On January 4th, 2021, the New York Times published an article entitled “Does Coconut Oil Deserve Its Health Halo?”[i], which challenged the health properties of coconut oil and the claims that it is a “miracle food.”
While it is wrong to tout coconut oil as a “miracle food”, it is equally wrong to criticize it based on half-truths.
This article presents the other half of the truth on three issues that were brought up in the article: LDL cholesterol, lauric acid, and the coconut diet.
Half-truth #1: Coconut oil raises “artery-damaging” LDL cholesterol
There are several half-truths with this statement. While coconut oil tends to raise LDL cholesterol, not all LDL cholesterol is “artery damaging.” Recent evidence has shown that “LDL cholesterol” is really made up of particles of many sizes, and coconut oil increases the larger LDL particles, which are not strongly linked to heart disease.[ii] So, this accusation against coconut oil is not supported by the latest scientific evidence.
An equally important blood parameter that the article ignored is HDL cholesterol, the so-called “good cholesterol”. It is well known that coconut oil raises HDL cholesterol[iii] and a high HDL cholesterol level is linked to a lower risk for heart disease.
In addition, the article also failed to mention that coconut oil lowers the levels of triglycerides and HbA1c in the blood. A low triglyceride level protects against heart disease and a lower HbA1c is indicates lower risk for diabetes.[iv]
Why did the article ignore the beneficial effects of coconut oil on the raising of HDL cholesterol and the lowering of both triglycerides and HbA1c?
Half-truth #2: Lauric acid closely mimics the effects of tallow and butter
It is not right to compare a single fatty acid – lauric acid – with whole fat products. The proper comparison should have been between coconut oil versus tallow and butter.
A simple check with the USDA FoodData Central website[v] shows that coconut oil contains about 41g of lauric acid per 100g of oil, while tallow contains a mere 0.9g and butter contains only 2.6g.
Another fact that was ignored is that coconut oil contains zero to negligible amounts of cholesterol, while tallow and butter contain high amounts of cholesterol.
The article then denied the fact that lauric acid is a medium-chain fatty acid. Unlike the long-chain fatty acids, lauric acid is able to rapidly enter the mitochondria, the energy system of cells, to be converted to energy; lauric acid does not require carnitine to cross the mitochondrial membrane unlike long-chain fatty acids.[vi]
Consistent with this, lauric acid is not deposited in fat tissues in the body and does not make one fat.
Lauric acid is the fatty acid with the highest antibacterial and antiviral activities.[vii] Indeed, coconut oil can be considered a functional food because of its antimicrobial properties.
Thus, there is no basis for saying that coconut oil and tallow and butter have the same health effects.
Half-truth #3: The healthy tropical diet can be dissociated from coconut oil
The article acknowledged that the traditional Pacific islanders “consume rather large amounts of coconut products without suffering high rates of cardiovascular disease,” but attributed this to the fruits, vegetables and seafoods that they consume, as well as their active lifestyle – everything except coconut oil.
Ignoring the role of coconut oil is hard to accept if one realizes that in the traditional Pacific island diet, coconut accounted for 34% to over 60% of total calories. Since coconut oil makes up about 35% of coconut meat, these islanders would have been consuming 10% to over 20% of their calories as coconut oil, with no link to heart disease.[viii]
In 2003, WHO reported that the Pacific islanders became obese and diabetic when they switched from their traditional diet, which included coconut oil, to a western diet, including its fats and oils.[ix]
Dissociating coconut oil from the tropical diet is like dissociating olive oil from the Mediterranean diet. The beneficial role of coconut oil in the tropical diet cannot be denied by half-truths.
Half-truths for 60 years
Dr. Frank Sacks, former chair of the American Heart Association, was quoted as saying: “I could find nothing in the scientific literature to support advertising claims that coconut oil has some beneficial effects.”
This is truly surprising because PubMed.gov contains over 2,500 entries on “coconut oil,” and the number of articles published on this topic has been trending upwards quite significantly over the past 10 years.[x]
Dr. Sacks also lamented a recent survey that showed that 72% of Americans believe that coconut oil is healthy, ignoring the AHA’s expert advice.[xi]
What is surprising is that even after 60 years of half-truths, 72% of Americans believe in the health benefits of coconut oil.
Indeed, behind all of these half-truths about coconut oil is a great lie.
“Half a truth is often a great lie.”
– Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack 1758
Dr. Fabian M. Dayrit
Professor, Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines
Chairman, Scientific Advisory Committee for Health, International Coconut Community