Coconut oil has been all over the media lately with claims stating that it is unhealthy due its high content of saturated fat while canola oil keeps getting the green light due to it being high in unsaturated fats, Omega 3’s, and Omega 6’s. Claims such as these are what constantly leaves people overwhelmed and confused on what to believe. Let’s quiet the noise of the media for once and get to the scientific truth.
Coconut oil is composed of about 87% saturated fat. It is also composed of about 58% medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) (1). Medium chain triglycerides are absorbed in the small intestine cells then travel into the liver where they are used for instant energy (2). Hello fat burner (3)! Saturated fat is known as the “bad” fat due to the conception that all saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) which is linked to cardiovascular diseases. However, not all saturated fats are bad! In fact, coconut oil is an accepted saturated fat due to its high content of MCTs and its ability to actually raise HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol). It also helps to lower the total cholesterol to HDL ratio (which is a much more important indicator to heart disease than looking at levels of LDL alone).
In a clinical study published by the Nutricion Hospitalaria, 160 male and female participants who had coronary artery disease (CAD) were divided up into two groups. One group consumed 13 mL of extra virgin coconut oil along with their recommended diet for CAD and the other group just followed their recommended diet for CAD without extra virgin coconut oil. The group that consumed the extra virgin coconut oil had an increase in HDL cholesterol with no change in the LDL cholesterol. This group also had a decrease in waist circumference and blood pressure compared to the control group (4).
Another study found the population of Tokelauans, which live in the South Pacific, to be in excellent health, with very low rates of heart disease despite that 60% of their diet consisted from coconuts (5).
Canola oil contains only 7% saturated fat, with the rest being unsaturated fat (1). Unsaturated fat is made up of long chain triglycerides. Long chain triglycerides are transferred into chylomicrons in the small intestine and are then entered into the lymphatic system to be used for either energy or stored away in the adipose tissue (2). Unsaturated fat lowers LDL’s and thus why it is known as the “good” cholesterol. However, not all unsaturated fats are good!
Canola oil is made from a genetically modified crop and was developed to be a cost-effect unsaturated fat. By 2009 nearly 90% of the canola oil grown in the U.S. was genetically modified (6). GMOs are food products that have had their DNA altered in a laboratory by genes from other plants, animals, viruses, or bacteria. GMOs are dangerous to consume due to their health risks such as toxins, allergens, or genetic hazards (7). The crops are also sprayed with Roundup (a glyphosate-based herbicide) which has been conveyed by the World Health Organization to potentially be carcinogenic to humans, meaning it could lead to cancer (8).
Canola oil (and most vegetable oils) is highly processed, refined, bleached, and deodorized in order to preserve its shelf life and taste. During the refinement process, heat is added which affects the oil’s molecules and turns them rancid. Some trans fats (which are dangerously bad) can also be created during this extreme event (9). Even though the bottle of canola oil you pick off of the shelf at the grocery store says it contains 0g of trans fat, keep in mind that the FDA doesn’t require trans fats to be recorded on the label if the content per serving is less than 0.5 grams.
Canola oil is also known for its high content of Omega 3 fatty acids and Omega 6 fatty acids, but contains more Omega 6’s than Omega 3’s. When more Omega 6’s are consumed than Omega 3’s inflammation in the body can occur (10). Another important thing to know is that canola oil is high in polyunsaturated fats (PUFAS) which are easily prone to oxidation when exposed to high heat (11). Oxidation is the opposite of what we want! It creates free radicals- the unstable molecules that can damage our DNA (and thus our health)! I could go really deep in the subjects of oxidation and free radicals for forever, but will spare you guys for now!
So which one is better?
Even though canola oil contains mostly unsaturated fats and is high in Omega 3’s and 6’s, due to its high refinement (which can potentially cause problems as mentioned before), try to avoid it as much as possible. Coconut oil on the other hand, is a safer choice to consume daily in small amounts since it’s less processed and contains MCT’s. However, when choosing a coconut oil, unrefined cold-pressed is best (least amount of processing and contains more MCT’s).
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that saturated fats shouldn’t exceed 10% of our total calories per day (1). This is largely due to the research that correlates most saturated fats to an increase in LDLs which is linked to cardiovascular diseases. Although most of our fat calories should come from unsaturated fats, we should be selective and do our research first (or ask a dietitian) before grabbing any product that contains mostly unsaturated fat off the shelf.
Another great option is going oil-free! Mashed bananas, applesauce, flax meal, and pureed tofu are some great oil alternatives when it comes to baking. Eating avocados, nuts, and other whole foods that are naturally high in fat is the most optimal way to get in the essential fatty acids without having to consume oils.
How are you preparing your foods—with oil or oil-free?
1. Vannice G, Rasmussen H. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: dietary fatty acids for healthy adults. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014;114(1):136-153.
2. Nancy You Y-Q, Ling P-R, Qu JZ, Bistrian BR. Effects of Medium-Chain Triglycerides, Long-Chain Triglycerides, or 2-Monododecanoin on Fatty Acid Composition in the Portal Vein, Intestinal Lymph, and Systemic Circulation in Rats. JPEN Journal of parenteral and enteral nutrition. 2008;32(2):169-175. doi:10.1177/0148607108314758.
3. Mumme K, Stonehouse W. Effects of medium-chain triglycerides on weight loss and body composition: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015 Feb;115(2):249-63. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2014.10.022.
4. Cardoso DA1, Moreira AS2, de Oliveira GM1, Raggio Luiz R3, Rosa G4. A COCONUT EXTRA VIRGIN OIL-RICH DIET INCREASES HDL CHOLESTEROL AND DECREASES WAIST CIRCUMFERENCE AND BODY MASS IN CORONARY ARTERY DISEASE PATIENTS. Nutricion Hospitalaria. 2015 Nov 1;32(5):2144-52. doi: 10.3305/nh.2015.32.5.9642.
5. I A Prior, F Davidson, C E Salmond, Z Czochanska; Cholesterol, coconuts, and diet on Polynesian atolls: a natural experiment: the Pukapuka and Tokelau Island studies, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 34, Issue 8, 1 August 1981, Pages 1552–1561
6. Beckie, H.J., Harker, K., Légère, A., Morrison, M.J., Séguin-Swartz, G., & Falk, K.C. (2011). GM Canola: The Canadian Experience.
7. Bawa AS, Anilakumar KR. Genetically modified foods: safety, risks and public concerns—a review. Journal of Food Science and Technology. 2013;50(6):1035-1046. doi:10.1007/s13197-012-0899-1.
8. International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). IARC monographs volume 12: evaluation of 5 organophosphate insecticides and herbicides. (20 March 2015). World Health Organization.
9. O'KEEFE, S. , GASKINS‐WRIGHT, S. , WILEY, V. and CHEN, I. (1994), LEVELS OF TRANS GEOMETRICAL ISOMERS OF ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS IN SOME UNHYDROGENATED U. S. VEGETABLE OILS. Journal of Food Lipids, 1: 165-176. doi:10.1111/j.1745-4522.1994.tb00244.x
10. A.PSimopoulos. The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy. Volume 56, Issue 8, October 2002, Pages 365-379.
11. Awada M, Soulage CO, Meynier A, et al. Dietary oxidized n-3 PUFA induce oxidative stress and inflammation: role of intestinal absorption of 4-HHE and reactivity in intestinal cells. Journal of Lipid Research. 2012;53(10):2069-2080. doi:10.1194/jlr.M026179.
Casie Cuneio is currently in the Master of Science- Coordinated Program in Nutrition at Georgia State University. Casie is passionate about all things related to nutrition and cannot wait to obtain her registered dietitian's license to help others feel and look their best. Outside of studying nutrition, Casie enjoys exercising and hanging out with her pups!