Fact & Fiction about Coconut Oil

The American Heart Association recently published an advisory to avoid using coconut oil due to the fact and fiction disparity about its health-related properties. This comes after a recent survey reported in The New York Times which showed that 72% of the public, compared with 37% of dietitians, called coconut oil “healthy.”

All coconut oil, whether virgin or refined, is high in saturated fat. One tablespoon provides about 120 calories and 14g of fat, which 82% is saturated (12g). This is even higher amount than butter (63%), beef fat (50%) and pork lard (39%). The fatty acids found in coconut oil raise LDL (the bad cholesterol) just like other saturated fats. And while coconut may also raise HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) it doesn’t do this as much as unsaturated fats. Coconut oil has no superpowers; it is not a functional food and it does not provide any therapeutic effects. Virgin coconut oil contains small amounts of antioxidant compounds that may help reduce chronic inflammation. But to date, proof of any benefit is limited to small laboratory tastings in rats and mice. There is no evidence that consuming coconut oil can lower the risk of heart disease.


Why the controversy?

It goes back to 2003 when a professor of nutrition at Columbia University (Marie-Pierre St-Onge) published two papers showing that eating and cooking with medium chain fatty acids (MCT oil)— a type of molecule found in coconut oil — can help dieting adults burn fat. However, they oil used a special 100% MCT oil. Most coconut oils typically have 13-14% of this medium-chain triglyceride. These same researchers later published that lower doses of MCT oil did not increase calorie burn in overweight adolescents.

Coconut oil advocates point to studies of populations in parts of India, the Philippines, and Polynesia, whose diets include significant amounts of coconut. However, their traditional diets are quite opposite to the Westernized diet. They also include more fish, fruits, and vegetables and legumes than typical Westernized diet, therefore this comparison is inaccurate.

It is true that coconut oil only has about 2% omega-6 fatty acid, which is an inflammatory fatty-acid. But there have been several controlled trials where people replaced saturated fats with Omega-6 fats and had a significantly increased risk of heart disease. Conversely, Omega-3s reduce the risk of heart disease. So, you want to look for oils that have a more favorable omega 6 to omega 3 ratios.


Why is it bad for you?

Coconut oil has a high saturated fat content, a type o fat you want to avoid since it can build up in your arteries and promote chronic inflammation. By switching saturated fats with unsaturated fats in the diet, incidence of cardiovascular disease decreases by about 30%. To lower cholesterol, no more than 5-6% of your total calories should come from saturated fat. For example, if you need about 2,000 calories a day, a maximum of 120 calories (or 13 grams) should come from saturated fats.

Healthier alternatives:

  • Avocado oil:
    • Pros: Has a higher smoke point (a sign that your oil is burning and its vitamins and nutrients are destroyed) and mild flavor, easy to use for many different recipes. Contains high phytosterols and polyhydroxylated fatty alcohols which are anti-inflammatory in nature.

Fat composition:

Omega-6 to omega-3 ratio: 13.09 : 1

Omega-3 fatty acids: 0.96%

Omega-6 fatty acids: 12.53%

Omega-9 fatty acids: 67.89%

Saturated fatty acids: 11.56%

Smoke point: 400°F (204°C) (extra virgin)

Cons: not well-known and rarity leads to higher costs.


  • Extra virgin olive oil:
    • Pros: Compared to other oils, olive oil contains unique molecules called polyphenols. They are a type of health-protective antioxidants which help fight against inflammatory and age-related diseases.

Fat composition:

Omega-6 to omega-3 ratio: 12.83 : 1

Omega-3 fatty acids: 0.76%

Omega-6 fatty acids: 9.76%

Omega-9 fatty acids: 71.27%

Saturated fatty acids: 13.81%

Smoke point: 375°F (191°C) (extra virgin)

Cons: Relatively low smoke point make it unsuitable for high temperature cooking. However, I received this information on 07/11/17 directly from the source, The Chefs Olive Mix:

all of our oils have a high smoke point of over 425 since we have excellent chemistry in our oils.  We are 60-70% more stringent in our requirements for EVOO than the International Olive Council Standard, which is the minimum globally.


  • Substitutions for baking: typically, you can substitute 4 tablespoons of butter or coconut oil with 3 tablespoons of liquid oil or use mashed avocado in a 1:1 ratio for baking.
  • When purchasing olive oil, buy from reputable California producers. In the U.S., California produces 99% of the olives. With California’s strict standards, the likelihood that you are going to get what the label says is in the bottle is very high.


  • A better way to spend 120 calories:
    • Almonds, 3 tablespoons (Tbsp)
    • 1 medium banana
    • 1 cup of mixed berries
    • Baby carrots (6 pieces) and 3 Tbsp of hummus
    • Walnuts, 2 Tbsp
    • Celery with 1 Tbsp of nut butter
    • 2 cups of mixed green veggies
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