Safety and Dangers of Coconut Oil

Coconut palm tree at Caribbean tropical beach
Coconuts hanging from a tree. (Image: nayuco/iStock/Getty Images)

Coconut oil possesses a variety of culinary, cosmetic and health applications. As health authorities caution against consumption of trans fats, saturated fats and fat in general, controversy and confusion have arisen regarding the safety of including coconut oil as part of a healthy diet. While a few precautions should be taken when handling and consuming coconut oil, it is generally regarded as a safe food when eaten in moderation.

Clean Spills Promptly

Coconut oil has a variety of uses, from hair and skin moisturizer to cooking oil. It is invisible on surfaces and very slippery, so any spills should be cleaned promptly to prevent slips and falls. Use of any oil in the shower is not recommended.

Labeled Safe by FDA

The FDA places coconut oil in the Generally Regarded As Safe category, and according to the Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for coconut oil, it is considered nontoxic but could potentially mildly irritate the eyes with contact. No other concerns are reported.

Avoid Hydrogenated Oil

When coconut oil is hydrogenated, it converts to a trans fat, which is the type of fat implicated in heart disease, as it increases LDL cholesterol and hampers your body’s capability to use HDL, considered "good cholesterol." Unprocessed, unrefined virgin coconut oil is not hydrogenated, so it is the safer choice for consumption.

Pesticide and Herbicide Alternative

Coconut oil has been utilized as a base for natural weed control products, and the city government of Auckland, New Zealand, reported that those with chemical sensitivities who normally reacted negatively to herbicides were undisturbed by this organic herbicide. Coconut oil has also been touted as a natural alternative to more toxic head lice removal products. It reportedly suffocates the lice and makes it more difficult for them to hold on to the hair shaft. A study conducted by Dr. Gerald Coles and colleagues at Bristol University and reported in the "Times of London" found that using a coconut-oil-based shampoo was effective against head lice when combined with combing out the nits and lice.

Sexual Lubricant

While coconut oil can safely be used as a sexual lubricant, oils cannot be safely used in conjunction with latex, so you should select another lubricant if you are also using diaphragms or condoms.

Moderation

A 1986 study conducted by T. B. Seaton and colleagues and published in the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" demonstrated that the medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil were three times as effective in increasing metabolism as the long-chain fatty acids present in most foods we consume, such as vegetable oils and meat. A 1982 study from the same journal authored by N. Baba, et al, showed that these fatty acids not only increase metabolism but also help to burn stored fat. A 2002 Canadian study conducted by Marie-Pierre St-Onge and Peter J. H. Jones and published in the "Journal of Nutrition" showed that people eat less and feel more satiated when they include coconut oil in their diets. Because of this research, people have touted coconut oil as a weight loss tool. However, the fact remains that coconut oil is high in calories--over 100 calories per tablespoon--and is 92 percent saturated fat. Keri Gans, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, says, "In moderation, that's OK, but in large amounts, we know that saturated fats can lead to high cholesterol and heart disease. Moderation is key."

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