Is using coconut oil beneficial or detrimental?
In recent years, a number of different websites and articles have been promoting the use of coconut oil. The most common claims found in these sources include the use of coconut oil in cooking and frying, prevention of cardiovascular disease, and as a treatment for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Are these claims based on credible findings from well-designed scientific experiments or do they constitute one of the newest dietary hype? You will find the answer to these questions below.
Is coconut oil the best for cooking and frying?
The idea that coconut oil is the best for frying is based on information that it has the highest smoke point of any oil. This information is wide-spread in many popular websites. Interestingly, I have never seen the actual smoke temperature of coconut oil on any of these sites. Smoke temperatures of oils have been included in some scientific publications and culinary websites. In one of such publications we read, “… It is suitable for single-use shallow frying, although it is not recommended for continuous deep-fat frying because of its low smoke point, which may lead to the production of potentially carcinogenic substances upon overheating.”1 Clearly, the above quote does not confirm the wide-spread belief in regard to smoke temperature of coconut oil. Below, I have included a table with smoke temperatures of selected oils. For information on smoke temperature of virgin olive oil and whether it can be used for frying I would like to refer you to my book “Healthy diet without secrets,” available at the Adventist Christian Book Center in Charlotte.
Table. Smoke temperature of selected oils.1
|Oil type||Smoke temperature|
|Sunflower seeds oil||440F/225C|
Is coconut oil beneficial or detrimental for atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease risk?
Another claim that has recently been spread has to do with the impact of coconut oil on cardiovascular disease risk. Although coconut oil is the most saturated of all known fats and oils and even though it has been known for decades that saturated fat intake is associated with undesirable blood lipid profile (increased total and LDL cholesterol) and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, the claim states that coconut oil can be effective in cardiovascular disease prevention. It is thus prudent to examine this claim in light of available scientific findings. The quotes found below summarize the findings from published studies.
“The coconut oil interventions resulted in significantly higher total cholesterol in all 7 trials, with significantly higher LDL-Cholesterol in 6 trials and with no significant difference in 1 trial. High-density lipoprotein cholesterol was significantly higher after the coconut oil interventions in 5 of the trials with no significant difference observed in the remaining 2 trials.”1 “Ratios of total cholesterol to HDL-Cholesterol or of LDL-Cholesterol to HDL-Cholesterol were examined in only 2 of these studies. One study reported a significantly higher LDL-Cholesterol:HDL-Cholesterol ratio after a coconut oil diet compared with a corn oil diet, while one reported a significantly lower ratio of total cholesterol to HDL-Cholesterol following a coconut oil diet compared with an olive oil diet.”1 “This review does not support popular claims purporting that coconut oil is a healthy oil in terms of reducing the risk of CVD. There was no evidence that coconut oil acted consistently different from other saturated fats in terms of its effects on blood lipids and lipoproteins.”1 “This review found no evidence that coconut oil should be viewed differently from other sources of dietary saturated fat with regard to dietary recommendations. This is in line with recommendations from the American Heart Association and the US Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, which suggest that coconut oil is not preferable to other saturated fats.”1
Does coconut oil intake reverse symptoms of dementia and/or Alzheimer’s disease?
The idea that coconut oil intake is effective in reversing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease has originated from a Florida physician, Dr. Mary Newport, whose husband Steve’s Alzheimer’s symptoms, apparently improved after ingesting spoonfuls of coconut oil. In 2012, Dr. Newport was featured on Pat Robertson’s program as part of the Christian Broadcast Network where she talked about the miraculous effect of coconut oil feeding. I have visited Dr. Newport’s website in which, in 2016, among longer message, I have found the following information: “It has been nearly 8 years since Steve improved with coconut oil. He improved very significantly and steadily the first year and remained stable for 2 more years. He began having seizures in summer 2013 starting with a head injury from a fall and did not fully recover.” Dr. Newport has further stated that her husband Steve, “lost his battle with Alzheimer’s on January 2, 2016, at age 65.” This message seems to contradict what she has communicated in her book, “Alzheimer’s disease. What if there was a cure and nobody knew about it?”
The example of Steve shows that, at best, coconut oil may show a short-term improvement of Alzheimer’s symptoms and that complete remission of symptoms was not possible to achieve. The questions I will explore below is whether the proposed cure for Alzheimer’s by coconut oil has any scientific validity. The following is a quote from a publication “Nutrition and prevention of Alzheimer’s dementia.” “… The claim of efficacy for coconut oil use in Alzheimer’s disease has not been substantiated in any case report in the medical and scientific literature. … Definitive scientific and or clinical evidence for an effect of coconut oil for the prevention or treatment of Alzheimer’s disease remains to be seen, as no clinical trial data is as of yet available to substantiate or refute these claims.”3
The above quote comes from a manuscript that was published in 2014. I have checked PUBMED, a medical database, for manuscripts published since that time. The results showed that only a handful of manuscripts have been published since 2014. Most of these publications are commentaries and the few that contain original data were of very low quality as they were based on few participants. For example, a manuscript describing a study from Spain was based on 44 participants of which 21 received 40 ml of coconut oil for 21 days. Authors have found improvements in cognitive functioning of these individuals expressed in improvement in orientation and language-construction.4 It is not possible to make any definitive conclusions based on a study with such few participating individuals.
Does the above mean that coconut oil does not have any benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease? It is not possible to answer this question at this time. On the one hand, coconut oil contains relatively large quantities of caprylic acid, which seems to be beneficial for the functioning of the brain of Alzheimer’s patients. On the other hand, as it was summarized above, coconut oil detrimentally impacts blood lipid profile and, as I described in more details in my book “Forever young. Secrets of delaying aging and living disease free,” elevated cholesterol is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. It is, however, clear that anyone who makes a claim that we must feed Alzheimer’s patients with coconut oil has no scientific findings to back up the claim.
To summarize the health effect of coconut oil, I would like to quote from the work of Dr. Winston Criag and his student presented at the 7th International Congress on Vegetarian Diet at Loma Linda University in February, 2018. “Coconut oil, which some describe as the healthiest oil on earth, has become a superfood in the diet of many vegetarians and others. Many claims have been made for the oil, such as reversing the effects of cognitive impartment and slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Proponents of coconut oil claim it provides help for arthritis, is useful for treating depression and protective against heart disease. … A review of 21 studies reported that coconut oil (which contains about 85% saturated fat) raised total and LDL cholesterol relative to other plant oils. Studies with primates revealed that coconut oil also increases the risk of blood clots. Indigenous populations in Asia and the Pacific that include fresh coconut in their traditional cuisine and have low rates of heart disease, typically consume a lot of vegetables, tubers, fruit and fish, and are more active than Westerners, while using little coconut oil. Coconut oil does not appear to live up to all the hype.”5
- Eyres L, Eyres MF, Chisholm A, Brown RC. Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans. Nutrition Reviews 2016;74(4):267–280.
- Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was A Cure? http://coconutketones.com/
- Waminathan & Jicha. Nutrition and prevention of Alzheimer’s dementia. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. 2014;6:282. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2014.00282.
- De la Rubia Ortí JE, Sánchez Álvarez C, Selvi Sabater P, Bueno Cayo AM, Sancho Castillo S, Rochina MJ, Hu Yang I. How does coconut oil affect cognitive performance in Alzheimer patients? Nutr Hosp. 2017;34(2):352-356.
- Craig W & Jaki T. Coconut oil: The miracle health food. 7th International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition. February 2018. Loma Linda, CA. Abstract P409.