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July 6, 2017

Why so many people (wrongly) think coconut oil is healthy

Daily Briefing

A new American Heart Association report released earlier this month confirmed what research has shown for years: Coconut oil—despite having an empirically unsupported reputation as a health conscience food choice—isn't all that healthy.

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An unhealthy oil

According to the AHA report, research has long shown that coconut oil—which has more saturated fat than lard or butter—increases "bad" LDL cholesterol, which thickens arterial walls, making them hard and narrow. But polling shows that 70 percent of Americans consider the oil a health-conscious choice. So how did the disconnect arise?

According to STAT News, coconut oil's heart-healthy reputation stems in part from a pair of papers published in 2003 under the supervision of Marie-Pierre St-Onge, a professor of nutrition at Columbia University. The papers showed that eating and cooking with "medium chain fatty acids" can help people who are dieting lose weight—and such acids can be found in coconut oil.

That being said, St-Onge points out in the study that coconut oil contains only 14 percent of such acids, whereas the participants in the study were given 100 percent medium chain fatty acids. "I think the data that we've shown with medium chain fatty acids have been extrapolated very liberally," said St-Onge. "I've never done one study on coconut oil."

Another factor playing into coconut oil's reputation as a healthy choice is research indicating that people who eat more coconut overall have higher levels of HDL cholesterol, STAT News reports. According to the Mayo Clinic, HDL, or "good" cholesterol, picks up excess cholesterol and delivers it to the liver.

As Walter Willett, a nutrition professor at Harvard, wrote in a blog post on the topic, "Fat in the diet, whether it's saturated or unsaturated, tends to nudge HDL levels up, but coconut oil seems to be especially potent at doing so."

But Willett pointed out that other oils, such as olive oil or soybean oil, lower LDL and increase HDL—and both of the oils are mainly unsaturated fat, making them a better overall choice for cholesterol. 

A better choice

And research affirms these healthier oil alternatives, USA Today reports. The healthiest oils, as recommended by physicians and researchers, are:

  1. Oils high in monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil. According to Mayo, research indicates that eating food with a lot of monounsaturated fats can improve cholesterol levels, thereby lessening the risk of heart disease. For instance, one study found that people ages 55 to 80 years old who consume olive oil or nuts substantially cut their risk of cardiovascular disease. And other research suggests eating olive oil and could help cut the risk of breast cancer.

  2. Avocado oil. Researchers also recommend avocado oil, which has 71 percent monounsaturated fats, and a high smoke point, which means it's safe to cook at high temperatures. (Oils that have a low smoke point can, when overheated, create toxic compounds.) According to researchers, safflower and sunflower oils are similar to avocado oil.

  3. Oils high in polyunsaturated fats, which like monounsaturated fats are linked to improved blood cholesterol levels. Canola oil, corn oil, peanut oil, and soybean oil all contain high amounts of polyunsaturated fats, AHA said, and canola and peanut oil in particular are high in both polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. When it comes to baking, canola oil might be best because it's largely tasteless, while peanut oil—with a particularly high smoke point—is likely best for frying, USA Today reports (May, USA Today, 6/20; Wosen, STAT News, 6/20; Mayo Clinic dietary fats fact sheet, accessed 6/29; Mayo Clinic cholesterol fact sheet, accessed 6/29).

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