Benefits of Coconut Oil – Fact or Fiction?

Let’s take a look at coconut oil and subjectively examine the claims made by this infographic. To view the complete infographic read Reasons to use Coconut Oil.

Firstly what is coconut oil?
Coconut oil is derived from the flesh of matured coconuts. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 117 calories, 14 grams fat (combined saturated, non-saturated fats and fatty acids), 12g saturated fat, and no vitamins or minerals (1, 2).

What does coconut oil comprise of?
The short and medium chain fatty acids contained within coconut oil are quite unusual. The medium chain fatty acids are:  lauric (44%) and myristic (16.8%) acids (1), longer chain fatty acids such as palmitic acid amongst others are also found in coconut oil. Most of the health benefits lauded involve the medium chain fatty acids especially lauric acid.

Is there something special about medium chain fatty acids (MCT)?
Medium chain fatty acids are oxidised directly in the liver to produce energy (3). In contrast short chain fatty acids are rapidly metabolised by the liver whereas long chain fatty acids require bile for their absorption and digestion and are only then used for energy production or stored as fat.

Let’s take this first group of “benefits”. As always on the internet you can find many differing opinions, websites promoting and debunking something and plenty of published research papers as well.

Claim 1: Coconut oil boosts brain function

  • Studies show improvement with alzheimer patients
  • Contains easy absorption fats called medium chain triglycerides
  • Improves cognitive function

It is true that fatty acids are essential for the smooth running of the human brain (4) but there are mixed findings for the claim that studies show cognitive improvement in alzheimers patients when coconut oil is added to their diet. Dr Mary Newport, a medical doctor, insists she has seen an improvement in her husband who suffers from the condition and cites a list of papers supporting her assertion (5). However I have come across articles on the Alzheimers Society website (6) that refute this claim or at the very least say that there is not enough evidence to back up such claims. Consumption of coconut oil can put the body into a mild state of ketosis and researchers at Oxford University (7) have found that a mild ketone diet can have positive effect on rats both cognitively and metabolically. Should this be true, and much more research needs to be done, a ketone diet could be used to treat both metabolic and neural disorders, including Alzheimers potentially.

Watch this video from the Alzheimers Society.(6)

Conclusion: Claim 1 remains unproven.