Over the last few years coconut oil has become increasingly popular and is promoted as a healthy alternative to other cooking oils such as olive oil. The coconut based product market is now worth over £100 million a year in the UK. Numerous celebrities and fitness personalities promote coconut oil, but is it actually beneficial for your health?

Benefits of Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is produced from the flesh and kemel of coconuts. There are a number of benefits associated with coconut oil. It is marketed as a ‘healthy’ cooking oil, as it supposedly increases ‘good’ cholesterol levels and can speed up your metabolic rate, aiding weight loss and reducing the effects of osteoporosis.

Claimed benefits have included suggestions that coconut oil is extra rehydrating making it a great skin moisturiser, drinking coconut water can help cure hangovers and putting coconut oil in your hair helps to make your hair shine.

It appears then that coconut oil is not just considered a beneficial foodstuff, but also an effective beauty product.

Coconut Split in Half

Why is Coconut Oil So Popular?

For a number of regions the supposed health benefits of coconut oil is not a new phenomenon. Countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Thailand, have considered coconuts as a superfood for hundreds of years. It took until the last few years for Europe and the US to also consider coconut oil in the same light.

Celebrity influence has undoubtedly helped the good press that the coconut has received lately. A number of well known celebrities swear by coconut oil, and they have clearly had an impact on the coconuts perception as a health and beauty product.

Health Issues Associated with Coconut Oil

Coconut oil has had a lot of good press, but there is one main issue with coconut oil: saturated fat. The British Heart Foundation highlights how coconut oil contains around 33% more saturated fat than butter, which raises concerns about potential heart disease and stroke risks.

Scientists tell us that coconut oil is actually viewed as an unhealthy fat, due to its high rate of saturated fat. Coconut oil contains 81% saturated fat compared to 51% in butter and 39% in lard. Foods have a high saturated fat content cause an increase in blood levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL), more simply known as bad cholesterol. Eating foods with a high level of LDL is linked to increasing the risk of suffering from heart disease

Now it gets a bit complicated because saturated fats also tend to increase high density lipoprotein (HDL), which is more commonly known as good cholesterol, which reduces the risk of heart disease and can benefit your heart.

Coconut Oil

BBC Study Into Coconut Oil

There seems to be a bit of contradiction as coconut oil can increase both bad and good cholesterol. The BBC TV programme, Trust Me I’m a Doctor tried to shed some light on the issue by running a trail to discover the effects of coconut oil on our health. They took a group of 94 volunteers aged from 50 to 75 years old. They made sure none of the volunteers suffered from diabetes or heart disease and then got the volunteers to eat different types of fat to determine the effect this had on their cholesterol levels.

The 94 volunteers were split into 3 groups and all had to consume a different type of saturated fat everyday for 4 weeks. The groups were split as follows:

  • Group 1 – consumed 50g of extra virgin coconut oil
  • Group 2 – consumed 50g of extra virgin olive oil
  • Group 3 – consumed 50g of unsalted butter

The results showed that eating the butter increased LDL levels by 10% and their HDL levels by 5%. Eating the olive oil saw a very small drop in LDL cholesterol and a 5% rise in HDL, confirming its reputation as being healthy for the heart.

The coconut oil group showed no rise in LDL levels, but a rise in HDL (good cholesterol) levels by 15%. The results of this study would mean that eating coconut oil in fact reduces the risk of heart disease.

Coconut Oil: Healthy or Unhealthy?

In the case of the BBC study coconut oil came out well. It is important to consider that there are many different types of saturated rate, and some are arguably beneficial for the body. Coconut, for example, is high in the saturated fat lauric acid that is in fact thought to increase the body’s level of good cholesterol.

The study was conducted over a short period of time, with a relatively small sample size of 94 people, across a relatively small age range of 50 to 75, and therefore does not reveal the long term effect of eating coconut oil. There is still a lot of research to go into coconut oil before a conclusive answer can be found. For now though, it doesn’t look like sales of coconut related products are going to slow down anytime soon.