The World's Healthiest Foods

What are your thoughts on coconut oil?

Q. I was told that coconut oil is a good oil to use for cooking. What are your thoughts on coconut oil?

A. For several decades, coconut oil was looked upon by Western science food analysts solely as a source of saturated fats and therefore to be avoided by those individuals with concerns over their cholesterol levels. Yet, more recently, studies have supported the potential benefits of coconut oil. While it is true that coconuts contain saturated fats, what is now being brought to light is that all saturated fats are not bad for you; there are actually different types of saturated fats just like there are different types of fats in general.

Coconut oil is a staple food in many parts of the world. You can travel to Thailand, the Caribbean, parts of Brazil, countries in Africa, and the vast southern half of India, and find this oil on center stage when it comes to delicious and healthy cuisine. The popularity of this oil is partly due to its stability, ease of use in cooking, and taste.

Some of these properties involve its high percent of saturated fat (about 85%). Of the saturated fat found in coconut oil, however, only 9% is palmitic acid—the long chain saturated fat most connected with increased risk of heart disease. Two-thirds of the fat in coconut oil falls into the category called "medium-chain" saturated fat (included here are caprylic and capric fatty acids, but more importantly, a very large amount of lauric acid, which has increasingly gained in its reputation as a heart-protective fatty acid).

In clinical healthcare, medium-chain fatty acids like the ones found in coconut have long-term and widespread use in the form of a product called MCT oil. ("MCT" stands for medium-chain triglyceride.) MCT oil has been widely used in the clinical treatment of patients with digestion and absorption problems, and has become a standard part of treatment in situations like short bowel syndrome and pancreatic insufficiency. Celiac patients, AIDS patients, and patients with different types of liver disease have also often been given MCT oil. The reason for use of MCT oil is its relative ease of digestion and absorption. About 30% of the MCT oil's fats can be taken up from the digestive tract and into the bloodstream without much metabolic work of any kind. This ease of absorption is very different from the absorption of long-chain fatty acids, which require much more processing. Since coconut oil, like MCT oil, contains a very high percentage of medium-chain fatty acids, it can provide some of these same digestive benefits.

We have noticed that coconut oil is a very well-promoted subject on the Internet, with many claims for its health benefits, notably for its antiviral activity. But from the research we have seen, many of these conclusions seem preliminary given that there has not been that much research published on this subject and that which has been conducted has often been done with individual fatty acid components of coconut oil (like monolaurin), not with coconut oil itself. Still, at the moment it looks pretty good for coconut and coconut oil in terms of the role that they can play in supporting health in general. But we will continue to look at the research results as they come in.

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