coconut in you diet. Here are just 15 recipes from our new book, The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook that incorporate virgin coconut oil, coconut cream, or coconut butter. Yummy!

  • Breakfasts and snacks: Crunchy Vanilla Protein Bars, Spiced Antioxidant Granola Clusters, Creamy Cinnamon Porridge, Fat-Fueled Cereal, Strawberry Collagen Smoothie, or Ultimate Nut Butter
  • Soups: Chilled Avocado Pesto Soup and Creamy Wild Mushroom Soup
  • Dinners: Salmon Brain Bowl, Carb-less Crab Cakes, Coconut Shrimp Skillet, Halloumi Curry Skillet, or Moroccan Lamb Tagine
  • Desserts: Chocolate Hazelnut Powerhouse Truffles and Protein Halva Slices
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Dr. Nicholas Norwitz
PhD in Ketogenics and Metabolism, Oxford University

Nicholas Notwitz

Dr. Nicholas Norwitz is a new shining star in nutrition science. This 25-year-old Ivy League Valedictorian obtained his PhD at Oxford University in just two years and is now pursing his MD at Harvard Medical School. His research expertise is ketosis and brain aging; however, he has published scientific papers on topics ranging from neuroscience to heart disease to gastrointestinal health to genetics to bone health to diabetes.

You can find Nick on Twitter at @nicknorwitz.

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Comments (8)

I like using coconut flour. I would love it if you could tell me if between coconut and almond flour, is one healthier/ less fat or carbs? Should we bake with almond flour the same day we eat the nuts? I really want to work on more protein than fats, so I can gain muscle at this seniors age.
Thanks.

To start straight with the nutrition facts, I believe 1/4 cup of blanched almond flour is 160 kCal, 10 g fat, 8 g net carbs, 2 g fiber, and 8 g protein. That's going off Bob's Red Mill brand. 1/4 cup of coconut flour from the same brand is 120 kCal, 6 g fat, 8 g net carbs, 10 g fiber, 6 g protein. Based on these isolated statistics, you can draw your own conclusions. However, I think different recipes are going to call for either almond flour of coconut flour, probably for a purpose. I'd use either as recommended. I don't think of one as superior and neither are great sources of protein, not only in terms of protein grams but in terms of the bioavailability. For protein, I'd prioritize meats, eggs, dairy. For persons getting on in years, high quality protein (by which I mostly mean animal-based, although soy and pea proteins are, in my opinion, best for vegetarians) in sufficient quantity plus resistance/weight training can be really helpful to maintain muscle mass. Hopefully this isn't news, but it is worth reinforcing.

Thank you so much Nick. You have answered all my questions.
Hope your “all” has baby arrived, doing well.
Love what you guys are doing, with so much caring for all.

Hello.  I would love to use coconut oil in my everyday cooking, but we mostly cook curries and they are most fish curries.  I have tried coconut oil a few years ago, but found we could taste and smell the coconut in the curry, which is quite off putting as not all curry should have coconut in it.
I just wondered if you can suggest any coconut oil that doesn't have this problem, and available to but in the UK.  I do also but from Amazon.
Thank you for  your help.

Coconut oil should taste like coconut. If you want something more neutral tasting, try beef tallow. Butter or ghee can also be good for curries. Avocado oil is a good option if you want a higher MUFA fat source.

Thank you so much for replying.  Quick question, I do use light coloured olive oil for curries and for frying too, as it says on the bottle that it can be fried with.  Is it true about the high heat affecting olive oil?  Thank you

I think extra virgin olive oil is good for light cooking and finishing meals but I would not use it for deep frying etc. The "light" version doesn't have the health benefits of true extra virgin olive oil so I'd use it sparingly. For frying it's better to use ghee, coconut oil or avocado oil. Here's a good guide Nick wrote for olive oil: The Virginity Lie: How to Find Real Extra Virgin Olive Oil

IMO, for cooking, use avocado oil. Use a nice extra virgin olive oil for finishing.