Over the last few years, coconut products – in particular coconut oil – have become very trendy. Celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie are enthusiastic consumers of the oil and one in 10 UK 16–24 year-olds currently buys it. Sales rose from around £1 million to £16.4 million in the three years up to 2016, according to the consumer research group Kantar Worldpanel.
The main driver? The popular belief that coconut oil or fat* is more nutritious than other types of fats.
But do the alleged health benefits stand up to scrutiny?
A summary of our assessment
Around 87% of coconut oil is saturated fat – more than in lard or butter. Despite what advocates of a ‘low carb, high fat’ diet suggest, scientific reviews and respected health organisations including the NHS and the British Nutrition Foundation concur that consuming too much saturated fat overall is bad for us.
As a result, the growing consumption of coconut products – especially coconut oil – is of great concern to those who work with scientific evidence-based nutrition. Coconut’s popularity is likely to add to the burden of obesity and heart disease, not reduce it.
So coconut products should be sold as an indulgent product, not a health food. Manufacturers, retailers and the media need to stop exploiting any health associations.
The scientific evidence on coconut oil
Coconut is bursting with cholesterol-raising saturated fats. Some companies marketing coconut products over-simplify what is a very complex topic. They assert that medium-chain length saturated fatty acids (MCTs) in coconut oil can actively protect heart health.
However, while some studies suggest some MCTs in isolation might have benefits, coconut oil contains a mix of fatty acids. Focusing on any benefits of a few MCTs while ignoring the detriments of the other fatty acids is at the least misleading and at worst very damaging for consumer health.
Saturated fats – a complex story
There are over 30 different types of saturated fatty acids. While there’s good evidence that some will have little, if any, effect on cholesterol, three in particular have been proven beyond a doubt to elevate cholesterol levels and are all contained in coconut oil in high amounts.
- Lauric acid, an MCT, makes up 14% of coconut oil (and is also found in palm kernel oil and cow’s and goat’s milk).
- Myristic acid, a long chain fatty acid (LCT), makes up 20% of coconut oil, and is in palm kernel oil and butter.
- Palmitic acid, an LCT, is found mainly in palm kernel oil, meat and full cream dairy milk and products, but also makes up 8% of coconut oil.
Clinical studies have consistently demonstrated that coconut oil increases total and LDL cholesterol – directly linked to higher cardiovascular disease risk. Despite some (not all) studies also demonstrating an increase in HDL (‘good’) cholesterol through the consumption of coconut oil, this is common with other saturated fats and does not negate the effect on LDL cholesterol.
Coconut products – putting statistics into context**
- Highest of all are the coconut oils and coconut butter, which are higher in saturated fat than any other commonly eaten food. Most coconut oils contain just short of nearly 90% saturated fat, compared with butter at 52%. Just 1½ tablespoons will provide the entire recommended daily intake of saturated fat.
- Four 100% natural coconut yogurt alternatives are currently on the market as ‘healthy alternatives’. Three of these provide between 17% and 20.5% saturated fat; the other a more modest 4.2% – which is still higher than full cream dairy yogurt. So an average 125g serving of three out of the four coconut yogurts will provide 21.3g to 25.6g saturated fat. That’s up to 128% of the maximum saturated fat daily recommendation. Other yogurt alternatives with coconut added to ingredients such as soya may not be high in saturated fat. It’s important to check the label.
- Creamed coconut (the block sort added to dishes like curries) is on average 58% saturated fat (some almost 70% saturated fats), which is more than butter (52%) and lard (44%)
- Canned coconut milk (made with coconut extract and water) averages 14.6% saturated fat, with reduced fat coconut milk weighing in at a somewhat lower 6.3% (three times greater than full cream dairy milk).
- Desiccated coconut is over 50% saturated fat and crops up increasingly in energy balls and similar products.
- Coconut drinks are not of concern in terms of saturated fat. On average a 200ml glass of coconut drink contains only 1.5g saturated fat (7.5% of the Reference Intake). Coconut water contains no saturates at all, or only a tiny trace.***
What needs to be done differently?
We think more responsibility is needed
Chefs, celebrities, manufacturers, retailers and the media all share a responsibility in how coconut products are positioned and portrayed. In some cases, there is a genuine ignorance and misunderstanding of the science, which could perhaps be addressed through more public health messaging.
HEART UK, the British Heart Foundation and Department of Health already advise that coconut oil should be consumed only in small quantities and the Change4Life website lists coconut oil within a category of foods labelled ‘leave these on the shelf!’
But these messages need more reinforcement. Manufacturers see that the market for coconut products is a lucrative one, so they are harder to influence. However, given that the majority of coconut products are excessively high in saturated fat (with the exception of waters and drinks), we believe that responsible manufacturers should position the products of concern as an indulgence rather than something that provides any health benefits.
The products should have clear nutrition labels, ideally using the traffic light system. Consumers should look out to see which are classified as high, medium or low, to help them cut down on their intake. The classifications are:
High: More than 5g saturates per 100g. May be colour-coded red.
Medium: Between 1.5g and 5g saturates per 100g. May be colour-coded amber.
Low: 1.5g saturates or less per 100g. May be colour-coded green.
*’Coconut oil’ and ‘coconut fat’ are synonymous. A fat is usually called an oil when it’s liquid at room temperature.
**Using data from Forestfield Software Ltd. Dietplan7 (2017)
***On-pack labelling of current leading brands on the market (October 2017)