Humans are simple folk. We all just want to eat something that tastes delicious while helping us look young, feel energetic, and stay the hell away from the doctor's office. In recent years, a new wave of health bloggers, naturopaths, celebrities, and integrative medicine experts have claimed we’ve had the magic potion all along—coconut oil. It’s been touted as a weight loss tonic, immunity booster, cancer fighter, Alzheimer’s treatment, HIV treatment, acne buster, and sexual lubricant.
In August 2018, however, millions of smug coconuts and more smug wellness influencers were silenced when Harvard epidemiology professor Karin Michels gave a lecture in Germany called “Coconut Oil & Other Nutritional Errors.” The lecture included a statement in which Michels referred to coconut oil as “one of the worst things you can eat” and “pure poison.” The video of her lecture, which has since been removed from YouTube, sparked a global debate and even an email from India’s horticulture commissioner to the dean of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health demanding a retraction. The retraction never came.
Coconut oil is not going to kill you. But it’s also not a cure-all, no matter what the wellness fanatics say. Like all oils, coconut oil is 100 percent fat. But there are many different types of fats—and unlike most oils, which are primarily made of unsaturated fats, coconut oil is almost entirely saturated fats—that’s why it’s solid at room temperature. Coconut oil, though, also contains a subtype of saturated fats called medium-chain fatty acids.
“Coconut oil specifically has a lot of something called lauric acid—a medium chain fatty acid—in it,” says Rabia De Latour, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health. That’s the element of coconut oil that’s often cited by those espousing the oil’s antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and cancer fighting properties. Lauric acid has been been promoted as a health tonic by everyone from Dr. Oz to Angelina Jolie, but many physicians point to the lack of legitimate research on its effects.
Is coconut oil panacea, poison, or, like damn near everything else, fine in moderation? Here’s what science says about all the ways people like to use it.
Will I lose weight if I cook with coconut oil?
You probably won't lose weight by using coconut oil in place of other fats.
It’s true, though, that medium-chain fatty acids are broken down in the body differently than other types of fatty acids. They’re absorbed more quickly than long-chain fatty acids—they can pass directly out of the digestive tract and travel to the liver to be metabolized into energy, without intermediary steps. They’re also less likely to be stored as fat tissue, and some research shows that using medium-chain fatty acids leads to more weight loss than long-chain fatty acids, like those that make up the majority of olive oil.
More from Tonic:
However, participants in those studies ate oils that were entirely composed of medium-chain fatty acids—and only only about half of the fatty acids in coconut oil are lauric acid. What’s more, lauric acid is actually right on the border between medium- and long-chain fatty acids: Its chemical backbone is 12 carbons long, and medium-chain fatty acids range from 6 to 12 carbons long. Only a small amount of coconut oil is made from other, more typical medium-chain fatty acids.
It’s a stretch, then, to try and apply results from these weight-loss studies to coconut oil.
“It’s definitely more beneficial to have medium- versus long-chain fatty acids in terms of how the metabolism breaks it down, but it’s very hard to measure the other benefits that people are focusing on,” De Latour says.
Will coconut oil lower my cholesterol?
Saturated fats can increase your cholesterol levels, notes the American Heart Association, and coconut oil has incredible high levels of saturated fat: It contains more than 11 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, while olive oil has less than 2 grams. Even butter has less, with just over 7 grams of saturated fat.
Research shows that coconut oil can increase the amounts of ‘good’ cholesterol, or HDL cholesterol, in the body—however, it also increases the levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. De Latour says that the downsides of consuming coconut oil far outweigh the possible benefits of a potential bump in HDL. Saturated fat is not terrible for you, but it does raise the bad cholesterol that increases your risk for heart disease and specifically heart attacks, De Latour tells me. Coconut oil is so loaded with saturated fat that she says she actually recommends straight up butter as a healthier alternative.
But that’s not to say it should be cut out entirely. “I wouldn’t say ban it from our lives and throw it in the trash,” she says. “I would just say use it sparingly.”
Will consuming coconut oil lower my risk of catching a cold or the flu?
Taking a spoonful of coconut oil, or cooking with it, is not a preventative measure for flu season. “There are many reports from less-than-credible sources claiming it has antiviral and antifungal treatment capabilities, but there is insufficient evidence to support these claims,” De Latour says. “I would not recommend off-label use of it medically.”
The repeated misconceptions about coconut oil’s ability to fight diseases and viruses seem to come from alternative health advocates extrapolating on scientific studies that don’t say quite what they appear to at first glance. Lauric acid and its derivative, monolaurin, have been shown to kill bacteria in a lab, but there’s no evidence that eating a spoonful will do anything to help an actual illness.
Does coconut oil improve brain health?
Maybe? But we don't know yet.
The brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease struggle to process glucose, the main energy source for the body. Some researchers suggest that ketones, which come from broken-down fatty acids, could provide an alternative energy source to fuel the brain.
In one 2004 study, doses of medium-chain fatty acids improved cognitive performance in 20 patients with Alzheimer’s disease or cognitive impairment, and a 2018 pilot study of the ketogenic diet in Alzheimer’s patients signaled that it helped improve cognitive function—though those studies were conducted with pure medium-chain fatty acids, and didn’t examine coconut oil specifically.
Lauric acid, which makes up most of coconut oil, can bring on ketogenesis, but it hasn’t been shown specifically to help those experiencing severe cognitive impairment. Research into the ketogenic diet and Alzheimer’s disease is still in early stages, and the Alzheimer’s Association states that there is currently no scientific evidence to support coconut oil as an effective treatment for the disease.
Does coconut oil lower my risk of cancer?
We don’t have any substantial proof of that either. But, cancer cells love glucose—and the ketogenic diet, which may include coconut oil, attempts to starve the body of glucose, so this is a theory that some medical professionals are interested in.
Some studies show lauric acid can fight cancer on a cellular level. A 2013 study found that lauric acid effectively killed colorectal cancer cells, and a 2017 study showed similar results in inhibiting the growth of breast and endometrial cancer cells. However, both studies were on cells in the lab—not in actual people.
“Maybe on a microscopic level there is some minute benefit,” De LaTour says. But taking large amounts of coconut oil is far more likely to dangerously raise your cholesterol than to have any effect on cancer cells—and alternative cancer treatments can put patients at serious risk. “The benefits are not necessarily something you can prove, whereas you can prove the downside."
I just cut my hand. I should just pour some coconut oil on it and it magically heal, right?
Sorry, no. Reach for the medicine cabinet before the pantry.
“Coconut oil should not be considered a substitute for conventional topical antimicrobials, like mupirocin, bacitracin or others,” says Natalie Yin, an assistant professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center, who weighs in on using coconut oil as a topical agent for skin issues. “There is not convincing evidence at this time to support its use in this capacity. Although some of the existing literature suggests that certain fatty acid derivatives of coconut oil may have antimicrobial properties, data supporting antimicrobial use of the oil itself is lacking.”
Will it clear up my acne?
Slathering coconut oil on your face will not clear up blemishes. Claims that lauric acid has antimicrobial properties have caused some to offer it up as acne treatment, while others have said it fights viruses and fungi passed from skin-to-skin.
“Certain fatty acid components of coconut oil have been shown to kill bacteria associated with acne, but the oil itself should be avoided in acne-prone individuals,” Yin says. “Coconut oil can actually exacerbate or even cause acne by clogging the pores. For this reason, moisturizers and even shampoos and conditioners containing coconut oil should be used with caution or avoided on or near the face.”
Should I use coconut oil as a moisturizer?
Sure. Yin says that it can enhance skin hydration for those with dry skin that’s not prone to acne.
Does it alleviate eczema?
Yes, we have a winner—for some people, at least. “Virgin coconut oil has also been shown to be safe and beneficial when used as an emollient in atopic dermatitis patients,” Yin says. Studies show that coconut oil, applied to the skin, improves eczema more so than mineral and olive oil. Researchers aren’t quite sure why coconut oil might help, though, and the National Eczema Association notes that it might not work for everyone.
Can I stop brushing my teeth and oil pull instead?
Oil pulling is an ancient Ayurvedic practice that consists of swishing coconut oil (or an oil like it) in your mouth for anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes. Proponents posit that it improves oral health by treating gingivitis, preventing tooth decay, killing bad breath, and whitening teeth.
This claim has got no teeth (sorry, had to), according to Lewis Chen, a faculty member at the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine. “Some research and articles have shown a minimal reduction in bacterial count and halitosis, or bad breath, which is not synonymous with prevention,” Chen says. “However, there is no reliable scientific evidence published to determine its efficacy. By and large, oil pulling can be used as an adjunctive service, but not as a replacement.”
Can I treat a yeast infection "naturally" by soaking a tampon in coconut oil and inserting it into my vagina?
No. Don’t do that. Coconut oil will not treat a yeast infection.
The potential antibacterial and antifungal properties of lauric acid has lead some to suggest it as an alternative cure for yeast infections, but Mary Jane Minkin, an OB/GYN and clinical associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale Medical School, asks patients to take a hard pass on the coconut oil yeast infection cure. “There is no data that I know of on antibacterial or anti yeast activity of coconut oil.”
People tell me I can use coconut oil as a sexual lubricant.
You can, but keep in mind that if you’re also using a latex condom to prevent pregnancy or STDs, slapping some coconut oil on top of it may not be a great idea. Coconut and other oils can degrade latex integrity and lead to breakage.
“There are some women who do find coconut oil helpful as a lubricant,” Minkin tells me. “And if they find it helpful and doesn't give them adverse side effects, that's fine.” But one of those potential adverse side effects is a yeast infection. Coconut oil can change the pH balance of your vag and then you’ve got a yeast infection that you can’t cure with more coconut oil.
I don’t have sex with vaginas, only other penises—I can use coconut oil as a lube, right?
This article originally appeared on VICE US.