Tropical Oils: Coconut & Palm Oils



By Cat, Feb 2007 (Photo, right, from Wikimedia Commons)

Includes: 1. False Allegations; 2. Palm Oil; 3. Benefits of Coconut Oil; 4.  Conclusion

Tropical oils, like coconut and palm oil, are no longer common in the western diet after being repudiated in the last half of the 20th century as “artery-clogging saturated fats.”  Such allegation is now known to be based on false interpretation of research data by people wanting to promote American corn and soybean oils.  Tropical oils have many good qualities for health; perhaps their antimicrobial ability is the most important.

False Allegations

It has been claimed that the saturated fats in tropical oils lead to elevated cholesterol, atherosclerosis, and coronary heart disease.  But the 50’s era animal studies cited to support these claims, used hydrogenated coconut oil as the only dietary fat source (1):

  • They used hydrogenated oil, to eliminate any effect of essential oils (polyunsaturates) that would cloud their study.
  • They chose coconut oil rather than other hydrogenated vegetable oils (corn, soybean, etc), because the softness of coconut oil made it easier to blend into the animals’ diet.  (This softness is due to the medium-chain, saturated lauric and myristic acid present in coconut oil). And coconut oil is more readily digestible.

The conclusions drawn from this study (that consumption of coconut oil raised serum cholesterol and increased incidence of heart disease) are flawed (1):

  • We now know that hydrogenation produces the harmful trans fats that could have been responsible for the observed effect;
  • An undesirable increase in blood cholesterol levels and atherosclerotic indices always results from diets deficient in essential fatty acids.

Palm Oil

Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of the oil palms; it is a solid at room temperature, and is comprised primarily of saturated fats.

It is a common cooking fat used in the tropical belt of Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Brazil (3). However, because of its popularity, it is responsible for the clearing of forests in order to grow the oil palms, with dire environmental consequences. For this reason, I do not advocate the use of palm oil.

It is advertised as a substitute for vegetable shortening or lard in baked goods, but because it is primarily saturated fat, it is not as soft as lard or shortening, and does not produce as good a result. [NOTE: I do not advocate the use of vegetable shortening because of its unnatural, manufactured fats.]

Benefits of Coconut Oil

Improved Fat Metabolism & Cholesterol Levels

On the other hand, animal studies in the 1980s comparing diets that include natural (non-hydrogenated) coconut oil with diets that include natural polyunsaturated oils reveal that the coconut oil diet results in:

  • lower serum VLDL and LDL (“bad” cholelsterol);
  • higher serum HDL (“good” cholelsterol); and
  • lower overall accumulation of cholesterol in tissues

than diets containing the polyunsaturated oils (safflower, corn, soybean) (1).

Prior, et al (1981) followed the health of Pacific Islanders who migrated to New Zealand.  Before the migration, their traditional diet included high intake of coconut oil, and they showed no evidence of this high-saturated diet having any harmful health effect.  After migration, when their dietary intake of coconut oil was reduced, their total LDL increased and total HDL decreased–clearly an undesirable change (1).

Many studies have been conducted on humans by introducing coconut oil into their diets.  In most of these studies, the subjects already had high cholesterol levels, which were lowered when coconut oil was introduced (1).

Several 1990s studies on subjects with normal serum cholesterol levels showed positive effects of including coconut oil (or palm oil, another highly saturated tropical oil) in a whole-foods diet.  While these studies reflect a small increase in total cholesterol, this included lower LDL and higher HDL levels so that the LDL/HDL ratio decreased, a truly favorable alteration in serum lipoprotein balance (1).

Antimicrobial & Antifungal Activity

It is proposed that some of this heart-protecting benefit might be due to the antimicrobial and antifungal ability of the lauric, caprylic, and myristic acids present in coconut and other tropical oils.  Certainly it is known that pathogens in the blood can cause an increase in serum cholesterol as part of the immune and inflammation response.  Recent research indicates that certain pathogens (herpes virus and cytomegalovirus) play a role in atherosclerotic plaque and coronary heart disease. Both of these viruses are inhibited by monolauric acid (a mono-glyceride), but this antimicrobial agent cannot be formed in the body unless lauric acid is present in the diet, such as from coconut oil (1).

Other research also indicates that the antimicrobial ability of tropical oils may play a role in prevention and treatment of (not a complete list):

  • atherosclerosis
  • coronary heart disease
  • cancer
  • HIV and AIDS
  • herpes
  • measles
  • ulcers
  • Candidiasis
  • dental plaque and cavities

All this has made me wonder if one of the reasons HIV and AIDs are so rampant in SE Asia might be the result of a “westernizing” of their traditional diets, which results in replacement of traditional coconut and palm oils with polyunsaturated vegetable oils in products like french fries, baked goods, and salad dressings, especially when the children of traditional peoples in these countries migrate to the urban areas.

Other Benefits

The use of coconut oil in cooking has many benefits.  To learn how to use it in your kitchen, refer to my essay on Good fats for Cooking and Eating.  It provides welcome benefits not provided by other fats and oils when consumed as a food:

  • As discussed above, it lowers LDL and raises HDL cholesterol, which will make your heart and your doctor happy;
  • The medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil can raise your metabolism, because they appear to be digested and metabolized differently than other fats.  Instead of being stored in your adipose tissue (fat cells), they are burned for a quick burst of energy, thus stimulating metabolism.
  • It also has blood sugar regulating effects.

In 2011, Dr. Mary Newport published a book (Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was A Cure?) about using coconut oil to partially reverse her husband’s Alzheimer’s. There has not been much research on this, so it is not known if this treatment is beneficial or not. However, the principle behind this is also the basis of the Atkins diet: ketosis. Stay tuned.

Uses of Coconut Oil for Cooking, Baking, and Personal Care

It can take the heat for Sautéing & Frying

Coconut oil has a light coconutty aroma and flavor that is not markedly noticeable when used for frying; it is my favorite for fried chicken.  It is very stable when heated, and unlike corn, soybean and safflower oils, does not produce toxic byproducts when heated to high temperatures.  Thus it is safe for deep fat frying.  And it may even help raise your HDL (good) cholesterol!

It can also be used for baking, but it does require some consideration. Because it is midway between a solid and a liquid, doesn’t behave like butter or lard (solid fats), nor like vegetable or olive oil (liquid fats) in baked goods. It is best to use recipes especially designed for coconut oil.

Skin, Scalp and Hair Care

Coconut oil has long been used to keep skin, scalp and hair healthy.  For centuries:

  • Skin and scalp emollients and moisturizers can be made using a coconut oil base, or on its own, as the fat content of coconut oil is similar to that of human skin.  Coconut oil has been shown to reduce inflammation, prevent blemishes/acne, and treat eczema, psoriasis, rosacea and rashes when applied directly to the skin.
  • Massage: For a deep conditioning massage, work a few tablespoons of coconut oil into your hair, scalp and face, and leave on overnight.
  • Soaps, shampoos and hair conditioners have long been made from coconut oil at home.  The soap, sodium laurate, is a very gentle and nourishing cleanser.  Research has shown that it helps maintain hair proteins and penetrates the hair shaft, protecting against damage.

However, the detergents made from lauric acid (e.g., sodium lauryl sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate) are harsh and drying.  Most commercial shampoos and toothpastes are now made with this detergent, not necessarily from coconuts, but rather from petroleum-derived laurel alcohol (2).


Wouldn’t it be a good idea for Americans to reintroduce coconut oil in our diets?  It is an excellent oil for frying and other high-temperature cooking (especially for popcorn and fried chicken).  It is also a good substitute for cream in soups and sauces.


  1. A New Look at Coconut Oil by Mary Enig PhD
  2. Philip Dickey article for Green Alternatives magazine, May/June 1992 from
  3. Wikipedia on Palm Oil (

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