The Case for Coconut Oil: Elixir of Health and Beauty or Just a Trendy Food Product?

by Sheryl Lynn Carvajal

Historically, coconut oil has gotten a bad rap for being high in saturated fat.  But recently, there’s been an awakening of the coconut oil craze: claims ranging from improved oral health, to increasing HDL cholesterol, to shinier hair. Find out about the controversy surrounding this trendy plant-based product.

coconutsThe other day at work, I was complaining about my hands being painfully and extremely dry. The chef at the restaurant where I work then poured extra virgin olive oil into my hands, and my coworkers surrounding me told me to rub it in like a moisturizer for my skin.

It seems some people are willing to try any sort of unconventional remedies for aesthetic issues, from placing teabags on their eyes to reduce puffiness and dark circles, to concocting a sugar and honey exfoliant for the face. It also seems as though food products are becoming more versatile, doubling their purpose from our plates to our bodies for cosmetic and health benefits. In fact, as I sit here, my head is wrapped tightly in plastic, which is covering the coconut oil that is soaking the strands of my hair.

Coconut oil has been one of the trendiest of health fads recently, and people are finding more and more uses for this medium-chained fatty acid. Historically, however, coconut oil has been viewed negatively due to its high saturated fat content. Just one tablespoon has 12 grams, and accounts for 60% of the daily value for saturated fat. However, there have been several claims that consuming coconut oil has several health benefits, including improving immune function by killing off viruses and bacteria, aiding in weight loss, and protecting cortical neurons in the brain to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. One of the most prominent claims is that the lauric acid in coconut oil helps raise HDL (a.k.a. “good”) cholesterol levels in the body. With all the mixed messages surrounding this food, you can see why it is so controversial!

According to studies conducted on the effects of consuming coconut oil and the effects of the medium-chained fatty acids it contains, there is some evidence that suggests that coconut oil can resist the common cause of hospital-acquired diarrhea, C. difficile, and consuming coconut oil can lower LDL levels. However, in these studies, the researchers iterate that more research must be done in order to have conclusive evidence of these claims and health benefits, especially since coconut oil is not currently regulated by the FDA.

My attempt at oil pulling lasted about 1 whole minute
My attempt at oil pulling lasted about 1 whole minute

One trend surrounding coconut oil by which several celebrities swear is oil pulling. Oil pulling is a practice in which a person swishes about 1 tablespoon of coconut oil in his or her mouth for about 20 minutes without swallowing, in an attempt to “pull the toxins” out of the body through the mouth. Specifically with coconut oil, there is a claim that it does wonders for oral health, and comes with other benefits such as decongestion, clear skin, and decreased headaches.

From a nutrition standpoint, we know that digestion begins in the mouth, with amylases that break down carbohydrates, well before they reach the stomach. Without any sound and peer-reviewed evidence that coconut oil can pull bacteria and viruses throughout the body from the mouth, oil pulling is controversial with many personal testimonies as to whether or not people think it works.

Another controversial component to oil pulling is the idea of “toxins” in general. What exactly are toxins? Is there a solid definition of what can be considered toxic to the body? This can be very subjective; to one person, a toxin may be a carcinogen, such that you can be exposed to by smoking cigarettes. Others may consider meat a toxin, as they believe it harms to the body.

While there is no conclusive evidence for or against oil pulling, it is important to decide for yourself whether you think it can be beneficial to your personal health.

While we are waiting on the verdict with more research, I think it is safe to say that coconut oil is very versatile in the kitchen. Since it is a solid fat, it can be used in place of butter in recipes, specifically in baking. (It’s great for vegan or Paleo bakers.) It is also ideal for medium-heat sautéing, since it has a higher smoke point than other fats and oils. Additionally, it is a plant-based product, so one can benefit from its phytonutrients.

For now, I’m going to hold off on the oil pulling, and stick to cooking with coconut oil, putting it in my smoothies, and using it as a hair mask and moisturizer.

Sheryl Lynn Carvajal is about two weeks away from having “MS, MPH” after her name. Her hair is extra silky and smooth from the coconut oil mask, just in case you were wondering.

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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