Top 5 health benefits of coconut oil
Is coconut oil the 'superfood' we’re led to believe it is? Registered nutritionist Jo Lewin examines the latest scientific evidence to determine if this popular oil really shapes up.
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What is coconut oil?
Coconut oil is an edible oil extracted from the meat of matured coconuts and harvested from the coconut palm tree, a member of the Arecaceae plant family. Coconuts, despite their name, are technically not nuts but drupes (a fruit with a single seed).
Whether it’s drinking coconut water, using the oil as a moisturiser or adding a spoonful to bakes, we’ve seen the coconut rise to prominence in both our kitchens and bathrooms. Virgin coconut oil is deemed to be higher quality than refined coconut oil and is said to be richer in antioxidant polyphenols as well as nutrients like vitamin E.
Discover our full range of health benefit guides, including the top 5 benefits of coconut flour and coconut water, and check out some of our best coconut recipes.
Nutritional benefits of coconut oil
1 tbsp (11g) provides:
- 99 kcal / 407 kj
- 11g fat
- 9.5g saturated fat
- 0.7g mono-unsaturated fat
- 0.2g polyunsaturated fat
Top 5 health benefits of coconut oil
1. Contains medium-chain fatty acids
Coconut oil is different from other dietary oils, because it is mainly composed of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), whereas most other oils are almost entirely long-chain fatty acids. This means that the fatty acids in coconut oil are made up of a chain of six to 12 carbon atoms, as opposed to the more than 12 found in long-chain fatty acids. This difference in structure has all sorts of implications, from how the oil is digested to how it influences your body.
2. Has anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties
About 50% of the MCFAs in coconut oil are a type called lauric acid, which contributes to the oil’s anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties.
3. May be helpful in the treatment of skin conditions
Limited but consistent evidence appears to support the topical use of coconut oil for the prevention and treatment of mild to moderate cases of chronic skin conditions, such as atopic dermatitis. It has also been shown to alleviate some complex skin conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis.
4. May protect hair from damage
The lauric acid in coconut oil appears to have a high affinity for hair protein and, because of the way the oil is structured, is able to penetrate inside the hair shaft. This means coconut oil and products made from it may be useful in preventing the hair damage caused by protein loss due to grooming and ultraviolet (UV) exposure. However, more studies are needed to confirm this effect.
5. May be helpful in the prevention of dental caries
Oil pulling is a traditional ayurvedic remedy originally practised in ancient India for the maintenance of oral health. More recent studies suggest the practice of using coconut oil may be beneficial for the prevention of dental caries by reducing plaque formation and gingivitis. However, limitations in sample sizes and duration means a larger number of well-designed randomised controlled trials are needed to determine the true value of coconut oil for this purpose.
Is coconut oil safe for everyone?
Coconut is typically safe for most people, but some adults and children may experience allergy to coconut or to other members of the Arecaceae plant family, including the oil.
If you are looking at coconut oil to support weight loss or heart health, you may need to think again. Although MCFAs reputably are less likely to be stored in the body as fat and more readily used as a source of energy, this does not appear to be as effective in coconut oil. This is because most of the MCFAs in coconut are lauric acid, which has a relatively long carbon chain, making it behave somewhere between the useful MCFAs and the not-so-great long-chain triglycerides.
It is worth noting that EFSA has yet to find sufficient evidence that the MCFAs present in coconut oil can, as frequently cited, reduce body weight. Furthermore, despite the many health claims, coconut oil is not the best choice to reduce LDL cholesterol or support heart health.
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Have you experienced the health benefits of coconut oil first-hand? Do you regularly use it in your cooking at home? Share your tips and experiences below in the comments.
Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health. Follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.
Kerry Torrens is a Registered Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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