Coconut oil, once shunned for its connection to heart disease, began enjoying a renaissance around 2005. Authors claimed it a weight loss magic bullet and even a disease cure. The hype, however, may be hazardous to your health.
Coconut oil contains no trans fats or dietary cholesterol. But it's extremely high in saturated fats, which the American Heart Association names the leading contributor to high blood cholesterol, itself a clear risk factor for heart disease. (see References 1)
Single-ingredient diets encourage dieters to binge unhealthily on the latest panacea. Coconut oil is benign enough in moderation, as part of a balanced, low-fat diet. But retailers of Nutiva Organic Extra Virgin Coconut Oil, calling it "one of the most healthy super foods in the world," recommend three tablespoons of the product daily. This alone represents a saturated fat intake of 189% of the FDA recommended daily allowance. (see References 2)
Claims made about coconut oil exaggerate actual study findings into unfounded conclusions. For instance, some claim that the lauric acid sourced from coconut oil can cure AIDS. But according to the Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange, what studies actually show is that monolaurin (a form of lauric acid) attacks herpes simplex virus, cytomegalovirus and HIV in the test tube environment. No studies of the effects of lauric acid on actual AIDS sufferers have been documented. (see References 3)
Conflict of Interest
The biggest promoters of coconut oil tend to be retailers of coconut oil diet products. For example, Dr. Mercola's "Truth About Coconut Oil" article links directly to a sales page for Fresh Shores Extra Virgin Coconut Oil. Literature positioned to drive consumers toward specific products should be considered marketing, not nutritional science.
Many marketing claims about coconut oil are not only unsupported by scientific study but are out-and-out illegal. Certain therapeutic claims cause a product to be classified as a drug and thus held to stricter legal standards for safety, labeling and marketing according to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. When a web site makes such claims but does not meet those standards, the FDA issues them a warning letter. You can see which companies received such letters--and whose claims should therefore be accorded healthy skepticism--in the FDA's Cyber Letters database.