Coconut Oil | Does it measure up to the hype?
You would almost need to be living under a rock to have missed the rise in popularity of coconut products. Starting out in the realm of health food stores they are now very much main stream. I know this because even in my local Pac n Save (NZ’s low cost supermarket chain) I can purchase a range of coconut products. Coconut Oil, Coconut Sugar, Coconut Milk (not just in the cans for asian cooking but now in 1L cartons) Coconut Water, Coconut Flour, Coconut Cream, Coconut Yoghurt. And that is just in the edible foods section, if I look to the beauty product aisle there are even more coconut options. Think ‘Bubba from Forrest Gump and his plethora of shrimp options. The list of coconut products available now goes on and on.
I hate to say it, but as someone with background in Human Nutrition it looks to me like coconut products could well have risen the ranks and become a ‘Fad’. So I thought I would take the time to have a look through the claims and the current evidence to see if coconut oil in particular stacks up. (I’ve looked at Coconut Sugar in an earlier article).
The Hype | Coconut oil is 100% cholesterol free
Cholesterol Free | Put in perspective
Coconut oil is absolutely undeniably 100% cholesterol free. This claim is absolutely undeniably 100% accurate. But this claim is absolutely undeniably accurate for any plant based food. Palm oil, olive oil, margarine, white sugar, rice, wheat, canola oil, avocado, coca-cola, these foods are also 100% cholesterol free.
The Hype | Coconut oil reduces cholesterol
This claim/ hype came about from some recent debate within the scientific research and literature around fat types and cholesterol. Most of which centres around the results of a large meta analysis published in 2014. For a summary check out my earlier fats & oils article. Essentially it was discovered that some saturated fats may not be as bad for cholesterol levels as first thought. Coconut oil marketing benefited a great deal from this. Coconut oil was not looked at specifically in the meta analysis but it did raise questions, maybe coconut oil although one of the richest sources of saturated fat is not so bad for cholesterol?
Cholesterol lowering | Put in perspective
A literature review hot off the press this month has looked specifically at this question. It reviewed the 21 Human Studies looking at coconut oil and cardiovascular disease (Here it is). The authors concluded that although coconut oil may not affect cholesterol levels as negatively as butter the affects were still more negative than using cis-unsaturated plant oils (Think olive oil). So better than butter for cholesterol but not as good as olive oil.
The Hype | Coconut oil is rich in polyphenols
100 % true. Coconut oil does contain a lot of polyphenols
But what are polyphenols?
Polyphenols are a group of micronutrients in our diet that have antioxidant properties. They potentially do a few other things, but being and antioxidant is probably their biggest claim to fame. (There are quite a few different types, and they are present in a lot of foods, which makes them quite difficult to study). Polyphenols and their antioxidant effects have been linked to health benefits including prevention of heart disease, cancers, osteoporosis and potentially other diseases such as diabetes and alzheimers. Polyphenols are good for health.
Coconut Oil Polyphenol Research
In animal studies (rats) and in vitro studies (test tube studies) some potentially exciting health benefits have been attributed to the polyphenol content of coconut oil.
- Blood pressure & cholesterol lowering
- Reduction in LDL oxidation (heart health)
- Potential as an alzheimers treatment
Polyphenols | Put in Perspective
Coconut oil definitely contains polyphenols. With virgin coconut oil having higher levels than standard coconut oil (It is thought some of the polyphenols are destroyed during the manufacture process of coconut oil). But coconut oil is by no means the only food that is rich in polyphenols. Here are a couple of comparisons to put it into perspective.
Specific Polyphenol content of virgin coconut oil vs other foods
Gallic acid | similar amount to extra virgin olive oil
Ferulic acid | Wholegrain bread contains 240 times more than virgin coconut oil
p-coumaric acid | Dried dates contain 29 times more than virgin coconut oil
Catechin | Cocoa contains 360 times more than virgin coconut oil
Health claims of coconut oil are also seen in diets rich in olive oil
- Cholesterol lowering and reduction in LDL oxidation have also been achieved with olive oil
- Reduction in blood pressure is seen in diets high in olive oil
These results have been seen in human studies where as mentioned above to date the coconut oil polyphenol hype revolves around animal (rat) and test tube studies. Indicating more research is needed.
The Hype | The fat in coconut oil is Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTS)
Yes indeed this is true. Coconut oil does contain quite significant amounts of MCT.
But what are MCTs?
MCTs are triglycerides with a chain length of 8-10 carbons. Or perhaps 6-12 carbons depending on which definitions you use. (if you want to learn more, I wrote a quick biochemistry lesson on fats and oils previously). Because MCTs are short and simple they are digested differently compared to longer triglycerides. This means they are used in clinical nutrition products for patients who have difficulty digesting fat due to gut and liver issues.
MCTs | Put in Perspective
It depends on which defintion we use for MCT as to how MCT coconut oil actually contains. If we include fatty acids with up to 12 carbon atoms then Coconut oil is 65% MCT. However many experts don’t consider fatty acids with more than 10 carbon atoms as MCT as it is unlikely that once you get to 12 atoms long the fat is able to be digested through the more simple pathway. So if we use this definition coconut oil is only 14% MCT.
The Hype | Coconut oil is part of a ‘traditional diet’
Coconut oil is touted as being part of the traditional pacific island diet where low rates of heart disease was seen (before the introduction of western diets)
Traditional diet | Put in Perspective
Traditional pacific island diets are rich in coconut products, they are also rich in fruits, vegetables and fish, all of which are heart and health protective. Coconut water, fresh coconut cream and milk are used liberally in traditional pacific diets . Coconut oil not so much. Coconut oil production is actually a relatively new concept. Coconut oil, coconut cream and coconut water/juice all have quite different nutritional profiles. So unfotunately we can’t say if one type of coconut product is good that they will all confer the same health benefits.
The hype | Coconut oil is ‘immune boosting’
This claim has its basis in the fact that coconut oil contains lauric acid and monolaurin. I know what lauric acid is but monolaurin (even I had to look that up)
So what are lauric acid and monolaurin
Lauric acid is a type of fatty acid. It is a fatty acid that found in human breast milk. Monolaurin a compound which occurs in the human body after the digestion of lauric acid.
Immune boosting | Put in perspective
We all know that breast milk is fabulous. But can we attribute the same immunologic effects that breast milk provides firstly to specifically the lauric acid and monolaurin and then can we assume coconut oil will provide the same benefits?
There is some evidence that monolaurin and lauric acid may confer some immunological benefits. But to date there are no human studies to show that the same affects are seen with coconut oil.
So to summarise so far
1 | Coconut oil is cholesterol free | BUT so are all plant based foods
2 | Coconut oil reduces cholesterol | The most recent research released this months shows claim may in fact not be accurate.
3 | Coconut oil is rich in polyphenols/antioxidants | BUT so are many other foods
4 | Coconut oil contains MCTs | BUT it depends on which definition you use as to how much it contains
5 | Coconut oil is part of traditional healthy diets | Not so much, coconut products yes, but coconut oil specifically, no.
6 | Coconut oil is immune boosting like breast milk | Coconut oil contains some of the compounds that are thought to confer immune benefits, but there are no good quality human studies to date.
Coconut or coconot that was the question
I wrote this article to determine whether coconut oil lives up to the hype. My thoughts after looking into thisis is that Coconut oil does not live up to the hype. BUT and the but is big, many ‘Fad’ products do not live up to the hype. That doesn’t mean they are bad products it just means we shouldn’t look at them like ‘magical unicorn tears’, believe all the marketing hype and assume they will fix all our ills. Nothing is that magic, no food by its self is that mystical! So I will continue to use coconut oil. I like the way it tastes and find it great in certain dishes. But I certainly won’t be solely using coconut oil in my cooking and until there is further evidence I wont be knocking back shots of it like a medication.
What fats and oils do I use in my cooking
When it comes to the use of other fats in oils in my household I stick with a ‘use the best one for the job’ philosophy. This means I use a mixed bag. I pick fats and oils not purely because they will confer health benefits but also because they just make things taste good and make a great end product. Fats and oils not only add flavour to foods they also enhance the flavour of other ingredients as well, they are flavour carriers. By using a mixture I am essentially hedging my bets, covering all bases but making sure my food tastes fantastic at the same time.
- I use a strongly flavoured oil when I am making a salad dressing (Extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, walnut oil)
- Many of my dishes start with onions and garlic, and usually olive oil
- I use butter when I bake
- I use coconut oil when I am making a curry or satay, it makes them taste devine, and onions saute beautifully in coconut oil
- I add a dash of sesame oil to asian dishes, it is just so delicious
- When I’m bbqing I use an oil with a high smoking/flash point (Rice bran or avocado oil)
- I use olive oil in pasta dishes and when I make pesto etc, if you are going italian then stick to the traditional I say
- I add nuts and seeds to meals I make. They go into salads, into stir-frys and we have them regularly as snacks.
- Avocado is a common spread on sandwiches
- We eat oily fish, usually salmon quite often
LIKE it | PIN it | SHARE it