Google “coconut oil” and you’ll find article after article claiming numerous health benefits. However, consumers looking for heart-healthy foods would do better to look elsewhere, say nutrition experts with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
“Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, which, along with trans fat, is linked to heart disease,” said Gail Kauwell, professor of food science and human nutrition. “If you’re following a healthy diet, no more than six percent of your calories should be coming from saturated fat.”
Coconut oil has long been known to have high levels of saturated fat. But in recent years, some have made the case that because of its molecular structure, the particular kind of saturated fat in coconut oil may actually support cardiovascular health.
“Chemically speaking, fats are made of chains of carbon molecules, and these molecules are categorized as short-, medium- or long-chain triglycerides,” said Wendy Gans, a student in UF’s Master of Science – Dietetic Internship Program.
Kauwell and Gans have co-authored a new UF/IFAS Extension document on coconut oil’s perceived health benefits and recommended alternatives.
“About 64 percent of the fat in coconut oil is a medium-chain fat called lauric acid. Medium-chain saturated fats are processed differently by the body than long-chain saturated fats and have been used to treat certain conditions with favorable outcomes,” Gans said. By this logic, coconut oil would appear to be a healthy choice, she said.
“But when lauric acid gets metabolized, it ends up behaving like a long-chain fat, taking the same route in the body that long-chain fats do. That means lauric acid ultimately affects the body like a long-chain fat and increases levels of bad cholesterol,” Gans explained.
Some research has shown a correlation between consumption of coconut products and heart health, Gans said, but there isn’t evidence that coconut oil is responsible for enhancing cardiovascular health.
“These studies looked at populations in the South Pacific where the typical diet includes more fish, fruits and vegetables than the typical Western diet. It’s not clear whether coconut is directly impacting health or whether the people studied are healthier because their diet is better overall,” Gans said.
The evidence we have to date, Kauwell said, does not support the popular claim contending that coconut oil is a healthy oil to reduce heart disease risk.
Many of the health benefits attributed to coconut oil can be found in other foods, Kauwell said. Avocado, nuts, olive oil, tuna and salmon are all good sources of fats shown to be heart-healthy.
Many Floridians are already familiar with avocados and will usually find two varieties at the grocery store: the smaller, leathery-skinned kind and the larger, smooth-skinned kind. “Both contain heart-healthy fats,” Kauwell said.
With so much nutrition information available online, consumers are encourage to seek out the facts by going to choosemyplate.gov, a science-based nutritional resource that’s updated every five years, Kauwell said.
A registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) or medical doctor can also advise you on what foods to include in your diet, Kauwell noted. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics provides an online database of registered dietitian nutritionists in your area.