When Donald Palmquist started working at Whole Foods in Louisville seven years ago, few people requested coconut oil.
“We had one small shelf of coconut oil products, but that’s changed dramatically,” Palmquist said. Today, the demand for coconut oil products is so great the store carries eight to 10 different brands, filling three full shelves, and sometimes that isn’t enough.
In health circles, the benefits of coconut oil remain a subject of debate, with some doctors saying more studies are needed to prove claims that it boosts energy, lowers cholesterol and helps you lose weight.
But that hasn’t slowed the demand for the tropical oil made from the dried fruit (nut) of the coconut palm tree.
Until recently, coconut oil was considered a highly saturated and, therefore, unhealthy fat. But customers are snatching it up for use on their skin, in their hair, for cooking, making smoothies, improving athletic performance and for a variety of other reported health benefits.
But probably the biggest factor propelling coconut oil into super-food stardom came from Dr. Mehmet Oz’s television show.
“I call it the ‘Doctor Oz’ effect,” said Palmquist, noting that once Oz started mentioning weight loss associated with coconut oil, the demand for the oil from the world’s largest nut shot through the roof.
From bad boy to superstar
Nothing has really changed about coconut oil’s fat composition. It still contains about 90 percent saturated fat – a much higher proportion than butter or even lard. However, unlike fats from animal sources, coconut oil is unusual because of its high percentage of medium-chain fatty acids or MCTs.
Proponents say this healthy type of fatty acid is easy for your body to quickly burn for energy and is less likely to form artery-clogging LDL (bad) cholesterol. Coconut oil also has a saturated fat called lauric acid, a type of MCT that in some studies has been shown to increase the good HDL cholesterol in the blood to help improve cholesterol ratio levels.
Proponents also point out that in the Pacific Islands, where coconut oil makes up 30 to 60 percent of the diet, there is very little heart disease.
Palmquist says endurance athletes looking for quick energy boosts buy his highest grade of coconut oil in a liquid form, which contains 93 percent MCTs and costs about $16 for 8 ounces.
“They like the energy it provides without having to consume huge amounts of carbohydrates,” said Palmquist, who swallows 1 or 2 tablespoons of coconut oil a day for energy. He also said he feels that coconut oil is a major reason his cholesterol is in the low 100s.
Typical coconut oil is solid at room temperature and contains about 64 percent MCTs. Customers buy it to use as a skin moisturizer (Palmquist says it may have an SPF of 8) or a hair conditioner, to cook with and to use in smoothies and even granola bars. The cost will vary by store, but typically a 16-ounce jar of virgin or extra-virgin coconut oil costs $10 to $15.
Weight loss by the tablespoon?
Chris Thompson, an athlete and exercise physiologist at Heuser Health in Louisville, says the current popularity of coconut oil has him fielding plenty of questions from curious patients.
“I take one tablespoon per day, eating it straight from the container. It is great to control appetite; it also gives me direct energy for workouts. I actually don’t like the taste of coconut at all, but the coconut oil has basically no taste and is quite palatable,” he said.
Thompson puts coconut oil in his protein shakes and cooks with it. “My waistline is leaner than ever before, and I think largely in part to replacing a good amount of carbs with the coconut oil, plus its enhancement of my metabolic rate.”
Too good to be true?
But for every article touting the benefits of coconut oil, you’ll find others that question the studies on which many of the health and weight-loss claims are based.
In a Q&A about the topic published on Harvard’s website, Dr. Walter Willett of The Harvard School of Public Health’s department of nutrition says not enough studies have been done to convince him that claims about this new wonder food are entirely true.
“I’d use coconut oil sparingly,” he said. “Most of the research so far has consisted of short-term studies to examine the effects on cholesterol. We don’t really know how coconut oil affects heart disease.
“Coconut oil’s special HDL-boosting effect may make it ‘less bad’ than the high saturated fat content would indicate, but it’s still probably not the best choice among the many available oils to reduce the risk of heart disease,” he said, adding that olive oil and soybean oil are healthier.
Neither the American Heart Association or the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines suggest that coconut oil is any better or preferable over other saturated fats.
According to both agencies, “Coconut oil, like all saturated fats, should be limited to 7 percent of daily calories because it can increase risk for heart disease.”
The few studies that have looked at coconut oil and weight loss suggest that coconut oil may help reduce waist size, but it doesn’t lead to significant weight loss or improved body mass index.
Most experts agree that while eating coconut oil in moderation isn’t likely to harm your health, further studies need to be conducted to conclusively determine whether coconut oil is capable of many of the claims. Despite emerging research, the recommendation is still to limit your total saturated fat intake.