‘Have you heard that coconut oil is tipped for the Nobel Prize this year?’ announced a speaker at a recent medical conference that I attended. ‘I have seen so many Facebook posts and Pinterest infographics listing all the benefits of coconut that I am sure that it will get the prize this year’ she added sarcastically. The conference hall erupted in laughter.
Ironically the little coffee shop in the conference centre was selling single sachets of coconut oil which came with the promise of being the one item that you would want to bring to a desert island because of its endless list of uses and benefits. Funny that, because I thought a desert island was the one place you could actually get endless coconut oil!
I decided to look at the real science behind coconut oil. Interestingly the trend of ‘all hail the mighty coconut' is not new. It was eulogised as 'Kalpavriksha' (the all giving tree) in the Indian classics.
Admittedly, I too am a little biased when it comes to coconut. Having grown up in northern Europe I associate the unmistakable smell of coconut with exotic holidays and relaxation. I am sure that even thinking about coconut causes my telomeres to lengthen!
But does the science support this? Here's what we do know:
Coconut or cocos nucifera is a large palm. Most people use the word ‘coconut' interchangeably to refer to the tree, the seed and the fruit. Coconut is rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals including manganese, phosphorus and zinc (USDA reference).
The main claim to fame of coconut is the fact that coconut has high levels of medium chain fatty acids. These medium chain fatty acids are easily absorbed, metabolised by the liver and converted to ketones which are a source of energy for the brain.
Certain nefarious elements have used these facts as the basis for ascribing numerous benefits to coconut oil that turn out to be fabricated.
Here are 10 of the common ones, and the science on why they're unproven.
Table of Contents
1 - Does Coconut Oil Promote Heart Health?
Earlier this year a group of researchers from New Zealand published a review of the available information on the role of coconut oil in the prevention of heart disease (Eyres).
The researchers had noticed that coconut oil was being heavily promoted as a healthy oil and especially for the prevention of heart disease. While the researchers agreed that there was plenty of social proof that coconut oil does not increase heart disease when taken as part of a traditional diet in countries where coconuts grow, they really did not feel comfortable with assuming that coconut oil can be safely added to a western lifestyle.
They reviewed 21 quality papers and found that coconut oil increases total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol leading them to conclude that it would be preferable to use cis unsaturated fats to reduce the risk of heart disease. This very recent paper summarizes the best data out there and categorically does not support the use of coconut oil for heart health.
Bottom Line: There is no credible scientific evidence to suggest that Coconut Oil promotes heart health.
2 - Does Coconut Oil Help Treat Alzheimers Disease?
Coconut oil is assumed to be helpful in Alzheimers Disease for two reasons. Firstly the medium chain fatty acids provide an easy to use form of energy for the brain. Secondly key micronutrients in coconut oil could theoretically help prevent the formation of amyloid plaques which cause some of the pathology in Alzheimers Disease (Fernando).
So for sure, there is biological plausibility that coconut oil may help. However it is neither safe nor fair to say at this stage that coconut oil has been ‘proven’ to treat Alzheimer’s Disease as some bloggers have claimed.
There were just two references that bloggers used to support this far fetched claim. One was in a study in a test tube (Nafar) and the other study was based on just one patient! (Newport). It really annoys me when people make false claims because it misleads people who may be suffering from Alzheimer's and who may not have the skills to deconstruct the data to see if it is sound.
Let’s all hope that coconut oil will help people with Alzheimers disease but for now it is simply irresponsible to say that it is ‘proven’ to help.
Bottom Line: There is no scientific evidence to suggest that Coconut Oil is proven to help treat Alzheimers Disease.
3 - Does Coconut Oil Treat Urinary Tract Infections?
Now this is where I get really annoyed! I am an infectious diseases physician and consider myself to be reasonably open minded. I've seen various treatments for urinary tract infections, but I have never heard of a role for coconut oil.
There is not a single published paper on the use of coconut oil for urinary tract infections. Confused by this, I checked out the references in the blogs that were recommending coconut oil and found that they had no references for this claim (I think we know why!).
Bottom Line: There is no scientific evidence to suggest that Coconut Oil treats urinary tract infections.
4 - Does Coconut Oil Protect The Liver?
Again there is no hard data behind this claim in the scientific literature.
Lets take a closer look at the references used by some bloggers who claim that coconut oil protects the liver. The claims are based on a single paper which looked at giving an antibiotic to albino rats (Otuechere). The addition of coconut water protected the rats from antibiotic induced liver damage. How on earth can a blogger jump from antibiotic treated albino rats to the generalisation that coconut oil protects the liver?
Bottom Line: There is no scientific evidence to suggest that Coconut Oil protects the liver.
5 - Does Coconut Oil Help Treat Arthritis?
There are no real studies looking at coconut oil in arthritis. This time the reference being used in some blogs to support this claim comes from a study on rats in India (Vysakh).
The researchers injected the rats with toxic substances to induce arthritis and looked at blood, synovial fluid and paw histopathology samples in rats who received coconut oil. The coconut oil reduced inflammation in the poor rats. Firstly I am no rat lover but feel very uncomfortable with injecting rats like this. Secondly how did we get from laboratory rats to humans?
Bottom Line: There is no scientific evidence to suggest that Coconut Oil outperforms standard arthritis medications.
6 - Does Coconut Oil Reduce Gallbladder Disease?
There are no studies to support the role of coconut oil in gallbladder disease. The famous Facebook posts and re-pinned pins that promote coconut oil for gallbladder disease just make the claim with no attempt to support it.
Bottom Line: There is no scientific evidence to suggest that Coconut Oil reduces Gallbladder Disaease.
7 - Does Coconut Oil Reduce Pancreatic Disease?
There are a handful of promising studies showing the benefits of coconut oil for pancreatic function. These studies looked at sheep, mice and everyone's best friend the albino rat! Perhaps this line of research will continue, and it would be nice if it found a benefit for the pancreases of humans. But for now, there is no evidence and this research should not be acted upon.
In other words, best not to say that coconut oil reduces pancreatic disease until the sheep, mice and albino rats make up a decent demographic of Facebook users!
Bottom Line: There is no scientific evidence to suggest that Coconut Oil reduces Pancreatic disease in humans.
8 - Does Coconut Oil Help Osteoporosis?
There is a single study from Malaysia which looks at coconut oil in the prevention of bone loss in post menopausal osteoporotic rats (Hayatullina). The study showed that supplementation with 8% virgin coconut oil had beneficial effects on bone density. Again this is very promising but hardly definitive proof that coconut oil helps with bone density in regular humans.
Bottom Line: There is no scientific evidence to suggest that Coconut Oil helps osteoporosis in humans.
9 - Does Coconut Oil Treat Ulcerative Colitis?
A single study looked at complex embelin lipid nano spheres using soya bean oil or virgin coconut oil for the treatment of ulcerative colitis (Badamaranahalli). The study was carried out in rats and the authors concluded that emblem lipid nanospheres could be favourably used for the enhanced treatment of ulcerative colitis. Again this is very encouraging but it is impossible to extrapolate from embelins in laboratory rats to coconut oil in humans.
Bottom Line: There is no scientific evidence to suggest that Coconut Oil treats Ulcerative Colitis in humans.
10 - Does Coconut Oil Does Help In Weight Loss?
A 2018 study from Brazil studied 15 adult women with excess body fat and randomized them to a breakfast containing either 25 mls of extra virgin oil or virgin coconut oil (Valente). The breakfasts were otherwise comparable in terms of calorie content. The researchers carried out intensive monitoring of the study subjects for 4 hours after they ate the study breakfast.The virgin coconut oil did not impact on a range of metabolic factors (resting energy expenditure, fat oxidation, thermogenesis) nor cardiometabolic factors). However, the virgin coconut oil did significantly reduce feelings of hunger as compared to the extra virgin olive oil. The study duration was too short to see if this reduction in appetite resulted in actual changes in body weight.
Oh, it would be a dream come true if sipping coconut oil helped the pounds drop off. Unfortunately this is just not the case. Any benefit of the medium chain fatty acids in terms of weight loss may be offset by the high calorie content of coconut oil!
Bottom Line: It is not scientifically valid to say that Coconut Oil assists weight loss in any meaningful way.
So what coconut does do apart from taste and smell nice?
There is one really nice study where coconut oil comes up a winner. A group of Indian dentists decided to put some science behind claims that coconut oil is good for oral hygiene (Kaushik M). I think we have all seen the photos of the lady with the pearly white teeth from using coconut oil on Facebook!
The dentists compared the use of coconut oil with chlorhexidine or distilled water mouthwashes and found that the coconut oil and water reduced the colony count of strep mutans which is a harmful oral bacteria. Based on this study the dentists recommended coconut oil as a safe way to maintain oral hygiene.
Interestingly the one thing I have never seen in the social media frenzy around coconut oil is the downside of coconuts which is otherwise known as ‘death by coconut’. Every year coconuts account for a number of deaths worldwide from head injuries from falling coconuts, accidents while climbing trees for coconuts and even anaphylaxis!
In fact, the FDA now mandate that coconut needs to be listed as a ingredient on labelling with the warning that it contains ‘tree nut with potential allergenicity’
So I am afraid that based on what we know now there will be no Nobel Prize for coconut and certainly no Pulitzer prize for coconut bloggers!