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The Truth About Coconut Oil

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WebMD Expert Column

Coconut oil, according to recent reports, is the latest food cure-all. Claims abound that coconut oil is a health food that can cure everything from poor immune function, thyroid disease, and heart disease, to obesity, cancer, and HIV.  

So should you stock up on coconut oil? Not so fast.

The evidence that coconut oil is super-healthful is not convincing and these claims appear to be more testimonials than clinical evidence.

There is very limited evidence on disease outcomes, says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, of Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health. "All that has been studied well is the impact of coconut oil on cholesterol levels and the findings are intriguing but we still don't know if it is harmful or beneficial," Mozaffarian says.

Neither the American Heart Association (AHA) nor the U.S. government's 2010 Dietary Guidelines suggest that coconut oil is any better or preferable over other saturated fats. Coconut oil, like all saturated fats, should be limited to 7%-10% of calories because it can increase risk for heart disease, according to the AHA and 2010 Dietary Guidelines.

What Is Coconut Oil?

Pure virgin coconut oil, containing no hydrogenation (the process of adding hydrogen to make a liquid fat hard), contains 92% saturated fat -- the highest amount of saturated fat of any fat.

Most saturated fats are solid at room temperature, found in animal products (such as meat, dairy, poultry with skin, and beef fat) and contain cholesterol. Unlike animal fats, tropical oils -- palm, palm kernel, and coconut oils -- are saturated fats that are called oils but depending on room temperature can be solid, semi-solid, or liquid, and do not contain cholesterol.

Like all fats, coconut oil is a blend of fatty acids. Coconut oil contains an unusual blend of short and medium chain fatty acids, primarily lauric (44%) and myristic (16.8%) acids. It is this unusual composition that may offer some health benefits.

Additionally, "because they come from coconuts, they may contain beneficial plant chemicals that have yet to be discovered," says Mozaffarian, researcher and co-director of the cardiovascular epidemiology program at Harvard.

As for calories, all fats have the same number of calories per gram. One tablespoon of coconut oils contains 117 calories, 14 grams fat, 12 g saturated fat, and no vitamins or minerals.

A pint of extra virgin coconut oils costs from $12-$18.

Is Coconut Oil Better Than Other Fats and Oils?

"Coconut oil is better than butter and trans fats but not as good as liquid vegetable oils," says Penn State University cardiovascular nutrition researcher Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD.

Mozaffarian agrees that coconut oil is better than partially hydrogenated trans fats and possibly animal fats.

"But even though coconut oil is cholesterol-free, it is still a saturated fat that needs to be limited in the diet and if you are looking for real health benefits, switch from saturated fats to unsaturated fats by using vegetable oils like soybean, canola, corn, or olive oil," says Kris-Etherton, a member of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines advisory committee and Institute of Medicine's panel on dietary reference intakes for macronutrients (which include fats).

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