Tropical Plant Fats: Coconut Oil, Part II

Thursday, August 19, 2010
Heart Disease: Animal Studies

Although humans aren't rats, animal studies are useful because they can be tightly controlled and experiments can last for a significant portion of an animal's lifespan. It's essentially impossible to do a tightly controlled 20-year feeding study in humans.

The first paper I'd like to discuss come from the lab of Dr. Thankappan Rajamohan at the university of Kerala (1). Investigators fed three groups of rats different diets:
  1. Sunflower oil plus added cholesterol
  2. Copra oil, a coconut oil pressed from dried coconuts, plus added cholesterol
  3. Freshly pressed virgin coconut oil, plus added cholesterol
Diets 1 and 2 resulted in similar lipids, while diet 3 resulted in lower LDL and higher HDL. A second study also showed that diet 3 resulted in lower oxidized LDL, a dominant heart disease risk factor (2). Overall, these papers showed that freshly pressed virgin coconut oil, with its full complement of "minor constituents"*, partially protects rats against the harmful effects of cholesterol overfeeding. These are the only papers I could find on the cardiovascular effects of unrefined coconut oil in animals!

Although unrefined coconut oil appears to be superior, even refined coconut oil isn't as bad as it's made out to be. For example, compared to refined olive oil, refined coconut oil protects against atherosclerosis (hardening and thickening of the arteries) in a mouse model of coronary heart disease (LDL receptor knockout). In the same paper, coconut oil caused more atherosclerosis in a different mouse model (ApoE knockout) (3). So the vascular effects of coconut oil depend in part on the animals' genetic background.

In general, I've found that the data are extremely variable from one study to the next, with no consistent trend showing refined coconut oil to be protective or harmful relative to refined monounsaturated fats (like olive oil) (4). In some cases, polyunsaturated oils cause less atherosclerosis than coconut oil in the context of an extreme high-cholesterol diet because they sometimes lead to blood lipid levels that are up to 50% lower. However, even this isn't consistent across experiments. Keep in mind that atherosclerosis is only one factor in heart attack risk.

What happens if you feed coconut oil to animals without adding cholesterol, and without giving them genetic mutations that promote atherosclerosis? Again, the data are contradictory. In rabbits, one investigator showed that serum cholesterol increases transiently, returning to baseline after about 6 months, and atherosclerosis does not ensue (5). A different investigator showed that coconut oil feeding results in lower blood lipid oxidation than sunflower oil (6). Yet a study from the 1980s showed that in the context of a terrible diet composition (40% sugar, isolated casein, fat, vitamins and minerals), refined coconut oil causes elevated blood lipids and atherosclerosis (7). This is almost certainly because overall diet quality influences the response to dietary fats in rabbits, as it does in other mammals.

Heart Disease: Human Studies

It's one of the great tragedies of modern biomedical research that most studies focus on nutrients rather than foods. This phenomenon is called "nutritionism". Consequently, most of the studies on coconut oil used a refined version, because the investigators were most interested in the effect of specific fatty acids. The vitamins, polyphenols and other minor constituents of unrefined oils are eliminated because they are known to alter the biological effects of the fats themselves. Unfortunately, any findings that result from these experiments apply only to refined fats. This is the fallacy of the "X fatty acid does this and that" type statements-- they ignore the biological complexity of whole foods. They would probably be correct if you were drinking purified fatty acids from a beaker.

Generally, the short-term feeding studies using refined coconut oil show that it increases both LDL ("bad cholesterol") and HDL ("good cholesterol"), although there is so much variability between studies that it makes firm conclusions difficult to draw (8, 9). As I've written in the past, the ability of saturated fats to elevate LDL appears to be temporary; both human and certain animal studies show that it disappears on timescales of one year or longer (10, 11). That hasn't been shown specifically for coconut oil that I'm aware of, but it could be one of the reasons why traditional cultures eating high-coconut diets don't have elevated serum cholesterol.

Another marker of cardiovascular disease risk is lipoprotein (a), abbreviated Lp(a). This lipoprotein is a carrier for oxidized lipids in the blood, and it correlates with a higher risk of heart attack. Refined coconut oil appears to lower Lp(a), while refined sunflower oil increases it (12).

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find any particularly informative studies on unrefined coconut oil in humans. The closest I found was a study from Brazil showing that coconut oil reduced abdominal obesity better than soybean oil in conjunction with a low-calorie diet, without increasing LDL (13). It would be nice to have more evidence in humans confirming what has been shown in rats that there's a big difference between unrefined and refined coconut oil.

Coconut Oil and Body Fat

In addition to the study mentioned above, a number of experiments in animals have shown that "medium-chain triglycerides", the predominant type of fat in coconut oil, lead to a lower body fat percentage than most other fats (14). These findings have been replicated numerous times in humans, although the results have not always been consistent (15). It's interesting to me that these very same medium-chain saturated fats that are being researched as a fat loss tool are also considered by mainstream diet-heart researchers to be among the most deadly fatty acids.

Coconut Oil and Cancer

Refined coconut oil produces less cancer than seed oils in experimental animals, probably because it's much lower in omega-6 polyunsaturated fat (16, 17). I haven't seen any data in humans.

The Bottom Line

There's very little known about the effect of unrefined coconut oil on animal and human health, however what is published appears to be positive, and is broadly consistent with the health of traditional cultures eating unrefined coconut foods. The data on refined coconut oil are conflicting and frustrating to sort through. The effects of refined coconut oil seem to depend highly on dietary context and genetic background. In my opinion, virgin coconut oil can be part of a healthy diet, and may even have health benefits in some contexts.

* Substances other than the fat itself, e.g. vitamin E and polyphenols. These are removed during oil refining.