Chew on this: 05/19

What to believe about coconut oil claims

By Jayne Powers

Coconuts are on a roll as a wonder food. I agree.

Like, I wonder how true, or nutty, the truth is behind the health claims about coconuts.

Coconut oil and other coconut products are often pitched as a cure-all food for a variety of chronic conditions and diseases.

Now the darling of health-food aficionados, there was a time when coconut oil was demonized for causing heart attacks because of its saturated fat content.

Granted, coconut oil does contain saturated fat. In fact, its saturated fat content is more concentrated than butter’s. Being solid at room temperature made it an attractive ingredient in store-bought goods because of its long shelf life.

A PR campaign in the ’80s against coconut oil used in baked goods led food manufacturers to replace it with partially hydrogenated oil, which turned out to be much worse for heart health than coconut oil because partially hydrogenated oil is a trans fat.

While coconut oil was the villain back then, it has resurfaced as a dietary super hero.

Marketing shout-outs on coconut oil products include messages that it lowers blood cholesterol, promotes heart health, leads to weight loss, prevents diabetes and mitigates dementia risk, namely Alzheimer’s disease.

Coconut oils sold and manufactured by Carrington Farms are a perfect example. Under the “health benefits” section on its website, Carrington Farms exposes the virtues of its products.

First, Carrington provides a lot of gobbledygook about long and short chain fatty acids and their molecular length. Nothing wrong with a little science, so long as it is meant to educate, not confuse readers with heady language.

Second, it dives into its product’s “positive therapeutic qualities,” saying it treats and soothes various infections, such as salmonella, ringworm, candidiasis and gastroenteritis.

Say wuuuuut?

Such disease claims caught the attention of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It issued Carrington Farms a warning letter in January 2015 for making false health claims about its coconut products.

The claims made by Carrington Farms, according to the FDA, are limited to pharmaceutical products. The FDA also said coconut oil cannot be labeled “low in calories” because that claim pertains to foods containing no more than 40 calories for a given reference amount, or serving size (reference amount and serving size are usually the same thing). The FDA said the Carrington product exceeded the maximum of 40 calories per reference amount.

Although the FDA letter was issued in January, Carrington Farms continues to use this unapproved language on its website.

Moreover, the caloric content of coconut does nothing to promote weight loss. At 120 calories per tablespoon, coconut oil is high in calories, so it doesn’t make sense to consume large quantities of coconut oil in the hope of losing weight.

Nonetheless, coconut-product manufacturers claim that the medium-chain triglycerides contained in coconut oil promote weight loss (triglycerides are the main form of fat found in the diet).

While research has shown that medium-chain triglycerides may do a better job at speeding up metabolism, the evidence is inconclusive. There is also a lack of human studies on the effects of coconut oil on weight loss.

Other claims, based on lab studies, tout the notion that fats in coconut oil slightly lower blood glucose levels. Again, that doesn’t prove coconut oil prevents or treats diabetes, but others still link coconut oil to improved cholesterol levels.

To review, coconut oil is a saturated fat, and saturated fats tend to raise LDL, or bad cholesterol. The varying chemical structure of saturated fats also means that they will have different cardiovascular effects.

The research on this point, however, has been limited, with the finding that the saturated fat in coconut oil — lauric acid — may neutralize blood cholesterol more effectively than meat. Some research has found that lauric acid, often viewed as a healthier saturated fat, tends to raise HDL, or good cholesterol, more than LDL, thus improving an individual’s LDL/HDL ratio.

While this research sounds promising, there are many unanswered questions when it comes to replacing one fat for another and the effect it has on LDL cholesterol. For example, if coconut oil is used to replace butter or lard, it may not significantly affect cholesterol levels. But if it replaces the kind of fat found in many vegetable oils, the good kind, it may actually raise LDL.

If you’re looking to add a little coconut flavor to baked goods, consider substituting up to 30 percent of the regular flour with coconut flour. While it has a bit more calories and fat than, say, whole-wheat flour, you’ll gain a lot more fiber.

The bottom line is to be skeptical of grand health claims about coconut oil. When choosing an oil to cook with, it is still better to choose either a monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oil.

Jayne Powers, MA, is a certified nutritionist and personal fitness trainer based in Washington, DC. Her column, Chew on This, speaks from the science of the current state of knowledge about all facets of nutrition. Find her online at, or email your fitness questions to

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Jayne Powers, MA, is a certified nutritionist and personal fitness trainer based in Washington, DC. Her column, Chew on This, speaks from the science of the current state of knowledge about all facets of nutrition. Find her online at

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