Coconut Oil and Cardiovascular Disease Risk

Consumption of coconut oil has increased in recent years. It is also touted as a healthy fat with beneficial impacts for cardiovascular health. But some experts disagree: It is considered a saturated fat, chemically, which makes it like butter. Is it good, or bad? What should we believe? Here we will weigh the research.

Coconut oil primarily consists of saturated fat (92%) and so is classified in the same category as butter, palm oil and other fats that are solid at room temperature.

A tablespoon of coconut oil has approximately 120 calories, and 112 calories from saturated fat.

Currently, there is no definite evidence on the impact of coconut oil on cardiovascular disease outcomes. Lipid profiles in some studies indicated that people who consumed coconut oil tended to have significantly higher total and LDL cholesterol levels compared to those who consumed unsaturated fats, but to a lower extent than those who consumed butter. However, evidence also indicated that coconut oil raises HDL cholesterol, which is cardio-protective. Overall, evidence of coconut oil on the impact of cardiovascular health is inconsistent.

The Chemical Details:

A possible reason why coconut oil may have variable impact on lipid profiles is likely due to the differences in length of fatty acids. About 47% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are in the form of lauric acid (C-12), a very long molecule. Whereas 9% (caprylic, C-8) and 7% (capric, C-10) of the fatty acids are medium chain fatty acids.

Name % Total Fat Saturated/Unsaturated MCFA/LCFA
Caproic acid (6:0) 0.6 Saturated MCFA
Caprylic (8:0) 0.8 Saturated MCFA
Capric (10:0) 6.4 Saturated MCFA
Lauric (12:0) 48.5 Saturated MCFA
Myristic (14:0) 17.6 Saturated MCFA
Palmitic acid (16:0) 8.4 Saturated MCFA
Stearic acid (18:0) 2.5 Saturated LCFA
Linoleic acid (18:1) 6.5 Unsaturated LCFA
Linolenic (18:2) 1.5 Unsaturated LCFA
Table 1: Fatty acid composition of coconut oil, showing percentage of total fat
MCFA: medium-chain fatty acids; LCFA: long-chain fatty acids.

With a chain length of 12 carbons, lauric acid can be classified as a long-chain or a medium-chain fatty acid. Metabolically though, lauric acid behaves as a long-chain fatty acid and about 70-75% of it is absorbed into the bloodstream. The remainder (25-30%) is absorbed into the portal vein and not incorporated into chylomicrons that contribute to blood lipid levels. This variability in absorption, may explain why coconut oil has an inconsistent impact on blood lipid levels.

It’s All About Perspective

Are you confused yet? There’s reason to be. The reasons for the health claims supporting coconut oil are based on biased research. Populations who consumed coconut flesh/water/cream as part of their traditional diets have been highlighted as evidence for the beneficial properties of coconut oil. However, these traditional meals were low in processed foods and high in fruits and vegetables, with fish as the primary source of protein. These factors for traditional healthy meals and low or no processed foods likely had a huge effect on stabilizing lipid profiles and low mortality rate in those populations. Furthermore, compared to just using the coconut oil, coconut flesh is more common than oil in those populations studied. The flesh contains fiber which is also beneficial for overall health.

In contrast, Western diets are typically high in processed foods, added sugar and fat and low in fiber. As a result, the addition of coconut oil to the typical Western diet is likely to have little effect when swapping out other fats.

Vegetable Oils C8:0 C10:0 C12:0 C14:0 C16:0 C18:0 C18:1 C18:2 C18:3 C20:0 C22:0 Others
Coconut 7.0 5.4 48.9 20.2 8.4 2.5 6.2 1.4 - - -
Palm kernel - 1.2 51.6 22.9 12.2 1.3 10.8 - - - - -
Sunflower - - - - 6.3 3.0 43.7 47.0 - - -
Rice bran - - - 0.4 22.9 1.8 42.5 30.5 1.4 0.5 -
Safflower - - - 0.3 11.9 2.3 29.2 55.9 0.4 - -
Sesame - - - - 10.3 5.8 42.9 41.0 - - -
Groundnut - - - - 14.0 3.8 41.9 34.7 1.0 1.2 3.4
Palm - - 0.2 1.1 42.6 3.8 41.9 10.4 - - -
Olive - - - - 12.0 2.5 75.7 7.9 0.5 - - 1.4
Soybean - - - - 11.6 4.0 18.8 56.1 8.5 - - 1.0
Grape seed - - - - 7.2 4.8 19.4 68.1 0.1 - - 0.4
Linseed - - - - 7.1 2.0 19.9 17.3 53.7 - - 0.4
Table 4: Fatty acid composition of coconut oil and some other vegetable oils
July 2010

In conclusion, coconut oil seems most comparable to other saturated fats in the diet. Consumption should be as minimal as possible. Saturated fat, in general, should be less than 10% of total daily calories. Practically, this translates to less than 200 calories per day (for a 2000 calorie diet) from any source of saturated fat!

Overall, consider consuming a healthful diet high in fruits and vegetables with moderate amounts of whole grains, low-fat protein and low-fat dairy. Limit intake of processed foods with added sugar, fat and salt. If you are looking for an alternative to cooking with butter, aim to use more avocado oil, olive oil, or even some nuts and nut butters in cooking, or use low fat cooking methods.