Dr Martin Juneau, M.D., FRCP

Cardiologue et Directeur de la prévention, Institut de Cardiologie de Montréal. Professeur titulaire de clinique, Faculté de médecine de l'Université de Montréal. / Cardiologist and Director of Prevention, Montreal Heart Institute. Clinical Professor, Faculty of Medicine, University of Montreal.

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Saturated fats, coconut oil and cardiovascular disease

The American Heart Association (AHA) recently published a review of current knowledge on the association between dietary fats and cardiovascular disease. By taking into consideration the entirety of the available scientific evidence, the committee concluded that a lower intake in saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fat represents the optimal combination to reduce the incidence of heart disease in the population, especially if it is accompanied by a transition toward an overall healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet.

The positive impact of substituting saturated fat with unsaturated fat can mainly by explained by the opposite effects of these two types of fat on the LDL cholesterol level, a well-established risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Whereas saturated fat is associated with an increase of this cholesterol, and thus an increase in the risk of cardiovascular events, unsaturated fat leads to a decrease in LDL cholesterol levels in the blood and is associated with a significant decrease in mortality.  Since animal-based protein sources (meat, dairy products, eggs) are the main sources of saturated fat in diets, whereas plant-based fats are mainly unsaturated, the mere act of reducing consumption of animal products while simultaneously increasing the consumption of plant-based foods is a very easy way to improve the quality of dietary fats, and thus reduce the risk of heart disease. In fact, it is interesting to note that several regions of the world known for their low incidence of cardiovascular disease (Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia; and the Tsimané people of the Amazon) all share one commonality: a diet high in plant-based foods with a low intake of animal protein and saturated fat.

Plant-based saturated fat
Whereas almost all plant-based fats mainly contain unsaturated fat, there is nevertheless one notable exception: tropical palm and coconut oils (see the Table). Indeed, palm oil (extracted from the fruit pulp) and palm kernel oil (derived from the kernels) contain very high levels of saturated fat (50% for palm oil and 82% for palm kernel oil), which gives them a semi-solid texture at room temperature. This property is used in the food industry to improve the texture of cookies, cakes and other products, and the high level of saturated fat also ensures that these oils are much more resistant to oxidation and considerably improves the shelf life of these foods. However, like all sources of saturated fat, these oils increase blood cholesterol levels and thus are not recommended for cardiovascular health. Not to mention the devastating environmental impact of the intensive cultivation of oil palm, in particular in Indonesia: almost two million hectares of tropical forest are destroyed every year for this crop, a deforestation that has disastrous environmental consequences and threatens animals such as tigers and orangutans from Sumatra and Borneo with extinction.

Table.  Proportion of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat in different animal and plant-based fats.

Source of fatSaturated fat
Monounsaturated fat
Polyunsaturated fat
Canola oil76328
Coconut oil8262
Corn oil132855
Olive oil147310
Palm oil49379
Palm kernel oil82112
Soybean oil162358
Sunflower oil10844

Coconut oil: saturated fat with positive effects?
Coconut oil is another plant-based source that contains a very high proportion of saturated fat (82%), but that, curiously, has gained a good reputation over the years. In fact, a recent survey reported that 72% of Americans consider coconut oil a “healthy” food! Two main characteristics of coconut oil, frequently mentioned in mainstream press, explain this popularity:

1) Population studies. Epidemiological studies conducted among populations that consume large quantities of coconut, such as the inhabitants of Polynesian islands like Tokelau or those of the Melanesian island Kitava, revealed a low incidence of heart disease, despite a high intake of saturated fat from this fruit. It should be noted, however, that it is the coconut meat, very high in fibre, that is consumed by these populations, so the lack of effect on cardiovascular disease cannot be extrapolated to that associated with adding purified coconut oil to Western diets, which contain a large proportion of processed foods.

2) Impact on cholesterol. The saturated fat in coconut oil has shorter chains than that found in palm oil or in butter, and, in theory, has less harmful effects on cholesterol levels. About half of saturated fat contained in coconut oil is in the form of lauric acid (12 carbon atoms), and studies show that the effect of this fatty acid on LDL cholesterol is half that of palmitic acid (16 carbon atoms). In practice, however, a systematic review of the studies conducted to date indicates that coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol levels in a similar way to other sources of saturated fat (butter, palm oil) and in a more significant way than unsaturated fat, such as olive oil for example.

Overall, these observations suggest that coconut oil is a source of saturated fat like any other, and that it should be used sparingly to prevent an increase in the risk of heart disease. For everyday cooking, virgin olive oil is a much better choice because of its very well documented positive effects on cardiovascular health. Among other plant-based oils, the use of canola oil is recommended, as it contains the highest proportion of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, known for their anti-inflammatory effects.

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