Virgin coconut oil is pressed from the fresh meat of raw coconuts. It is cold-pressed and filtered and retains the classic ‘coconut’ smell as well as many micronutrients in the oil. Most research into the health benefits of coconut oil is based on virgin coconut oil.
Coconut oil is rich in saturated fatty acids, especially lauric acid (about 50%) and myristic acid (about 20%). These fatty acids are so-called ‘medium-chain triglycerides’ (MCTs) because they are shorter molecules than the saturated fats commonly found in vegetable oils and animal fats (e.g. palmitic and stearic acid). This also explains why coconut oil has a far better health profile than its high content of saturated fats would suggest.
Why is it good for you?
Cooking – Coconut oil is primarily a great cooking oil because of its stability at high temperatures. When oils are heated, they begin processes of oxidation and polymerisation that can lead to harmful by-products such as aldehydes. The advantage of coconut oil is that it consists mostly of (healthy) saturated fats, which are more stable at high temperatures than mono- and poly-unsaturated fats. This makes frying with coconut oil a safer option. (This primer on the chemistry of frying oils explains in more detail the changes oils undergo when frying and why using saturated fats is preferrable when frying.)
Cholesterol – Coconut oil is also associated with some impressive health benefits. One of these is its beneficial impact on cholesterol levels. Coconut oil raises both HDL and LDL cholesterol levels, but the increase in the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol far outweighs the increase in ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. A 2009 study of fatty acids in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that “lauric acid had a more favourable effect on total:HDL cholesterol (ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol) than any other fatty acid, either saturated or unsaturated.”
Weight loss – Other research suggests that using coconut oil instead of regular vegetable oils can help in weight loss programs. One study showed that women using coconut oil had a reduction in abdominal fat whereas women using regular vegetable oil did not. Another study of overweight men showed that consumption of a diet rich in MCTs resulted in greater loss of fat tissue compared to those consuming unhealthy LCTs (long-chain triglycerides), due to increased energy expenditure and fat oxidation. The theory is that MCTs (like lauric acid) are more easily digested and burned quickly for energy than long-chain fatty acids, thus raising metabolism and aiding weight loss. Coconut oil is therefore used by many athletes as a high-energy source in their training programs.
Dementia: There is also emerging evidence that MCTs can soften the impact of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. We provide the relevant studies and articles here and here for your reference, though we believe it may be too early to draw firm conclusions from this research, and we do not advocate the use of coconut oil in treating either of these conditions.