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Coconut Oil – The Unbiased Scientific Truth, Evidence-Based Health Benefits, Risks, and More

Coconut Oil – The Unbiased Scientific Truth, Evidence-Based Health Benefits, Risks, and More

A Scientific Review of Coconut Oil - Learn more about the types, health benefits, risks and other important information here!

coconut oil

Coconut oil contains fatty acids with potent medicinal properties.

Coconut oil is often featured as a superfood, but does science back up the claim? This article aims to review the science-backed health benefits of coconut oil and provides simple instructions on how to incorporate coconut oil in your everyday life.

 

What is Coconut Oil?

Coconut oil is extracted from the coconut fruit, which is native to south-east Asia. It is mostly comprised of various saturated fats, three of which are Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT).

The composition of coconut oil breaks down like this[1]:

  • Lauric acid: 49% (MCT)
  • Myristic acid: 18%
  • Caprylic acid: 8% (MCT)
  • Palmitic acid: 8%
  • Capric acid: 7% (MCT)
  • Oleic acid: 6%
  • Linoleic acid: 2%
  • Stearic acid: 2%

Lauric acid is the most abundant fatty acid in coconut oil and is considered a medium-chain triglyceride. Due to its moderate size, lauric acid bypasses transport through the blood system and heads straight to the liver to be used immediately as energy.

Lauric acid is what gives coconut oil it’s white coloring and its antimicrobial properties.

 

Types of Coconut Oil

There are two main types of coconut oil. One type is best for cooking, and the other is best for use as a carrier oil.

  • Unrefined: is made from wet coconuts. This oil is not processed and therefore is labeled “virgin”. Due to the lack of processing, this type of coconut oil tastes and smells like coconuts and contains more nutrients. This is the best type of coconut oil for cooking.
  • Refined: is made from dried coconuts. This oil is processed to eliminate microbes and dust through a process called bleaching. The end result yields a colorless and odorless oil that is perfect for use as a carrier oil in some beauty products.

Another popular type of coconut oil is fractionated.

Fractionated coconut oil is processed to exclude any long-chain fatty acids. The remaining medium-chain fatty acids present are caprylic and capric acids.

This type of coconut oil is odorless and tasteless, and often more expensive.

Fractionated coconut oil is most popular as a carrier oil specifically for essential oils.

 

Health Benefits of Coconut Oil

Many websites boast multiple health benefits for coconut oil including increased metabolism, weight loss, a boost in energy, stable blood sugars, increased brain health, and many more.

The research supports that coconut oil is beneficial for the skin when used topically, your overall lipid profile, and it has anti-inflammatory properties which can aid in disease prevention.

  • Coconut Oil is Amazing for Your Skin

  • Topical use of coconut oil is advantageous for both healthy skin and irritated skin. Coconut oil has been shown to reduce the inflammation causing irritated skin[2]. It is also an effective moisturizer for dry skin[3].

    Keeping your skin hydrated is essential for wound healing, scar healing, and maintaining overall functionality[4]. It is also useful for wound healing due to its modest effect in collagen production[5].

  • Coconut Oil and Your Lipid Profile

  • Contrary to popular belief, the saturated fat in coconut oil is not linked to raising LDL (bad) cholesterol. In fact, studies show that coconut oil raises HDL (good) cholesterol levels. By increasing the HDL cholesterol in your blood, the risk for developing heart disease or stroke decreases[6][7].

  • Coconut Oil in Disease Prevention

  • Coconut oil is anti-inflammatory, meaning it reduces oxidative stress within the body. Oxidative stress occurs during exposure to environmental toxins, poor diet, stress, and disease.

    Oxidative stress is linked to tissue damage and can be a major factor in developing chronic disease. Consuming anti-inflammatory foods such as coconut oil can help neutralize oxidative stress and encourage a healthy life[8].

  • Coconut Oil Kills Bacteria and Fungi

  • Lauric acid specifically has antimicrobial properties, meaning it acts within the body to kill harmful bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, and fungi such as Candida albicans.[9][10][11]

    Some use coconut oil as a mouthwash, a practice called oil pulling, to kill harmful bacteria in the mouth. Oil Pulling reduces bad breath and is beneficial for your overall dental health[12].

 

Risks of Coconut Oil

As with anything, too much of a good thing can turn toxic. The 2015-2020 American Dietary Guidelines recommend <10% of your overall diet should come from saturated fat[13]. For someone hovering around 2000 calories, this amounts to 200 calories worth of coconut oil per day.

How to Use Coconut Oil

  • As a moisturizer: Apply a small amount of coconut oil to your palm and warm with your hands until smooth. Then, apply in circular motions to the face, arms, legs, or other body parts until the entire surface is covered. Leave for 1 minute, then gently wipe any excess oil off with a clean towel.
  • Oil Pulling: Measure 1 tablespoon coconut oil and melt to room temperature. Then swish around in the mouth for 10-20 minutes, being mindful not to swallow any. The oil will become thinner and turn a milky white color. Once swishing is complete, spit the oil into the trash can and rinse your mouth with water[14].
  • In Cooking: it is stable at high temperatures, therefore it is an excellent option for sauteing or stir-frying. For a stir-fry, measure out 1 tablespoon and melt in a hot pan. Then add vegetables of your choice and saute until cooked to the desired texture.
  • In Recipes: it is easily substituted for vegetable oil at a ratio of 1:1. Be sure to bring the coconut oil to room temperature before adding to the recipe to prevent clumping.

 

Summary

  • It is extracted from the coconut fruit, which is native to south-east Asia.
  • The most abundant fatty acid in coconut oil is Lauric acid, which is a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) with many health benefits.
  • Virgin coconut oil yields the most nutrient benefits.
  • It is good for your skin due to its anti-inflammatory, moisturizing, and collagen-producing properties.
  • It increases HDL (good) cholesterol, lowering your chance of developing heart disease.
  • It reverses oxidative stress, which can lead to the prevention of chronic disease.
  • It kills harmful bacteria and harmful fungi.
  • A little bit goes a long way, it is best not to overeat coconut oil and keep it within 10% of your overall diet.
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References

1. DebMandal, M., & Mandal, S. (2011, April 12). Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.: Arecaceae): In health promotion and disease prevention. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1995764511600783
2. Varma, S. R., Sivaprakasam, T. O., Arumugam, I., Dilip, N., Raghuraman, M., Pavan, K. B., … Paramesh, R. (2018, January 17). In vitro anti-inflammatory and skin protective properties of Virgin coconut oil. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30671361
3. Agero, A. L. C., & Verallo-Rowell, V. M. (2004, September). A randomized double-blind controlled trial comparing extra virgin coconut oil with mineral oil as a moisturizer for mild to moderate xerosis. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15724344
4. Elias, P. M. (2008, July). Skin barrier function. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2843412/
5. Nevin, K. G., & Rajamohan, T. (2010). Effect of topical application of virgin coconut oil on skin components and antioxidant status during dermal wound healing in young rats. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20523108
6. Teng, M., Zhao, Y. J., Khoo, A. L., Yeo, T. C., Yong, Q. W., & Lim, B. P. (2019, September 20). Impact of coconut oil consumption on cardiovascular health: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31769848
7. Cardoso, D. A., Moreira, A. S. B., de Oliveira, G. M. M., Raggio Luiz, R., & Rosa, G. (2015, November 1). A COCONUT EXTRA VIRGIN OIL-RICH DIET INCREASES HDL CHOLESTEROL AND DECREASES WAIST CIRCUMFERENCE AND BODY MASS IN CORONARY ARTERY DISEASE PATIENTS. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26545671
8. Famurewa, A. C., Folawiyo, A. M., Enohnyaket, E. B., Azubuike-Osu, S. O., Abi, I., Obaje, S. G., & Famurewa, O. A. (2018, September). Beneficial role of virgin coconut oil supplementation against acute methotrexate chemotherapy-induced oxidative toxicity and inflammation in rats. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30271714
9. Kabara, J. J., Swieczkowski, D. M., Conley, A. J., & Truant, J. P. (1972, July). Fatty acids and derivatives as antimicrobial agents. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC444260/
10. Ruzin, A., & Novick, R. P. (2000, May). Equivalence of lauric acid and glycerol monolaurate as inhibitors of signal transduction in Staphylococcus aureus. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10762277
11. Ogbolu, D. O., Oni, A. A., Daini, O. A., & Oloko, A. P. (2007, June). In vitro antimicrobial properties of coconut oil on Candida species in Ibadan, Nigeria. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17651080
12. Asokan, S, et al. “Effect of Oil Pulling on Streptococcus Mutans Count in Plaque and Saliva Using Dentocult SM Strip Mutans Test: a Randomized, Controlled, Triple-Blind Study.” Journal of the Indian Society of Pedodontics and Preventive Dentistry, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2008, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18408265. 13. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2019-05/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf
14. Shanbhag, V. K. L. (2016, June 6). Oil pulling for maintaining oral hygiene - A review. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5198813/#!po=3.57143
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Cristen Lindsay RD, CNSC

Cristen Lindsay is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Nutrition Support Clinician. She has a demonstrated background in ...

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