Is Coconut Oil as Unhealthy as Lard? Let’s Look at the Science
It has been in the news this week that coconut oil is ‘as unhealthy as beef fat and butter’1, news which will likely come as a blow to the clean eating community who have been using this oil as a healthier alternative to saturated animal fats.
But is this headline all it seems? Let us take a closer look.
Some scientists and health experts have been debating whether saturated fat is as bad for you as we’ve been told. Evidence shows that since the population was told to reduce the amount of saturated fats in their diet, levels of diabetes, heart disease and obesity have all gone up. Experts now increasingly believe that this may be as a direct result of the replacement of saturated fat in our diet with the excess of refined sugar and trans fats found in ‘low-fat’ processed foods. To learn more about this, read the related article ‘Why a Low Fat Diet May Not be the Answer’. However, our knowledge of the damage caused by sugar and trans fats, doesn’t necessarily mean that saturated fat is good for you.
On June 15th, the American Heart Association released a report, ‘Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association’. The report looks at studies into saturated fats and shows clear evidence that lowering the amount of saturated fats in the diet, and replacing them with unsaturated fats (such as olive oil and unrefined plant oils), is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease. Saturated fats include beef dripping, butter, lard and coconut oil. Current studies into the relationship between fats and heart disease risk, do not distinguish between saturated fats from animal and plant sources.
Is coconut oil as unhealthy as lard?
Saturated fats from animal sources contain cholesterol, and eating saturated fats is also thought to increase cholesterol production inside the body. There are two forms of cholesterol, high density lipoprotein (HDL) and low density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL is often referred to as ‘bad’ because this cholesterol collects in the wall of the blood vessels where it can cause blockages. HDL on the other hand removes LDL from the bloodstream, it also helps to protect the blood vessels from damage. As a result, HDL is often referred to as the ‘good’ cholesterol.
Virgin coconut oil (unprocessed) does contain very high amounts of saturated fats, however, unlike animal fats, it does not contain dietary cholesterol, and it has also been shown to increase the levels of high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol in the blood2,3. This HDL boost, thought to be due to the high percentage of lauric acid in coconut oil, marks this plant-based oil out as functioning differently from saturated animal fats. Not only this, but plant-based fats are more than just fats, they also contain antioxidants present in phenolic compounds. These antioxidants help to protect the body from free-radical DNA damage and protect against neuronal damage.
Coconut oil also has a relatively low smoke-point when heated at high temperatures. This property makes the oil more stable than olive oil for high-heat stir-frying and pan-frying. To learn more about the best fats to use for cooking, read the related article ‘Cooking Oils & Fats, Clearing up the Confusion’.
Should you use coconut oil?
Based on the evidence of scientific studies, the majority of fat eaten in the diet should be unsaturated fat. This fat can be found in olive oils, unrefined vegetable oils, and high-fat plants such as avocadoes and nuts. Since current scientific studies do not distinguish between plant-based saturated fats and animal-based saturated fats, evidence-based advice must be to continue to use all saturated fats in the diet in moderation. There is currently not enough scientific evidence to say that the saturated fat present in coconut oil is not a risk to heart health when consumed in excess.
What we can say, is that when used in moderation, coconut oil is an excellent, healthier alternative to animal-based saturated fats for clean eaters, especially when used for cooking at high temperatures or when a fat that is solid at room temperature is required for use in baking. So in summary, don’t overdo your coconut oil consumption on a daily basis, but do reap the benefits of its use in moderation.