Let’s take a look at coconut oil and subjectively examine the claims made by this infographic. To view the complete infographic read Reasons to use Coconut Oil.
Firstly what is coconut oil?
Coconut oil is derived from the flesh of matured coconuts. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 117 calories, 14 grams fat (combined saturated, non-saturated fats and fatty acids), 12g saturated fat, and no vitamins or minerals (1, 2).
What does coconut oil comprise of?
The short and medium chain fatty acids contained within coconut oil are quite unusual. The medium chain fatty acids are: lauric (44%) and myristic (16.8%) acids (1), longer chain fatty acids such as palmitic acid amongst others are also found in coconut oil. Most of the health benefits lauded involve the medium chain fatty acids especially lauric acid.
Is there something special about medium chain fatty acids (MCT)?
Medium chain fatty acids are oxidised directly in the liver to produce energy (3). In contrast short chain fatty acids are rapidly metabolised by the liver whereas long chain fatty acids require bile for their absorption and digestion and are only then used for energy production or stored as fat.
Let’s take this first group of “benefits”. As always on the internet you can find many differing opinions, websites promoting and debunking something and plenty of published research papers as well.
Claim 1: Coconut oil boosts brain function
- Studies show improvement with alzheimer patients
- Contains easy absorption fats called medium chain triglycerides
- Improves cognitive function
It is true that fatty acids are essential for the smooth running of the human brain (4) but there are mixed findings for the claim that studies show cognitive improvement in alzheimers patients when coconut oil is added to their diet. Dr Mary Newport, a medical doctor, insists she has seen an improvement in her husband who suffers from the condition and cites a list of papers supporting her assertion (5). However I have come across articles on the Alzheimers Society website (6) that refute this claim or at the very least say that there is not enough evidence to back up such claims. Consumption of coconut oil can put the body into a mild state of ketosis and researchers at Oxford University (7) have found that a mild ketone diet can have positive effect on rats both cognitively and metabolically. Should this be true, and much more research needs to be done, a ketone diet could be used to treat both metabolic and neural disorders, including Alzheimers potentially.
Watch this video from the Alzheimers Society.(6)
Conclusion: Claim 1 remains unproven.
Claim 2: Helps with symptoms of epilepsy
- Improvements in seizure control when patient follows ketogenic diet
- Due to MCTs it’s an integral part of ketogenic diet
When fatty acids oxidise they produce ketones. In a high fat, low carbohydrate diet a higher than normal level of ketones are produced. This forms the basis of what is known as the ketogenic diet. Although the mechanism of how the ketones act to prevent seizures is currently not understood the ketogenic diet is a scientifically proven therapy used to treat drug resistant epilepsy (8). The ketogenic diet is also under investigation for a whole range of diseases. This is not to say that only coconut oil is used in the ketogenic diet. This type of diet is not without its complications and advice from a Medical Doctor should always be sought.
Claim 2: Scientifically proven
Claim 3: Lower Cholesterol
- Increases good cholesterol
- Contains lauric acid which improves exercise performance
Cholesterol is essential for the body. Cholesterol combines with two types of protein in the blood to form either: low density lipoprotein (LDL) or high density lipoprotein (HDL) (9). In high levels LDL can lead to a build up on artery walls and cause disease. HDL in contrast is classed as “good cholesterol” because it carries the cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver.
Effects of lauric acid (the major fatty acid found in coconut oil), be they positive or negative, remains uncertain. Some research points to it increasing the levels of cholesterol mostly through increase in HDL (10,11) whereas other research reports lauric acid as increasing LDL cholesterol (12,13).
Quite why the author of the infographic chose to place the phrase “Contains lauric acid which improves exercise performance” under the claim about cholesterol is unknown as this claim has no relation to cholesterol. However research would suggest that lauric acid does not improve exercise performance, or rather I should say MCTs do not (14).
Conclusion: The scientific jury is out on this.
Claim 4: Burn more calories
- Burn more calories
- Increased energy expenditure over 24 hours
- More energy means more calories burnt
So now the claims are moving into the area of weight loss. Firstly what is this term “energy expenditure”? From the British Nutrition Foundation it is described as:
“Energy expenditure (EE) is the sum of the basal metabolic rate (the amount of energy expended while at complete rest), the thermic effect of food (TEF, the energy required to digest and absorb food) and the energy expended in physical activity.” (15)
Some research indicates that MCT rich diets (note not specifically coconut oil) do increase energy expenditure resulting in weight loss over a sustained period of time (16) . However other research has indicated that it is far more sensible to stick to a low fat diet if weight loss is the intended result (17). Futhermore other research suggests that the effect MCT has on EE is transient and will not last over the long term (18).
Conclusion: Again the research gives mixed results. Neither proven or unproven.
Claim 5: Reduce your hunger
- The fatty acids in coconut oil can significantly reduce appetite
- A study conducted showed that men eating the most MCTs ate 256 fewer calories per day on average
- A study in 14 healthy men discovered those who ate most MCTs at breakfast ate significantly fewer calories at lunch.
Research seems to suggest that MCTs (not necessarily coconut oil) do reduce food intake and decrease feelings of hunger in subjects tested (14,19). However the papers I viewed all mentioned that further research must be done. Therefore the possibility of a reduction in food intake (rather than hunger) is mooted but it is not proven beyond doubt. (yet).
Conclusion: Unproven and needs further research
Claim 6: Lose fat from abdominal cavity
- Coconut oil appears to be especially effective in reducing abdominal fat which lodges in the abdominal cavity and around the organs.
- A study in 40 women with abdominal obesity, supplementing 1 ounce of coconut oil per day led to a significant reduction in both BMI and waist circumference in a period of 12 weeks.
There are claims that MCTs can help weight loss but as part of a weight loss plan and not specifically coconut oil (20). There are claims as above that it can help reduce abdominal obesity (21). There are also claims to the contrary, that suggest the level of MCTs needed for weight loss are not sustainable long term in a human’s diet (22). Yet again we have research that indicates support for and against coconut oil’s use in assisting weightloss.
Conclusion: The scientific jury is yet again still out on this
Claim 7: Get healthy hair and scalp
- Fatty acids will soften your locks when used as conditioner
- Soothes dry scalp conditions
- Eliminates fungal infections of the scalp
Research has shown that protection from hair damage through brushing can be improved when coconut oil is used as a prewash (23). There are numerous articles telling you how coconut oil softens hair but I couldn’t find any that explained why. Coconut oil works as a moisturiser and because it potentially has beneficial effects on the hair it can possibly be used to soothe the scalp(24). We will look at coconut oil’s antimicrobial properties later in the article.
Conclusion: Coconut oil can protect hair from damage by brushing.
Claim 8: Moisturise
- Great as eye cream
- Remove eye makeup
- Soothes cuticles
- Use as aromatic massage oil
Coconut oil is as effective and safe to use as a moisturiser as mineral oil is (24). You could look at it more from the angle that coconut oil is a natural product that does the same as a product derived from petroleum (yuck!). Which would you prefer to slather on your face? Coconut oil is used in many homemade products such as soap, lotion bars. I myself make my own lotion bars, but they are a combination of coconut oil, almond oil, shea butter and beeswax. Which of these keeps my skin looking moisturised I cannot tell.
Conclusion: Proven effective and safe as a moisturiser.
Claim 9: Take care of your heart
- Contains 50% Lauric acid
- Helps prevent high blood pressure
- Helps reduce damage to arteries
- Helps prevent atherosclerosis
Contains less than 50% Lauric acid (1). Research suggests that the effects on the heart, and atherosclerosis is uncertain due to complex factors (25). It cannot therefore be stated either way as to whether coconut oil (lauric acid primarily) is good or bad for the heart and arteries.
Conclusion: The scientific jury has yet to prove either way on this claim.
Claim 10: Strengthen Immune System
- Contains antimicrobial lipids, lauric acid, capric acid and caprylic acid which have antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral properties.
- Coconut oil helps in fighting harmful bacteria like listeria monocytogenes and helicobacter pylori and harmful protozoa such as giardia lamblia.
Research indicates that the fatty acids in coconut oil do indeed possess antimicrobial properties. In studies lauric acid has been shown to be inhibitory against gram positive bacteria e.g. Staphylococcus and Streptococcus spp,(26) so potentially this could include Listeria spp and studies have indicated that lauric acid is effective against Helicobacter pylori, although further studies are required to ascertain use in human therapy (27). Studies have reported that lauric acid is effective against Candida albicans (28) and a derivative of lauric acid is effective against some RNA and DNA viruses (29). Overall the claim about Coconut oil’s antimicrobial properties is true, however to state it strengthens the immune system is misleading as the fatty acids in coconut oil has no effect on the white blood cells that are the power house of our immune system.
Conclusion: Science supports the claim that coconut oil has antimicrobial properties.
And finally we get to:
Claim 11: Improve your digestive system
- Helps prevent Irritable bowel syndrome
- Helps to improve the digestive system
- Helps absorption of other nutrients
Whilst I could locate numerous websites extolling the virtues of coconut oil in the relief of IBS I struggled to find research to support this. Prevention of IBS can be achieved by altering the diet with advice from a medical Doctor. Similarly with the next two assertions, there are many websites telling you that it improves digestion and helps with absorption of other nutrients but no scientific research is forthcoming to back these claims up.
Conclusion: The scientific jury is out on this.
The aim of this article was to show our readers how information can be taken from the web and made into a very convincing argument for a new “wonder something”. I have not set out to debunk the use of coconut oil. I hope what I have done is shown our readers that there are plenty of websites out there stating claims but not necessarily backing them up with any hard scientific data. If a website does not detail where it gets all its information from then be dubious about the claims made.
Do your research, before you buy into the next “wonder something” claim. Don’t just read blogs stating how wonderful something is, locate proper scientific papers that will help you make your own mind up about whether the claims about this new “wonder something” stand up to scrutiny. Some will, many will not. Some of the benefits stated can be proven, others are in the process of being researched and others still are just plain wrong or at the very least misleading.
Before you change the way you eat or how you structure your diet, check the facts. Facts will not be found on websites that actively promote the new “wonder something”, facts will be found in scientific journals.
- The Truth About Coconut Oil wWeb MD http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/coconut-oil-and-health
- Nutrition Facts and Ananlysis for Vegetable Oils, Coconut http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fats-and-oils/508/2
- What’s up with Coconut Oil? University of Minnesota http://fscn.cfans.umn.edu/prod/groups/cfans/@pub/@cfans/@fscn/@admin/documents/asset/cfans_asset_122656.pdf
- Essential Fatty Acids and the Human Brain, Acta Neurol Taiwan. 2009 Dec;18(4):231-41. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20329590
- What if there was a cure for Alzheimers Disease, and no one knew? http://www.coconutketones.com/
- Science behind the headlines: How to reduce your risk and other popular topics. Alzheimers Society http://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?documentID=2211&pageNumber=4
- Cardiac Metabolism Research Group, University of Oxford, http://www.physiol.ox.ac.uk/Research_Groups/Cardiac_Metabolism/Research.html
- Stafstrom CE and Rho JM (2012) The ketogenic diet as a treatment paradigm for diverse neurological disorders. Front. Pharmacol., 09 April 2012 http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fphar.2012.00059/full
- NHS UK, High Cholesterol http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Cholesterol/Pages/Introduction.aspx
- Ronald P Mensink, Peter L Zock, Arnold DM Kester, and Martijn B Katan Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of serum total to HDL cholesterol and on serum lipids and apolipoproteins: a meta-analysis of 60 controlled trials American Journal of Clinical Nutrition May 2003 vol. 77no. 5 1146-1155 http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/77/5/1146.long#fn-group-1 and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12716665
- Nicole M. de Roos, Evert G. Schouten, and Martijn B. Katan Consumption of a Solid Fat Rich in Lauric Acid Results in a More Favorable Serum Lipid Profile in Healthy Men and Women than Consumption of a Solid Fat Rich intrans-Fatty Acids Journal of Nutrition February 1, 2001vol. 131 no. 2 242-245 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11160540 http://jn.nutrition.org/content/131/2/242.long#fn-1
- Denke MA,, Grundy SM Comparison of effects of lauric acid and palmitic acid on plasma lipids and lipoproteins American Journal of Clinical nutrition 1992 Nov;56(5):895-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1415008 and http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/56/5/895.long
- Atherothrombosis and Coronary Heart Disease Second Edition Valentin Fuster, Eric J. Topol, Elizabeth G. Nabel. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=1WifwPEsKQMC&pg=PA40&lpg=PA40&dq=lauric+acid+and+ldl&source=bl&ots=nzyMo65ZWH&sig=3EdaD8F0tu5KsPdaFAHAY64pu9U&hl=en&sa=X&ei=yKkqVKvlHqLB7Aao64CwDw&ved=0CEcQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=lauric%20acid%20and%20ldl&f=false
- Miriam E. Clegg, Medium-chain triglycerides are advantageous in promoting weight loss although not beneficial to exercise performance. November., 2010, Vol. 61, No. 7 , Pages 653-679 International ournal of Food Science and Nutrition http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20367215
- British Nutrition Foundation, Energy Intake and Expenditure http://www.nutrition.org.uk/nutritionscience/energy/energy-intake-and-expenditure
- Marie-Pierre St-Onge and Peter J. H. Jones Physiological Effects of Medium-Chain Triglycerides: Potential Agents in the Prevention of Obesity Journal of Nutrition March 1, 2002 vol. 132 no. 3 329-332 http://jn.nutrition.org/content/132/3/329.full
- J P Flatt, E Ravussin, K J Acheson, and E Jéquier Effects of dietary fat on postprandial substrate oxidation and on carbohydrate and fat balances.Journal of Clinical Investigation Sep 1985; 76(3): 1019–1024. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC423974/
- Matthew D White, Andrea A Papamandjaris, and Peter JH Jones Enhanced postprandial energy expenditure with medium-chain fatty acid feeding is attenuated after 14 d in premenopausal women American Journal of Clinical Nutrition May 1999 vol. 69 no. 5 883-889 http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/69/5/883.abstract?ijkey=7af21b8f38e2b4071fedeccd786b6a6a1dcae3f6&keytype2=tf_ipsecsha
- McClernon FJ1, Yancy WS Jr, Eberstein JA, Atkins RC, Westman EC. The effects of a low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet and a low-fat diet on mood, hunger, and other self-reported symptoms.Obesity (Silver Spring). 2007 Jan;15(1):182-7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17228046
- St-Onge MP, Bosarge A. Weight-loss diet that includes consumption of medium-chain triacylglycerol oil leads to a greater rate of weight and fat mass loss than does olive oil. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2008 Mar;87(3):621-6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18326600?ordinalpos=22&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum
- Assunção ML, Ferreira HS, dos Santos AF, Cabral CR Jr, Florêncio TM. Effects of dietary coconut oil on the biochemical and anthropometric profiles of women presenting abdominal obesity Lipids. 2009 Jul;44(7):593-601 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19437058
- The usefulness of dietary medium-chain triglycerides in body weight control: fact or fancy? Andre C. Bach, Yves Ingenbleek, and Anny Frey Journal of Lipid Research Volume 37,1996 p708-726 http://www.jlr.org/content/37/4/708.long
- Aarti S. Rele and R. B. Mohile, Effect of coconut oil on prevention of hair damage. Part Journal of Cosmetic Science, 50, 327-339 (November/December 1999) http://journal.scconline.org//pdf/cc1999/cc050n06/p00327-p00339.pdf
- Agero AL, Verallo-Rowell VM. A randomized double-blind controlled trial comparing extra virgin coconut oil with mineral oil as a moisturizer for mild to moderate xerosis. Dermatitis. 2004 Sep;15(3):109-16 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15724344
- Ronald P Mensink, Peter L Zock, Arnold DM Kester, and Martijn B Katan Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of serum total to HDL cholesterol and on serum lipids and apolipoproteins: a meta-analysis of 60 controlled trials American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2003;77:1146–55 http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/77/5/1146.long
- Jon J. Kabara, Dennis M. Swieczkowski, Anthony J. Conley, and Joseph P. Truant Fatty Acids and Derivatives as Antimicrobial Agents Antimicrobial Agents Chemotherapy. Jul 1972; 2(1): 23–28. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC444260/
- Petschow BW, Batema RP, Ford LL. Susceptibility of Helicobacter pylori to bactericidal properties of medium-chain monoglycerides and free fatty acids. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. 1996 Feb;40(2):302-6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8834870
- Gudmundur Bergsson, Jóhann Arnfinnsson, Ólafur Steingrímsson, and Halldor Thormar In Vitro Killing of Candida albicans by Fatty Acids and Monoglycerides Antimicrob Agents Chemother. Nov 2001; 45(11): 3209–3212. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC90807/
- Lauric Acid by Professor Paul May BSc, PhD(Bristol), CChem, MRSC University of Bristol http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/motm/lauric-acid/laurich.htm