Some products have been associated with health for a long time, while others, like coconut oil, have emerged relatively recently.
It’s easy to believe that coconut oil is nothing more than another fad product, but there are actually some really significant virgin coconut oil benefits.
In fact, some people argue that coconut oil can be legitimately called a superfood (1) (even though this is a term that is still under considerable debate).
In general, coconut oil is pretty much what its name suggests – that is, oil extracted from coconuts.
However, there are a few different varieties of the oil and these are potentially different in terms of health outcomes.
Virgin coconut oil is a form of coconut oil that is extracted naturally without the use of chemical techniques.
Another type of coconut oil is organic, which tends to use organic manure and does not make use of any herbicides or pesticides.
Finally, refined coconut oil is a form of coconut oil that is produced using chemical processes, including bleaching and deodorizing.
Many companies provide coconut oil that is both organic and virgin, which is probably the healthiest alternative.
It is worth noting that some companies provide extra virgin variants of coconut oil.
Unlike olive oil, there is actually no difference between virgin and extra virgin types of coconut oil and the extra virgin label simply appears to be a marketing approach (2).
Historically, there has been a stigma associated with coconut oil.
Part of this stigma is related to the saturated fat in the oil (which I will discuss later).
However, the other part of this stigma may have arisen from studies that considered partially hydrogenated coconut oil.
There has been growing recognition that hydrogenated oils may be related to significant health issues (3).
This provides a strong indication that virgin coconut oil may offer health benefits without these areas of concern.
Health Benefits of Coconut Oil
Society loves its heavily processed oils, even though many of these are actually very bad for health.
Coconut oil is one of a handful of oils that actually provides a significant amount of health benefits, which can make it a highly desirable alternative to the commonly used oils.
One of the key elements of coconut oil is known as lauric acid, which is a type of fat that promotes significant positive health outcomes.
Lauric acid is a form of medium-chain triglyceride (MCT), which has been studied in a range of different research papers.
This type of fatty acid can be easily digested, meaning that they do not produce the insulin spike that carbohydrates do (4).
This role has important implications for the use of coconut oil in food as well as a topical acid.
The significance of MCTs comes from the fact that they are metabolized differently in the body than other types of fatty acid.
This means that the MCTs are either turned into ketone bodies or they are used as an immediate source of energy.
Because of this, MCTs have also been associated with improvements in cognition for people experiencing memory issues as the result of Alzheimer’s disease although this is still an area that needs additional research (7).
This outcome has even been observed in a randomized trial of 152 participants who varied in how severe their Alzheimer’s disease was (8).
Additionally, MCTs have been suggested as a form of seizure control, particularly for people who are unable to follow a ketogenic diet (9) and is associated with few side effects when used for this role (10).
The lauric acid has been linked to antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties, which can be important for health (11).
The consumption of coconut oil is often associated with improvements in cholesterol levels.
For example, one experimental study found that virgin coconut oil was able to decrease the overall level of lipids in the blood and in tissues and also decreased the oxidation of LDL. This included a reduction in the levels of LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, triglycerides and phospholipids (12).
Most of the oils that people consume regularly are heavy in omega-6 fatty acids.
Omega-3 and omega-6 are both types of fatty acids that are essential for the function of the body, but they do perform different roles in the body and are needed in different amounts.
In particularly, omega-6 fatty acids have been linked to increases in the level of inflammation, while omega-3 fatty acids are associated with decreases (13).
Additionally, high levels of omega-6 can actually act to suppress some of the activity of omega-3, and some scholars suggest that the imbalance between omega-6 and omega-3 may directly contribute to disease, including heart disease (14).
This means that it is important to decrease the levels of omega-6 while increasing the levels of omega-3.
Coconut oil is good for this, as it contains very low levels of omega-6, making it a good choice for replacing oils that are much higher in omega-6 (15).
Other Health Benefits
Research has also indicated that extract from coconut peel may also have antioxidant and anticancer properties (16).
Coconut oil has also been linked to increased absorption of some nutrients (17).
Another study indicated that MCTs were able to decrease body fat and body weight in participants of a controlled clinical trial (20).
One of the reasons for this is that coconut oil can play a role in decreasing hunger (21).
One study found that participants who had MCTs as part of breakfast ate less in their following meal (22).
These roles may be particularly important for people who struggle to lose weight and to adhere to a diet.
A different way that coconut oil may contribute to weight loss is by increasing the amount of energy used.
This is an outcome that occurs as a result of the MGTs in coconut oil (23).
A Note on Saturated Fat
Even though coconut oil is often associated with health benefits, some groups criticize the oil because it contains significant amounts of saturated fat, such as the World Health Organization (24).
I’m really not going to talk much about this here, because I have covered the topic extensively elsewhere, but basically, the associated common made between saturated fat and heart disease isn’t really true.
In fact, recent experimental studies have found that this link may just have been the result of the way that previous studies were conducted, rather than an actual cause and effect relationship.
For example, one systematic study argued that the links between saturated fat and heart disease had not been systematically evaluated and that there is insufficient evidence for claiming that saturated fat in the diet significantly contributes to heart disease (25).
This can be seen by the fact that experimental research into low-fat diets has often failed to find that decreasing fat and saturated fat decreased risk of heart disease (26).
Additionally, research shows that populations who strongly rely on coconut oil for their calories have very low rates of heart disease, suggesting that saturated fat is not the culprit whatsoever (27).
For example, natural studies in people from Pukapuka and Tokelau indicated that despite high consumption of saturated fat, heart disease was uncommon (28).
These factors suggest that choosing to ignore a food that offers significant health benefits because it contains saturated fat may not be the best decision for health.
Additionally, not all saturated fat is the same, and approximately half of the saturated fat that is present in coconut oil is medium-chain.
This type of fatty acid is digested easier than other types of fatty acid (29).
Other Virgin Coconut Oil Benefits
Coconut oil is a very versatile product and it has been associated with a wide range of benefits, many of which aren’t directly associated with health.
Personally, I find coconut oil particularly interesting, because it is used for cooking and consumption, but at the same time, it is frequently used on the skin and in beauty regimes in general.
In this section, I’m going to talk about some of the applications of coconut oil that are not directly related to health.
Beauty is a very subjective area, so there really isn’t much in the way of research about whether coconut oil actually does this role well or not.
Instead, the information in this part of the article will be based on experiences of people who do use coconut oil topically.
It is very likely that people will have different experiences in using coconut oil in this manner – and I would love to hear about yours in the comments section.
This means that the outcomes that people have are only a guide for the outcomes that others may experience using the product.
However, because coconut oil is a safe product (30), there certainly isn’t any harm in people trying this for themselves.
For the Skin
Rubbing the oil into the skin is thought to be an effective approach because it a pure product, rather than traditional moisturizers, which contain a large amount of water (31).
The concept is that coconut oil acts as a way of hydrating without the risk of drying out a short time later.
It is worth noting that coconut oil is pretty concentrated, so people don’t need to use a large amount of the oil on their skin.
Typically, the amount of coconut oil should be much less than how much moisturizer (or other commercial product) that is applied for a specific purpose.
Some people choose to use coconut oil for things like shaving their legs, as deodorant, as a way of decreasing or preventing stretch marks or even as a massage oil.
Realistically, there are endless options for ways to use coconut oil on the skin, and people seem to be developing new ways constantly.
Research has also indicated that coconut oil can improve skin hydration in a safe manner (32).
For the Hair
The properties of coconut oil that make it desirable for the treatment of hair.
Some people use coconut oil as a form of treatment, and this may be particularly effective for people who suffer from dry hair.
An alternative approach is rubbing it into the ends of hair, which may help to decrease frizziness or split ends.
For the Teeth
One of the most recent benefits associated with coconut oil is in dental health.
This specifically relates to a practice known as oil pulling, which is the practice of holding oil in the mouth and swishing it around.
Oil pulling has been linked to improved dental health, the elimination of some bacteria types as well as a decrease in bad breath (33).
Another study found that oil pulling reduced the amount of bacteria in the mouth and in saliva, suggesting it may positively contribute to improved oral health (34).
This isn’t limited to coconut oil, and can be done with just about any type of oil.
However, this process may be particularly effective when using coconut oil, as the oil has significant antibacterial and antifungal properties (35).
Cooking with Coconut Oil
In addition to the virgin coconut oil benefits, coconut oil is often used simply because it can be effective in cooking.
Because of these factors, many people choose to use coconut oil as a replacement for most or all of the oil or butter that they use during cooking.
Most people find that it takes a little bit of trial and error to work out exactly how much coconut oil to use in cooking, as the amount tends to be less than for other oils.
Additionally, coconut oil can be a very good choice for people following diets that are high in fat and low in carbohydrates, as well as ketosis diets.
Another reason that coconut oil is beneficial is that it tolerates high temperatures much better than most oils.
This means that it doesn’t break down into trans fats as fast as most other oils, which can certainly be beneficial for people who cook with a significant amount of heat.
It is also important to note that cooking with saturated fat is much more desirable than cooking with unsaturated fat, as most vegetable oils will produce undesirable chemicals which can result in significant negative health impacts (36).
Coconut oil is actually very versatile in cooking, and can be used as a replacement for other types of oil, or as an ingredient in food.
For example, some people use coconut oil in oatmeal, brownies and even ice cream syrup (37).
Perhaps the best approach is to experiment and see how coconut oil works within your own meals and food choices.
Some people recommend using refined coconut oil for deep frying or stir-frying due to a higher smoke point.
However, this is something that I would suggest avoiding if possible, simply because the health benefits of virgin coconut oil are likely to be significantly better than refined coconut oil.
In many cases, using coconut oil for cooking will add a new flavor that often makes a good combination and turns a normal meal into something unexpected and desirable.
It’s relatively unusual to find a product that offers health benefits as well as benefits for beauty, but that certainly appears to be the case with coconut oil.
The most significant downside of using coconut oil is that it does tend to give food a slight coconut taste.
In many cases, this taste may be desirable, and it is likely to be drowned out in foods with heavy flavors.
However, for people who do not like the taste of coconut, this aspect of the oil may be an issue.
It is possible to get variants of coconut oil that have the flavor and scent removed, but honestly, this process probably also results in some of the health aspects of the oil being removed also – so it isn’t really worth the effort.