Coconut Oil: Is it Healthy or Harmful?

Cardiologist Dr. Jennifer Haythe on the perceived heart-health benefits of this popular cooking oil.

Every so often a new food trend arrives, promising a healthier heart, a metabolism boost, or overall longevity and general health. These trends come and go, with varying degrees of popularity and success, but coconut oil, with purported myriad health benefits, seems to have exceptional staying power.

That may be because 72 percent of the public thinks it is a healthy addition to their diets, according to a 2016 survey by The New York Times and the polling firm Morning Consult. Coconut oil, which comes from extracting the fat from the white insides of a coconut, is so popular that it can be found not only in small health food stores, but also in major grocery chains next to other cooking oils such as olive and canola.

The rub? While many Americans polled believed coconut oil to be a health food, only 37 percent of nutritionists agreed. That could be because of its saturated fat content, which is even higher than that of butter (a tablespoon of butter has 7 grams of saturated fat compared with 12 grams in a tablespoon of coconut oil). Consuming high levels of saturated fat has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Perhaps that’s why a University of Freiburg professor labeled coconut oil “pure poison” in a July lecture.

Health Matters turned to Dr. Jennifer Haythe, a cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and co-director of the Women’s Heart Center at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, to understand whether it makes sense to incorporate coconut oil into one’s diet, and how it compares with other cooking oils when it comes to heart health.

Is cooking with coconut oil as healthy as some folks claim it to be?
Probably not. It’s very high in saturated fat. Butter is 64 percent saturated fat, whereas coconut oil is about 90 percent saturated fat. The reason why people think it might be healthy is it contains lauric acid, which increases HDL cholesterol (the good kind), which in turn protects against heart attack and stroke. But it also increases LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), which contributes to narrowing of the arteries and increases one’s risk of a heart attack and stroke.

What do studies of coconut oil’s effect on the heart show?
There really is no data to support that it’s good for your heart or that it improves heart health. There’s a lot of data on using coconut oil in mice and rabbits, but there’s not a lot of real, solid data looking at coconut oil in humans. In 2016, researchers reviewed findings from about 21 studies, looking at the effect of coconut oil or coconut oil products on cholesterol. Compared with unsaturated oils like olive oil, sunflower, safflower, and corn oils, coconut oil actually raised your HDL, LDL, and total cholesterol. Again, these are not studies looking at survival or mortality or incidence of heart disease. These are studies that are just looking at cholesterol levels per se. And then people are extrapolating from there.

Are there any pros to cooking with coconut oil?
For people who cook at very high temperatures, coconut oil is a good one to use because it has a very high smoking point. That means it won’t smoke at very high temperatures, which is a healthier environment for people to cook in. It has a semisolid quality when left at room temperature, so there are some people who think it may be helpful to use as a replacement for cooking things that would use butter, like baked goods.

Which oils rate highly in terms of heart health?
Olive oil is definitely the best. It has the least amount of saturated fat and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Comparatively speaking, a tablespoon of coconut oil has six times the amount of saturated fat than a tablespoon of olive oil. Canola oil is low in saturated fat, and it’s also a liquid at room temperature. It has a higher smoking point than olive oil, so it can be used safely for cooking at high temperatures, but people don’t always like its flavor. Flaxseed oil has a lot of omega-3 fatty acids, which may contribute to heart health. Avocado oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids, which can promote healthy cholesterol levels. It also has a high smoke point and is used for stir-frying, sautéing, and searing, but it may be too expensive for some people to use regularly. Nut oils like walnut oil are good, because nuts are part of the Mediterranean diet, but can be very expensive.

Dr. Jennifer Haythe

How much olive oil do you recommend consuming daily?
If you’re in good health, about two tablespoons daily may reduce the risk of heart disease due to the beneficial polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats in olive oil. One tablespoon serving has about 14 grams of fat, with most of it being heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.

What oils should be avoided?
I’d avoid palm oil, which is very high in saturated fats, as well as oils that are labeled as partially hydrogenated, such as vegetable oil. They contain trans fats and can increase your risk of heart disease. In 2015 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled that manufacturers must remove all trans fat from processed foods by June 18, 2018, but that deadline has been extended to January 1, 2020.

As for coconut oil, it can be used in moderation since the data really is still out. In general, if your diet for the most part is olive oil, then it’s OK to have a little coconut oil here and there. It’s not going to kill you.

Jennifer Haythe, M.D., specializes in pulmonary hypertension, heart failure, and cardiac transplant. A cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and co-director of the Women’s Heart Center at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, she has a special interest in chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension (CTEPH) and the care of pregnant women with cardiovascular diseases.