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    You are here : Home » The Best Bet Diet Group » Online Newsletter » Past Newsletter Articles » BBD Science and Research Articles » Article 40: Coconut Oil by James South

    Article 40: Coconut Oil by James South

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    A wealth of scientific data refutes claims that coconut oil is rich in "artery-clogging" saturated fats. Switching from polyunsaturated vegetable oils to traditional cooking fats such as coconut oil would actually reduce several significant health risks - So says James South MD.

    Coconut Oil: The Healthy Fat

    Coconuts and coconut oil have been staple foods of the people of Asia, Africa, Central America and the Pacific Islands for thousands of years. Among South Sea Islanders, coconuts often provide as much as 34 to 63 percent of total calorie intake.1 As coconut oil proponent Bruce Fife, N.D. notes: "The early explorers who visited the South Sea Islands in the 16th and 17th centuries described the Islanders as being exceedingly strong, vigorously built, beautiful in body, and kindly disposed.

    The Islanders gained a reputation for their beauty, excellent physical development, and good health."2 Yet a campaign begun in the United States in the 1980s, spearheaded by the American Soybean Association and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has succeeded in virtually removing coconut oil from the American food supply, claiming coconut oil is rich in "artery-clogging" saturated fats that (allegedly) cause high blood cholesterol and heart disease.3 A wealth of scientific data shows this to be a classic case of the "big lie" propaganda technique.

    Coconut Oil and Cholesterol

    A classic study of two remote South Sea Island peoples—the Pukapuka and Tokelau Islanders—found no evidence of high blood cholesterol from a high coconut oil diet. The Pukapukans, who got 35 percent of their calories as fat, mostly coconut oil, had low blood cholesterol levels: an average of 170 mg/dL for men, 176 mg/dL for women.

    The Tokelauans, who got over 50 percent of their calories from fat, mostly coconut oil, had average cholesterol levels of 208 mg/dL for men, 216 mg/dL for women.1 Blood triglyceride levels, another key heart disease indicator, were also very low, averaging less than 50 mg/dL for both the Pukapukans and Tokelauans. The study authors concluded: "Vascular disease is uncommon in both populations and there is no evidence of the high saturated fat intake having a harmful effect in these populations.... Certainly, there is no reason based on this report, to alter the diet patterns of coconut eating groups in order to reduce coronary risk."1

    Other studies have found similar results. Comparing a soybean oil vs. coconut oil diet, Mendis and Kumarasunderam concluded that "[coconut oil] saturated fatty acids have a neutral effect on serum cholesterol."4 Sircar and Kansra concluded that "…there are numerous research data now available to indicate that the sole use or excess intake of [polyunsaturated] vegetable oils are actually detrimental to health and switching to…traditional cooking fats like ghee, coconut oil and mustard oil would actually reduce the risk of dyslipidaemias [high blood cholesterol/triglycerides], AHD [atherosclerotic heart disease] and Type-2 DM [diabetes mellitus]."5 Kumar compared 32 coronary heart disease (CHD) patients from India with 16 age/sex-matched, healthy controls. "Consumption of coconuts and coconut oil was found to be similar in both groups…. The results imply no specific role for coconuts or coconut oil in the causation of CHD."6

    Coconut Oil: Nature’s Germ-Fighter

    Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) comprise about two-thirds of coconut oil. The chief fatty acids in these MCTs are lauric acid (48 percent), capric acid (7 percent) and caprylic acid (8 percent).7 These fatty acids and their monoglycerides are extremely powerful antimicrobial agents, effectively killing a broad range of pathologic bacteria, viruses, fungi/yeasts and protozoa.3,8

    It is no coincidence that human and mammalian breast milk are rich in these fatty acids. Studies have shown that breast milk medium chain saturated fatty acids and monoglycerides provide immune protection to babies, whose immune systems are still developing.3,8 When nursing mothers include coconut oil in their diet, the level of these fatty acids in their breast milk can triple.

    Coconut Oil: The Anti-Fat

    Various studies have found that coconut oil MCTs increase "diet-induced thermogenesis." This is an increase in the rate of burning calories to make heat or energy caused by food intake. Kasai and colleagues compared MCTs to LCTs (long chain triglycerides) from canola/soybean oil. They found that "…in healthy humans, the intake of 5 to 10 gm of MCT causes larger diet-induced thermogenesis than that of LCT…"9 St-Onge and coworkers studied healthy but overweight men for 28 days, feeding MCTs or olive oil as the chief fat source. They concluded: "Consumption of a diet rich in MCTs results in greater loss of AT [adipose (fat) tissue] compared with LCTs, perhaps due to increased energy expenditure and fat oxidation observed with MCT intake.

    Thus, MCTs may be considered as agents that aid in the prevention of obesity or potentially stimulate weight loss."10 Han and coworkers fed MCTs to rats. They found that "MCT-fed animals had smaller fat-pads," and "A number of key adipogenic [fat-promoting] genes were down-regulated…" "We also found reduced adipose tissue lipoprotein lipase [the enzyme that pulls fat from the blood into fat cells] activity and improved insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance in MCT-fed animals."11 St-Onge and Jones compared MCT to LCT in terms of promoting increased energy expenditure (EE) and reduced food intake in animals and humans. They concluded that "…greater EE and lower food intake with MCT compared with LCT suggest replacing dietary LCT with MCT could facilitate weight maintenance in humans."12 It is important to note that all these studies involved replacing other dietary fats with MCTs (coconut oil is two-thirds MCT), not adding them on to an already typical high-fat American diet.

    There are numerous other benefits and uses of coconut oil. It makes a great skin or hair conditioner. It’s great for cooking, baking, and light frying. It makes the world’s best popcorn. The interested reader is directed to references 2, 3 and 8 for further details.

    Organic Virgin Coconut Oil

    There are basically two grades of coconut oil available: RBD (refined, bleached, deodorized) and virgin coconut oil. RBD oil is subjected to high heat, filtered through clays to remove impurities, and processed with sodium hydroxide to prolong shelf life, due to the lesser quality dried coconut (copra) used to make it. A properly produced RBD oil is an acceptable form of coconut oil. It is a basic, no-frills product.

    The ultimate coconut oil is organic, virgin coconut oil. VRP is pleased to now offer Tropical Traditions™ organic, virgin coconut oil. It is produced through a traditional, low heat process from freshly harvested, hand-selected organically grown coconuts. It is not mass produced, but is made by hand in the rural Philippines, just as it has been done for hundreds of years. The lauric acid content typically runs 50-55 percent. Lauric acid is the most powerful antimicrobial of the MCTs. The oil has a distinct coconut smell and taste. RBD oil is usually bland, with no coconut taste or odor.

    For the health food connoisseur, Tropical Traditions organic virgin coconut oil is the ultimate coconut oil. For those who don’t like the taste or smell of coconuts, VRP’s basic coconut oil is a good alternative.


    1. Prior, I. et al. Cholesterol, coconuts, and diet on Polynesian atolls: a natural experiment: the Pukapuka and Tokelau Island studies. Am J Clin Nutr 1981, 34:1552-61.

    2. Fife, B. The Healing Miracles of Coconut Oil. Colorado Springs: Health Wise Pub; 2003:15.

    3. Enig, M. Coconut: In support of good health in the 21st century. 1999. coconut_health.htm.

    4. Mendis, S. and Kumarasunderam, R. The effect of daily consumption of coconut fat and soya-bean fat on plasma lipids and lipoproteins of young normolipidaemic men. Br J Nutr 1990, 63:547-52.

    5. Sircar, S. and Kansra, U. Choice of cooking oils—myths and realities. J Indian Med Assoc 1998, 96:304-07.

    6. Kumar, P. The role of coconut and coconut oil in coronary heart disease in Kerala, South Page 26 of 31 India. Trop Doct 1997, 27:215-17.

    7. 2 op. cit., 58.

    8. Kabara, J. Health oils from the tree of life (Nutritional and health aspects of coconut oil).

    9. Kasai, M. Comparison of diet-induced thermogenesis of foods containing medium- versus long-chain triacylglycerols. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo) 2002, 48:536-40.

    10. St-Onge, M. et al. Medium-chain triglycerides increase energy expenditure and decrease adiposity in overweight men. Obes Res 2003, 11:395-402.

    11. Han, J. et al. Medium-chain oil reduces fat mass and down-regulates expression of adipogenic genes in rats. Obes Res 2003, 11:734-44.

    12. St-Onge, M. and Jones, P. Physiological effects of medium-chain triglycerides: potential agents in the prevention of obesity. J Nutr 2002, 132:329-32.


     Comment by Ashton Embry

    Regarding coconut oil, it certainly appears to be better than animal saturated fat. To me the main thing with fats is to try to approximate the proper ratios which Loren Cordain suggests. They are shown below, along with Loren's comments. It seems coconut oil contains lots of stearic acid, which likely is one of the main reasons it is not as problematic as animal fat. - Ashton Embry

    Comment by Loren Cordain

    1. MONOUNSATURATED FATS = 50% total fat energy
    2. POLYUNSATURATED FATS = 25% total fat energy
      1. a) N3 PUFA = 7% of total fat energ
      2. b) N6 PUFA = 18 % of total fat energy
    3. SATURATED FAT = 25% total fat energy
      1. a) Stearic Acid = 12.5 % total fat energy
      2. b) Lauric, myristic and palmitic acid = 12.5% total fat energy

    "Please note that stearic acid (a saturated fat) is neutral, and doesn’t raise plasma cholesterol levels. So the total atherogenic fat in the diet is 12.5 % of fat energy. The recommended (AHA) values of saturated fat in CHD prudent diets is 10 % of total energy (I SAID TOTAL ENERGY, NOT TOTAL FAT ENERGY).

    So, in 2,000 kcal diet, 200 kcal are permitted by the AHA from saturated fat. In a Paleo diet, only 12.5 % of all fats are pro-atherogenic, so even if 50% of total energy (1000 kcal) comes from fat, only 12.5% (125 kcal) is atherogenic -- well below AHA recommendations. The lesson to be learned is that it's not the total quantity of fat, but rather the types of fat that are consumed."

    Note there are 9 kcal per gram of fat. Thus in a 2000 kcal diet about 25 grams of saturated fat are allowed but again the types of saturated fat are important. Coconut oil would contribute to the proper ratios.  - Loren Cordain

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