Unlikely Source of Healthy Fat: Coconuts - WSJ.com


March 31, 2014 10:37 p.m. ET

The Claim: Coconut oil, which is high in saturated fats, is increasingly being heralded as a healthy oil. Its advocates, including companies that sell it, say it's nutritious, good for the heart and a fast source of energy. The oil may possibly protect against Alzheimer's disease, they say.

The Verdict: A growing body of research suggests health benefits from coconut oil, including a recent study that found it protects mouse neurons against the buildup of proteins linked to Alzheimer's disease.

But the coconut oil research, mostly in animals and in the laboratory, is too preliminary to laud it as a health food, says David M. Klurfeld, national program leader for human nutrition at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Md. It is fine in moderation, he says, but he doesn't advocate eating large amounts of it.

Coconut oil, such as Viva Labs' product, is often sold as a solid. F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Cardenas

Coconut oil has some 12 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, compared with about seven grams for butter, according to the USDA's food-nutrient database. Studies, though, have found residents of South Pacific islands who eat a lot of coconut oil have very low levels of heart disease.

Those studies can't be applied to Americans as Pacific Islanders are far more active on average and eat an entirely different diet, said George Blackburn, associate director of the Division of Nutrition at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass. Heart-wise, however, coconut oil is "better than butter" and other animal fats because it has no cholesterol, he adds.

Part of the appeal of coconut oil, says Glen D. Lawrence, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Long Island University in Brooklyn, is that it has "medium-chain fatty acids," a designation referring to the number of carbon atoms in the fat. Most of the fats Americans eat have long-chain fatty acids, Dr. Lawrence says.

The medium-chain fatty acids are easier to digest, particularly for people with gastrointestinal ailments, scientists say. And the body burns them quickly, which some researchers think may make them good energy for athletes.

Coconut oil's fatty acids, including lauric acid, kill a wide range of viruses and bacteria in the laboratory, Dr. Lawrence says, but so far it's unknown if the same thing will happen in the body after it is ingested.

Early research on coconut oil and Alzheimer's disease shows a possible protective effect on neurons. In a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, Canadian researchers found mouse brain cells treated with coconut oil were somewhat protected from the toxic effects of amyloid proteins, which build up in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.

Coconut oil, imported primarily from the Philippines, has a "slight coconut taste and aroma" in its "virgin" form, pressed from coconuts and otherwise unprocessed, says Bruce Fife, a Colorado Springs, Colo., naturopathic doctor who has written several books on coconut oil and other coconut products. If it is refined using chemical processes, it loses its flavor, he says.

Most of the scientific research has been done on refined oil, so there's no evidence virgin oil is better unless you prefer the taste, Dr. Fife adds. Both types are available in stores.

Coconut oil is typically sold as a solid. Viva Labs Inc., Valley Cottage, N.Y., says its virgin, organic oil, which is $11 for a 1-pound tub, is solid below about 72 to 74 degrees.

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