Depending on where you look on the web, you can find either conclusion. Of course, the facts support some place in between-with some surprising twists in the story.
Here is what is definitely known about coconut oil:
- The main saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid.
- The impact on blood cholesterol is unique among the saturated fats: lauric acid raises the “bad” LDL a modest amount, but raises the “good” HDL more than other saturated fats-typically about as much as the rise in LDL. By contrast, the saturated fats concentrated in butter and meat, myristic and palmitic acids, raise LDL much more than coconut oil’s lauric acid and raise HDL much less.
- Lauric acid in coconut oil is a building block of “medium chain triglycerides”, a group of dietary fats with special properties. A bit of explanation: lauric acid has 12 carbons in its backbones. Some saturated fats have as few as 4 carbons or as many as 18. For that reason, lauric acid’s 12 carbons places it in the “medium” chain category. Dietary fats made from these medium length chains are referred to “medium chain triglycerides” or MCTs.
- MCTs are known to have some interesting properties. They are clearly better absorbed than many other fats, which is why they are prescribed for some people with problems absorbing nutrients. MCTs themselves have a unique type or absorption-shunted directly from the intestines straight to the liver instead of first passing into the bloodstream like other fats and disseminating throughout the body.
And these are the controversial ideas about coconut oil and MCTs:
- The direct transport of MCTs to the liver may be related to the higher rate of metabolism seen in some studies with MCTs compared to other oils. The implications of this are not quite clear-some studies show associated weight loss, but others not.
- MCTs have also been shown in some studies to improve the processing of blood sugar. Findings in this area are also, however, inconsistent.
- Coconut oil has distinctive properties that warrant further study-including the way it is absorbed, it’s impact on lipids, glucose,and metabolism (see reference).
- However, the data on coconut oil is very preliminary-and clearly not sufficient at this point to support its use for treatment of any condition (other than malabsorption). And the impact on cardiovascular disease remains unclear: possibly beneficial but also possibly harmful.
- For people who choose to add coconut oil to their diet, there is one study that shows that up to 2 tablespoons a day of coconut oil does not impact lipid levels significantly (see reference).
- Virgin coconut oil-obtained without the use of high heat or chemical processing-may have added benefits due to the increased antioxidant level compared to artificially extracted coconut oils.