Coconut oil has grown in popularity over recent years. An example of the power of the Internet to propagate any food to ‘superfood’ status, are the claims made about coconut oil more a case of good marketing over good science? Here we look at how coconut oil stacks up against the well-researched health benefits of olive oil, especially as a key part of a Mediterranean-style dietary pattern.
Fatty acid profile
Fatty acids are the key defining difference between different fats and oils. For coconut oil, it is very high in saturated fatty acids, at around 90 percent, which ranks it higher than lard or butter in this domain. Its saturated fat content is the key reason why coconut oil is normally solid at room temperature. The saturated fat in coconut oil consists mostly of the medium chain fatty acid lauric acid in addition to longer chain saturated fatty acids such as myristic and palmitic acid. Olive oil, on the other hand, is high in the monounsaturated fatty acid of oleic acid at around 75 percent with the rest being a combination of polyunsaturated and saturated fatty acids.
Antioxidants are an important part of food in providing health benefits. Both coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) contain a range of antioxidant polyphenols, but EVOO contains far more than coconut oil with at least 36 different polyphenols identified1 compared to just six different polyphenols in coconut oil2. Human, animal and in vitro studies have demonstrated that olive oil phenolic compounds have positive effects on various physiological biomarkers, implicating these compounds as partially responsible for health benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet3.
Vitamin E is a key component found in EVOO linked to its health benefits with one tablespoon meeting almost half of an adult’s daily needs4. In contrast, the vitamin E content of coconut oil is negligible. Not all types of olive oil are the same though. For instance refined olive oils, while having the same fatty acid profile as EVOO, lack the diversity and quantity of the beneficial phytochemicals and antioxidants found in EVOO.
Heart health benefits
Any mention of coconut and olive oil will bring heart health implications to the fore. The fatty acid profile of coconut oil, being high in saturated fat, does raise blood cholesterol, particularly the more harmful and easily oxidisable LDL-cholesterol. But interestingly coconut oil may also raise the good HDL cholesterol to some extent, likely through the action of lauric acid though not as much as unsaturated fatty acids5. A recent report from the American Heart Association confirmed that coconut oil does increase LDL cholesterol, and in the absence of no known offsetting benefits, advised against its use for heart health benefits6.
One of the main studies into saturated fats and heart disease was a Cochrane review of 15 clinical trials7. Covering 59,000 people, it found that when replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fats, there was a 27 percent fall in heart disease. No such benefit was seen when saturated fats are replaced by carbohydrates. Such research points to the benefits of swapping high dietary sources of saturated fat for healthy oils and fats such as EVOO, nuts and avocado.
But here is where things start to get cloudy when you look at individual foods versus dietary patterns. Populations that use coconut oil as part of their traditional lifestyles do appear to have lower rates of heart disease8. But such observational research makes it difficult to conclude that coconut oil is an explanation for any heart health benefits. The complexity of traditional dietary patterns and lifestyles are the likely main explanation for a health benefit. In such diets, coconut oil is eaten together with the fibre from the coconut along with plenty of omega-3 lipids from fish. These traditional diets are also low in highly refined carbohydrates and sugar. Compare that to the popular coconut oil dessert-based dishes that abound in its promotion through social media.
A Mediterranean-style dietary pattern, which includes plenty of olive oil consumed throughout the day, has been linked in many observational studies to a lower risk of chronic disease. Specifically looking at olive oil consumption, lower rates of coronary heart disease9, stroke10 and a lower risk of earlier mortality stand out11.
One of the key intervention studies in this field, the PREDIMED Study, looked at how a Mediterranean diet supplemented with nuts or EVOO, or a control low-fat diet could affect cardiovascular disease risk12. For every 10 grams per day increase in EVOO consumption, cardiovascular disease and earlier mortality risk decreased by 10 percent and 7 percent respectively in people at high risk of cardiovascular disease. The greatest benefits though were seen when EVOO was part of a Mediterranean-style diet rather than a low-fat diet. Conclusion: foods and nutrients are important to look at, but so too is the dietary context they are eaten in.
What it all means
Coconut oil is not some miracle health elixir. On balance, it should be viewed as not much different from other sources of dietary saturated fat. It has its place in cooking like any oil or fat, but it is better to consider using a variety of oils in cooking for the job at hand and the taste outcome a person wants. On the health balance scales, olive oil is still the standout choice.