Coconut oil is derived from the fruit (seed) of the coconut palm tree (Cocos nucifera), and is considered a tropical oil, along with palm, palm kernel, cocoa, and shea nut oils.
Coconut oil is also used topically as a moisturizer for skin and hair. Some scientific evidence does support its topical use to relieve symptoms of eczema, psoriasis, and dry skin.
Coconut oil is marketed by numerous food and dietary supplement manufacturers as a solid or liquid, or in capsule form. Coconut oil has a melting point of about 76° F (24.4° C); it is solid, with a consistency much like lard or butter, at temperatures below that. At temperatures above 76° F (24.4° C), coconut oil becomes liquid. As for composition, 1 tbsp. (15 mL), of coconut oil contains 120 calories and.49 oz. (14 g) of fat, of which.42 oz. (12 g) are saturated fats,.04 oz. (1 g) is monounsaturated fat, and.02 oz. (.5 g) is polyunsaturated fat. Coconut oil contains no cholesterol and no protein, vitamins, or minerals. It does contain antioxidants from plant phenol compounds. Because coconut oil is plant-based, the structure of its saturated fat is different from animal-derived products, such as lard and butter, which contain long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs). Coconut oil has an unusually high amount of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), which are more likely to be burned off as energy by the body, rather than stored as fat as LCFAs are. Coconut oil also contains a large amount of lauric acid, a saturated fat that raises both high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Marketing claims have emphasized the potential for coconut oil to increase the “good,” or HDL, cholesterol. Consuming high amounts of coconut oil, however, may also increase LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, thereby negating any health benefits. And, due to its high saturated fat and calorie content, regular coconut oil consumption may cause weight gain.
The lauric acid content of coconut oil may provide more health benefits than oils that contain trans fats, such as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Olive oil, canola oil, and avocado oil, which all contain unsaturated fats, have been shown to have cardiovascular benefits and are considered healthier alternatives for cooking than coconut oil.
Coconut oil should be purchased in its unrefined (virgin or cold-pressed) solid form because coconut oil that is liquid at all temperatures has undergone extra processing to eliminate the fatty acids that may provide health benefit. Refined coconut oils are extracted from dried coconuts using chemicals, which depletes nutritional value. The refining process does give the oil a higher smoking point, which is beneficial when using as a cooking oil. Unrefined or extra virgin coconut oil have been extracted from the fruit of fresh coconuts without the use of high temperatures or chemicals; therefore, it has the maximum nutritional value. Partially hydrogenated coconut oil should also be avoided, because it contains trans fats.
A 2016 survey of U.S. consumers and nutritionists published in the New York Times found that 72% of Americans considered coconut oil to be healthy. Only 37% of nutritionists thought it was healthy. Although the alternative health community has labeled coconut oil a “superfood,” an ongoing debate continues about whether coconut oil is, in fact, healthy. Most nutrition professionals and scientific organizations, such as the USDA and the American Heart Association, recommend against the use of coconut oil because it is a saturated fat and healthier alternatives exist.
Published scientific studies on its health benefits are small and inconclusive. As of 2018, research does not support that coconut oil has heart benefits over oils with unsaturated fats. Research is too limited to determine whether coconut oil is beneficial for those with diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and other medical conditions. Some research suggests that coconut oil may help with weight loss, due to its MCFA content. The MCFAs used in research, though, were from pure MCFA oils, and coconut oil may not have the same weight-loss effect.
Coconut oil may be used in moderation for dietary variety and flavoring (e.g., Thai cuisine). It may have some value due to its fatty acid content for those following vegan diets, who do not consume animal fats. Coconut oil may also be a component of some specialty low-carbohydrate diets, including the Paleo and ketogenic diets.
Coconut oil consumed in moderate amounts used in cooking and as an ingredient of foods is generally safe. Because the cardiovascular health benefits of coconut oil have not been fully evaluated or confirmed by research studies, individuals with high cholesterol and/or cardiovascular disease should consult with their physician before replacing unsaturated fats in their diet with coconut oil; taking coconut oil supplements should be avoided.
Coconut oil is being touted as a “miracle cure” for hypothyroidism, despite no scientific evidence. Individuals with thyroid disease should not replace prescribed thyroid medications with coconut oil.
Coconut oil consumed in moderate amounts as an ingredient in foods is likely safe for children. Children with peanut allergies generally do not react to coconut oil, but should be carefully monitored for potential allergic reactions after eating any food containing coconut oil. Coconut oil in direct liquid or capsule form should not be given to children because the side effects are unknown.
Coconut oil consumed in moderate amounts as an ingredient in foods is likely safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Coconut oil in direct liquid or capsule form should not be consumed because the side effects are unknown in pregnant and breastfeeding women.
When used in cooking and consumed in recipes in reasonable amounts, coconut oil has few or no side effects. Some people use coconut oil as a health supplement, taking it directly by mouth as spoonfuls of oil or in the form of a capsule supplement due to unsubstantiated health claims and marketing. Consuming too much coconut oil in this form may cause weight gain, diarrhea, and other digestive issues, acne, headache, increased cholesterol levels, weight gain, and allergic reactions. Consuming coconut oil in capsule form as a supplement has not been thoroughly evaluated and side effects are therefore unclear.
Some research has shown that coconut oil may interact with cholesterol-lowering statin medications, though the interaction is not fully understood; however, there do not appear to be risks associated with the interaction. Individuals taking statin medications should discuss coconut oil with their physician or pharmacist.
Braun, Pamela. The Coconut Oil Companion: Recipes and Methods for Everyday Wellness. New York: Countryman, 2018.
The Coconut Oil Cure: Essential Recipes and Remedies to Heal Your Body Inside and Out. Sonoma, 2015.
Eyres, Laurence, Michael F. Eyres, Alexandra Chisholm, et al. “Coconut Oil Consumption and Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Humans.” Nutrition Reviews 74, no. 4 (April 2016): 267–80.
Law, Kim S., Nizuwan Azman, Eshaifol Omar, et al. “The Effects of Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO) as Supplementation on Quality of Life (QOL) among Breast Cancer Patients.” Lipids in Health and Disease 13, no. 1 (August 27, 2014): 139.
Sacks, Frank M., Alice H. Lichtenstein, Jason H. Y. Wu, et al. “Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association.” 136, no. 3 (July 18, 2017): e1–23.
Thalheimer, Judith C. “Coconut Oil.” Today's Dietitian 18, no. 10 (2016): 32.
MedLine Plus. “Coconut Oil.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/natural/1092.html (accessed May 29, 2018).
Spritzler, Franziska. “Healthline: How to Eat Coconut Oil, and How Much Per Day?” Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-to-eat-coconutoil#section1 (accessed May 29, 2018).
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 120 S. Riverside Plaza, Ste. 2190, Chicago, IL, 60606-6995, (312) 899-0040, (800) 877-1600, email@example.com, http://www.eatright.org .
American Society for Nutrition, 9211 Corporate Blvd., Ste. 300, Rockville, MD, 20850, (240) 428-3650, Fax: (240) 404-6797, http://www.nutrition.org .
American Heart Association, 7272 Greenville Ave., Dallas, TX, 75231, (888) 242-8883, firstname.lastname@example.org, https://www.onlineaha.org .
British Nutrition Foundation, New Derwent House, 69-73 Theobalds Rd., London, United Kingdom, WC1X 8TA, 44 20 7557-7930, email@example.com, http://www.nutrition.org.uk .
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Food and Drug Administration, 5001 Campus Dr., HFS-009, College Park, MD, 20740-3835, (888) 723-3366, https://www.fda.gov .
Jennifer E. Van Pelt, MA