Coconut oil has a variety of applications in foods and cosmetics. Despite the evidence for its benefits in skin and hair care, coconut oil's safety for food applications is not as clear. This is because the fats in coconut oil have both positive and negative cardiovascular effects. However, in a 2011 "New York Times" article, the University of California Davis' Dr. Daniel Hwang states that moderate amounts of coconut oil are safe to eat.
Approximately 92 percent of the fats in coconut oil are saturated, 6.4 percent are monounsaturated and 1.6 percent are polyunsaturated. The majority of the saturated fats in coconut oil are medium-chain fatty acids. Unlike long-chain saturated fatty acids, these compounds do not have a negative impact on cholesterol levels. In addition, your body typically burns medium-chain fatty acids as energy rather than storing them as body fat. Although long-chain fatty acids account for nearly 30 percent of coconut oil's total fats, its 62 percent medium-chain fatty acid content is the highest of any vegetable oil.
The high saturated fat content in coconut oil gives it a very long shelf life. Liquid coconut oil can last for up to three years, while solid coconut oil -- stored at temperatures below 76 degrees Fahrenheit -- can last even longer. As such, coconut oil is safe to eat for longer periods of time than any other vegetable oil. However, unrefined or virgin coconut oil's relatively low smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit limits its cooking applications. If heated beyond this temperature, the oil will emit smoke, produce greater amounts of cancer-promoting free radicals and change in color, texture, flavor and aroma. Refined coconut oil's smoke point of 450 degrees Fahrenheit makes it safer for higher temperatures. To avoid unwanted trans fats, always choose unhydrogenated varieties when purchasing refined coconut oil.
Lauric and Myristic Acid
Of the saturated fats in coconut oil, lauric and myristic acid have the most potent effects on blood cholesterol levels. Lauric acid accounts for 47.8 percent of coconut oil's total fats and strongly increases cholesterol levels. However, this effect comes almost exclusively from a rise in HDL, or "good," cholesterol levels. By lowering the ratio of total-to-HDL cholesterol, lauric acid decreases your risk of cardiovascular health problems. However, myristic and palmitic acid work in the opposite direction, increasing your total-to-HDL cholesterol ratio. These fatty acids respectively account for 18.1 and 8.9 percent of the total fats in coconut oil. Despite its relatively small contribution, Drs. Sareen Gropper and Jack Smith note that myristic acid has the greatest impact on cholesterol levels of all three.
According to Gropper and Smith, the monounsaturated fats in coconut oil have little impact on cardiovascular health. However, both the small amounts of polyunsaturated fats and trace amounts of plant sterols complement the cholesterol benefits of lauric acid. These various effects led a number of nutritional experts to note, in a 2011 "New York Times" article, that small amounts of unhydrogenated coconut oil can be good for you. To ensure that you maintain a moderate intake, the 2010 "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" recommends that saturated fats account for no more than 10 percent of your daily calories. As there are 9 calories in 1 gram of fat, you should not eat more than 22 grams of saturated fats -- or approximately 2 tablespoons of coconut oil -- per day on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet.
- Vegetable Oils in Food Technology: Composition, Properties and Uses, Second Edition; Frank D. Gunstone
- Coconut Oil: Discover the Key to Vibrant Health; Siegfried Gursche
- Cooking Vegetarian: Healthy, Delicious and Easy Vegetarian Cuisine, 2nd Edition; Joseph Forest and Vesanto Melina, R.D.
- Cleveland Clinic Health Hub: Heart-Healthy Cooking: Oils 101
- Evidence-Based Cardiology, Third Edition; Salim Yusuf et al.
- Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism, 6th Edition; Sareen S. Gropper and Jack L. Smith
- The New York Times: Once a Villain, Coconut Oil Charms the Health Food World
- U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010
- U.S. Department of Agriculture National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Oil, Coconut
Matthew Lee has been writing professionally since 2007. Past and current research projects have explored the effect of a diagnosis of breast cancer on lifestyle and mental health and adherence to lifestyle-based (i.e. nutrition and exercise) and drug therapy treatment programs. He holds a Master of Arts in psychology from Carleton University and is working toward his doctorate in health psychology.