Coconut oil is marketed as healthy, but it has more saturated fat than butter or lard

It's regularly touted as a "superfood" or a "healthy fat" and is found in health food stores across the country. But coconut oil is made up almost entirely of saturated fat. Marketplace looks at how the product came to be seen as an attractive alternative for cooking, baking — and even in coffee.

'It's unfortunate that coconut oil has been given this health halo,' says human nutrition expert

Coconut oil is often billed as a healthy alternative to other oils. But it largely consists of saturated fat. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

It's regularly touted as a "superfood" or a "healthy fat" and is found in supermarkets and health food stores across the country.

But coconut oil is made up almost entirely of saturated fat. In a 14-gram tablespoon, about 13 grams — over 90 per cent — is saturated fat.

That's nearly double the amount in the same volume of butter, 2.5 times as much as lard, and more than six times the saturated fat of olive oil. 

Marketplace reviewed the study that seemed to spark the coconut oil health craze, and found that even its author isn't buying into the health trend.

"It's unfortunate that coconut oil has been given this health halo," said Marie-Pierre St-Onge, whose research is often used to make coconut oil health claims. "Especially since we know that saturated fats increase cholesterol concentrations, which increases your risk of cardiovascular disease."

St-Onge's research, dating back to 2003, looked to find solutions to the obesity epidemic. She found that the use of a specific kind of saturated fat known as medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) could help overweight subjects lose weight.

Marie-Pierre St-Onge, a human nutrition expert with Columbia University, is the author of a 2003 study that looked at MCTs and weight loss. Coconut oil contains some MCTs — and the industry has latched onto that. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

The chemical structure of MCT is slightly different — and slightly shorter — than the more common long-chain saturated fatty acids. Some of the saturated fat in coconut oil is considered medium-chain.

Soon after St-Onge's research was published, coconut oil began to be promoted as a health food that helps with weight loss. But she said only about 15 per cent of coconut oil should be considered MCT. 

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"I think companies should be responsible in their communication to the public and making sure that a research that's been done is being translated accurately," she said.

"I would not consume it on a regular basis in large quantities."

Still, coconut oil is often recommended as a one-for-one substitute for butter and oil in recipes and as a trendy "keto" addition to coffee in the morning — despite the fact just one spoonful would put you at 70 per cent of Health Canada's recommended daily limit of saturated fat.

Saturated fat has long been associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease due to decades of studies that have influenced public health policies around the world.

Industry says saturated fat from coconut oil is better

St-Onge's studies aren't the only research used to back up health claims for coconut oil. 

The Coconut Coalition of the Americas (CCA) — the industry group that represents some of the major coconut oil brands — asked Marketplace to consider studies that conclude that saturated fat doesn't affect cardiovascular risk.

But experts Marketplace spoke with said there is not enough evidence to counter decades of research linking saturated fat to heart and stroke risk.

One study that the CCA referenced is what's known as the "PURE" study, which didn't study coconut oil specifically, but concluded that test subjects eating more saturated fat had a better health outcome than those eating less of it.

Marketplace talks to shoppers about the health claims around coconut oil:

Shoppers learn the truth about coconut oil

4 years ago
Duration 0:59
Marketplace talks to shoppers at a Toronto-area grocery store about the health claims surrounding coconut oil, and reveals that it might not be as healthy as you think.

Even though the study was published in the prestigious Lancet medical journal, experts still disagree on how to interpret those results.

The conclusions were criticized by the Harvard School of Public Health for using test subjects from developing countries whose diets were particularly high in refined carbohydrates and indicative of a "poverty diet." 

A review in the American Journal of Medicine also pointed this out, stating "adequate nourishment in the diet was likely the reason for less death" and that the results "may reflect a need for any type of fat in the diet to treat nutritional deficiencies."

Industry experts say conclusions of nutritional studies can sometimes be controversial since they are largely observational, which can make them more subjective.

Dr. Michael Greger founded to help consumers make sense of nutrition studies. (Michael Greger)

"You can pull all the research together and look for consistency," said Dr. Michael Greger,  an American physician, author and public speaker who founded to help consumers make sense of nutrition studies.

The gold standard for a typical pharmaceutical clinical trial is a randomized double-blind test. But according to Greger, this becomes trickier with nutrition.

"It's easy to randomize people to 10 weeks of eating in a certain way. But they can't randomize people eating for decades in a certain way," he said. "Some of these chronic diseases take decades to develop." 

Government proposing saturated fat warnings

Most of the science over the past several decades has shown that a high intake of saturated fat can raise LDL, or the "bad" cholesterol, in the blood, which has been associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease in many studies. 

In Canada, one in two people eat saturated fat in quantities beyond the recommended daily limit, which works out to about 20 grams, including trans fat. 

Along with trans fat, Health Canada recommends keeping saturated fat intake as "low as possible," and suggests replacing it with mono-unsaturated or poly-unsaturated fats found in liquid oils, like olive and canola oils. 

It's not always obvious what products are high in saturated fat, especially if they are marketed as a health food.

For a 14-gram tablespoon of coconut oil, more than 90 per cent of it is saturated fat. That's nearly double the amount in the same volume of butter, 2.5 times as much as lard, and more than six times the saturated fat of olive oil. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

In the United States, Costco was involved in a class-action lawsuit over their Kirkland brand of coconut oil.

"Costco misleadingly labels and markets its Kirkland Coconut Oil as both inherently healthy, and a healthy alternative to butter and other oils, despite the fact that it is actually inherently unhealthy and a less healthy alternative," read the statement of claim.

The dispute was settled with an award of $775,000 US to the plaintiffs and an agreement that the company would not use the terms "health," "healthful," or any other derivative of the term "healthy" on their oil's labels.

According to a response from Costco, the agreement to change the wording on the labels, and any actions taken to carry the agreement, should not be taken as admission that the company's labelling was misleading.

The Kirkland coconut oil sold in Canada does not currently have health claims on its labels.

The American Heart Association recently published a public health advisory warning consumers of diets high in saturated fat — including coconut oil — and the associated cardiovascular risk. 

Canada may soon be going even further to curb misinformation and help Canadians make healthier choices. 

Health Canada has proposed putting front-of-label advisories on all foods that are especially high in sugar, salt or saturated fat. 

In a statement, Health Canada told Marketplace that according to the proposed regulations, "coconut oil would be required to carry a 'high in saturated fat' symbol." That proposal is currently being reviewed after "extensive consultations" over the past few years and would be part of the Healthy Eating Strategy that revamped Canada's Food Guide earlier this year.

Until then, it's up to Canadians to take the time to read nutrition labels to see if the health claims add up — and take flashy news headlines with a grain of salt.

"If you actually look at the peer-reviewed medical literature going back decades, it's really a consensus around the core elements of healthy eating. But they're still able to get clickbait papers published," said Greger. "It sells a lot of magazines, but it sells the public short."