Coconut Oil – Pros and Cons

Coconut oil is an edible vegetable oil taken from coconuts (Cocos nucifera), more specifically their endosperm or meat which is usually dried and turned into copra first to facilitate the expelling process.  Because of its high saturated fat content many health organizations say coconut oil should be avoided but the argument doesn't go much deeper than that.  Earlier studies that made coconut oil appear dangerous have been found wanting and there are a number of other studies that show possible beneficial effects such as antibacterial and antiviral properties and rapid absorption and burning off of energy provided by it.

Something one must remember with coconut oil is that it does not contain the essential fatty acids alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid. Essential fatty acids are termed such because they are not produced by the body but must be supplied by the diet so one should have an alternative source for them.  Many previous studies that showed bad results from taking coconut oil can be criticized for inducing an essential fatty acid deficiency. Other studies produced skewed results by using hydrogenated coconut oil (hydrogenation creates unhealthy trans fats). 

Coconut oil may be high in saturated fat but the main fatty acid in question in coconut oil is lauric acid.  The understanding of individual fatty acids is surprisingly poor and lauric acid had for a long time been considered similar in its effects to other saturated fatty acids like palmitic and myristic acid. However, this view is changing. A relatively recent meta-analysis (Mensink, Zock, Kester, and Katan, 2003) showed lauric acid did raise total cholesterol, but it did so by disproportionately raising HDL "good" cholesterol—the most of any fatty acid saturated or unsaturated—resulting in a better (lower) total-to-HDL cholesterol ratio.

On the flip side many of those advocating coconut oil advocate virgin coconut oil which, contrary to many claims made on the internet, has a low smoke point and is unsuitable for frying at high heat.  While it is a very stable oil at lower temperatures and does not go rancid easily—popcorn cooked in coconut oil has been said to keep for over a year—claims about its stability go out the window once it reaches its smoke point at around 140 degrees centigrade or thereabouts and, like any cooking oil that reaches its smoke point, starts breaking down and releasing potentially dangerous aldehydes.  Refined coconut oil on the other hand has a smoke point of around 180 degrees centigrade.  A refined bleached deodorized (but not hydrogenated) coconut oil may be better if one is planning on frying with it.