coconut

What You Need To Know About Coconut Oil

Like fashion trends, food trends go around in cycles. That’s one reason the topic of diet is so interesting and frustrating, all at the same time.

Right now it seems coconut oil is back in, like a pair of bell bottoms, neon leg warmers, or a curly perm!

Some years back it was reviled as damaging to heart health, and something to be avoided at all costs.

But these days, coconut oil is making a comeback, and many are starting to place it in the ‘health’ food category.

The thing is, it’s high in saturated fat. So, does that mean we should avoid coconut oil, or is there more to it than that?

As you know, the majority of health care professionals and the mainstream media, keep repeating the need to avoid saturated fats, yet despite this advice, the levels of heart disease and obesity are skyrocketing. Something doesn’t add up.

On the other side of the coin, though, a quick Google search reveals coconut oil is being claimed as a cure-all miracle product.

I think it’s clear we need to be cautious, and avoid falling for the hype, on both sides.

 What Is Coconut Oil?

Oils and fats can be classified as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), or long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs).

The majority of fats and oils in our diet are made up of long-chain fatty acids.

It’s true that coconut oil is high in saturated fat. However, it differs from butter, for example, in that it contains medium-chain fatty acids.

There are, in fact, very few dietary sources of medium-chain fats, making coconut oil pretty unique.

These medium-chain fats are absorbed directly by the liver, meaning they provide instant energy, rather than being stored up. As a comparison, butter contains long-chain fatty acids, which are deposited in the fat cells and burn off more slowly than coconut oil.

Why Lauric Acid Is Good

Many of coconut oil’s health benefits are attributed to the presence of lauric acid.

Almost 50 percent of the fat found in coconut oil is lauric acid. When it is present in the body, lauric acid is converted into monolaurin, a compound which is thought to have antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial properties.

Interestingly, the only other source of lauric is breast milk, which may explain the reason breastfed babies get fewer infections.

Lauric acid increases levels of good HDL cholesterol, as well as LDL cholesterol, but this is not thought to negatively affect the overall ratio of the two.

So, what does science say about the health benefits of coconut oil?

Is Coconut Oil Healthy: The Research

There’s no doubt coconut oil has received a fare bit of flack in recent years.

Thomas Brenna, professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, has extensively reviewed the literature on coconut oil. He suggests one reason for the stigma against coconut oil,

Most of the studies involving coconut oil were done with partially hydrogenated coconut oil, which researchers used because they needed to raise the cholesterol levels of their rabbits in order to collect certain data… Virgin coconut oil, which has not been chemically treated, is a different thing in terms of a health risk perspective. And maybe it isn’t so bad for you after all.

Anything that has been hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated creates trans fats. And, these are extremely bad for our health, and should be avoided.

However, if coconut oil is processed correctly, it does not appear to be damaging to health, as we shall see.

Coconut Oil and Weight Loss

It has been suggested that replacing long-chain fatty acids with medium-chain fatty acids can lead to weight loss, particularly in the abdominal area. One reason for this is because medium-chain fats are burned for energy, rather than being stored up.

So, what does the science say about this?

In one study, researchers found that the medium-chain fats in coconut increased fat burning and calorie expenditure in obese men, and led to reduced fat storage.

When researchers looked at the effect of adding coconut oil to the diet of women with abdominal obesity, they found:

It appears that dietetic supplementation with coconut oil does not cause dyslipidemia (abnormal lipids) and seems to promote a reduction in abdominal obesity.

Another study found that consumption of coconut oil increased both fat burning and calorie expenditure in women.

Researchers have even suggested medium-chain fats may have a potential to prevent obesity by increasing energy expenditure and satiety:

We conclude that MCT (medium-chain fats) increase energy expenditure, may result in faster satiety and facilitate weight control when included in the diet as a replacement for fats containing LCT (long-chain fats).

Coconut Oil and Heart Disease

Because of coconut oil’s high saturated fat content, there has been some concern that it may cause heart disease.

review of the data in 1992 showed that dietary coconut oil did not lead to high cholesterol levels, or an increased risk of heart disease.

Another review concluded:

There does not appear to be convincing scientific data connecting coconut oil with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, several lines of research would appear to support the use of coconut products as part of a healthy diet.

Traditional Diets

Taking a look at traditional diets can provide extremely helpful and interesting findings, however it doesn’t always follow that the same results will be achieved when these practices are applied to Western societies.

We need to remember that in many of the populations studied, their diet also consisted of large amounts of fruits, vegetables, and fish, with virtually no refined sugars or processed foods.

Papua New Guinea

Researchers have studied islanders from Trobriand (a small island off of Papua New Guinea), who get around 80 percent of their calories from coconut and coconut oil. They found very low levels of heart disease in this group.

More recent studies have investigated the population of Kitava, where coconut and coconut oil is eaten in large amounts. Researchers found an absence of stroke and heart disease here.

Indonesia

In Indonesia, a study was conducted among the Minangkabau. Researchers noted:

Similar intakes of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids between the cases and controls indicated that the consumption of total fat or saturated fat, including that from coconut, was not a predictor for CHD in this food culture.

India

Heart disease is common in India, where they eat a lot of coconut and coconut oil. However, researchers concluded:

Results imply no specific role for coconut or coconut oil in the causation of CHD in the present set of Indian patients from Kerala.

Polynesia

Researchers looked at two populations of Polynesians where coconut has been a primary dietary staple. They found that:

Vascular disease is uncommon in both populations and there is no evidence of the high saturated fat intake having a harmful effect in these populations.

So, Is coconut Oil Healthy?

I personally disagree with the current dietary guidelines, which lumps coconut oil into the general classification of “saturated fats.” At the very least, it belongs in its own sub-category.

The fact remains that there is no convincing evidence to prove coconut oil causes heart disease in humans.

On the contrary, as we have seen, coconut-eating groups have some of the lowest incidences of heart disease.

Choose Your Coconut Oil Wisely

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all coconut oil is healthy.

In fact, conventionally processed coconut oil is extremely unhealthy. If you’re going to cheap-out, you would be better off avoiding coconut oil completely.

How healthy your coconut oil will be, depends on the type of coconuts used and the manufacturing process.

Professor of human nutrition at Cornell University, and an expert on the subject, Tom Brenna said this,

Unhealthy [conventional] coconut oil is produced from dried coconut… It is extracted and then chemically treated in various ways to remove undesirable components and sometimes hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. It is hydrogenated oils, often called ‘trans fats,’ that are associated with cardiovascular disease.

He recommends virgin coconut oil,

Virgin coconut oil is extracted from fresh coconut by homogenizing it into a fine pulp and then gently heating… The coconut oil is skimmed from the top. No harsh treatment.

You want to make sure the oil you choose is a pure, unrefined, and therefore highly stable, otherwise it will be no better for you than most of the oils on your supermarket shelf.

Coconut Oil: What To Look For

Try replacing other fats in your diet, such as omega 6 rich vegetable oils, with coconut oil some of the time. So, when purchasing coconut oil:

  • Look for virgin coconut oil, made from fresh coconuts, not dried ‘copra’ (dried meat from coconuts).
  • Make sure it is unrefined, and excess heat has not been used in the processing, i.e. the label states cold pressed.
  • Look for one that is free from chemical solvents and bleaching agents.

How To Use Coconut Oil

Coconut oil has a wide range of uses, and I don’t just mean in the kitchen. Here are just some of them:

  • Whenever you fry, stir-fry or sauté meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, or eggs use coconut oil.
  • Add it to your smoothie.
  • Make healthy desserts, cakes and biscuits using coconut oil in place of other fats.
  • Use it as a body and face moisturizer.
  • Use coconut oil to make homemade toothpaste.
  • Or, use it as a cradle cap cure — this works amazingly well. I used a small amount on Lois, and with one application the cradle cap had almost all flaked off and disappeared for good.

What do you think — is coconut oil healthy? How do you use it in your home?

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Comments 16

  1. Cathy in NZ

    What I’m noticing about “old fashioned” baddies made good now seems to be about advances in analysing what “stuff” is in the make up of the product…

    Similar to the notion it is now easier to diagnose this and that; then treat it with better product etc.

    The only thing that seems to me is that no one is talking much about portion control or what to eat when, how much vs whatever…

    1. Melanie

      There are some who recommend a certain amount of coconut oil each day, but I haven’t come across anything conclusive enough to make a recommendation. I think it is okay to use coconut oil for cooking with sometimes in place of other oils which are less healthy, but I can’t possibly say eat it every day and in this amount… not just yet anyway!

  2. Nicola

    Hi Melanie, it seems hard to find a lot of research on coconut oil I found so thanks for finding some! I think that the nationalities that you look at need to be looked at though in context of the whole diet, as generally traditional diets are low in sugar and refined, processed foods and high in plant based foods all things that are good for heart health . I still want to do a bit more reading about coconut oil before I make my mind up about it, but I’m off to a good start for some extra reading material :-)

    1. Melanie

      I agree with you, Nicola. It is important not to just add coconut oil into a diet that is otherwise unhealthy and think you are doing something good for your body.

  3. carlos

    Hi Melanie
    I found two abstracts about experiments with extravirgin coconut oil . Both articles are from brazilian universities.
    I paste bellow the abstracts .best regards
    Carlos

    About extravirgin coconut oil and heart health , I found a brazilian article ,made with 32 patients , that showed strong benefits to protect against heart and other vascular diseases with the use of extravirgin coconut oil , as I paste Bellow . The study was made by the Universidade Paulista (UNIP), Campus Brasília, Distrito Federal, Brasil ,and was found on line in march 2011.
    EFFECTS OF DIETARY SUPPLEMENTATION WITH COCONUT OIL ON LIPID AND CARDIOVASCULAR PROFILE OF DYSLIPIDEMIC SUBJECTS (from the journal : Brasília Med 2011;48(1):42-49)
    Objective. To evaluate the effect of dietary supplementation with extra virgin coconut oil on lipid profile and cardiovascular dyslipidemic subjects.
    Method. This is an intervention research conducted in a cardiology clinic of Valparaiso de Goiás. The sample consisted of 32 patients with hypercholesterolemia, 50% female, mean age 48 years. All patients were supplemented with 30 mL/day coconut oil for three months. The authors analyzed body weight, body mass index, abdominal perimeter and abdomen-hip ratio, dietary intake (24 hour recall), as well as full lipid profile, fasting glucose, apolipoprotinein AI and B, high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, lipoprotein (a) [Lp (a)] and fibrinogen before and after supplementation. The t-Student test with 5% significance was used.
    Results. After supplementation with coconut oil, there was significant reduction in weight, body mass index, abdomen hip ratio, abdominal perimeter, triglycerides, very low density lipoprotein (VLDL-c), and high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, as well as significant increase in the levels of apo A-I . There was also a trend towards a reduction in total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL-C) and Lp (a), as well as a slight increase in high density lipoprotein (HDL-C) and fibrinogen, but these results were not significant.
    Conclusion. The results suggest that dietary supplementation with extra virgin coconut oil is able to exert benefits on lipid profile and cardiovascular hypercholesterolemic subjects. However, randomized controlled trials are needed .

    About how safe it is the use of moderate doses of extravirgin coconut oil , I found ANOTHER brazilian article , published in the american medical journal called LIPIDS , that the authors of the article made a RANDOMISED, DOUBLE-BLIND, CLINICAL TRIAL that involved 40 women aged 20–40 years , using COCONUT OIL VERSUS SOY BEAN OIL , to compare the effects of both oils in lipids profile and obesity .
    Title of the article : EFFECTS OF DIETARY COCONUT OIL ON THE BIOCHEMICAL AND ANTHROPOMETRIC PROFILES OF WOMEN PRESENTING ABDOMINAL OBESITY – LIPIDS – VOLUME 44, NUMBER 7 (2009)
    Abstract
    The effects of dietary supplementation with coconut oil on the biochemical and anthropometric profiles of women presenting waist circumferences (WC) >88 cm (abdominal obesity) were investigated.The randomised, double-blind, clinical trial involved 40 women aged 20–40 years. Groups received daily dietary supplements comprising 30 mL of either soy bean oil (group S; n = 20) or coconut oil (group C; n = 20) over a 12-week period, during which all subjects were instructed to follow a balanced hypocaloric diet and to walk for 50 min per day. Data were collected 1 week before (T1) and 1 week after (T2) dietary intervention. Energy intake and amount of carbohydrate ingested by both groups diminished over the trial, whereas the consumption of protein and fibre increased and lipid ingestion remained unchanged. At T1 (T1 – one week BEFORE the use of the oils) there were no differences in biochemical or anthropometric characteristics between the groups .But at T2 ( T2 – one week AFTER starting the use of the oils) group C (group C – it is the COCONUT oil group–EVCO) presented a higher level of HDL (48.7 ± 2.4 vs. 45.00 ± 5.6; P = 0.01) and a lower LDL:HDL ratio (2.41 ± 0.8 vs. 3.1 ± 0.8; P = 0.04).
    Reductions in BMI were observed in both groups at T2 (P < 0.05), but only group C exhibited a reduction in WC (P = 0.005). Group S ( group S – it is the SOY oil group ) presented an increase (P < 0.05) in total cholesterol , LDL and LDL:HDL ratio, whith HDL diminished (P = 0.03). Such alterations were not observed in group C (coconut oil group). It appears that dietetic supplementation with COCONUT OIL (EVCO) does NOT cause dyslipidemia and seems to promote a reduction in abdominal obesity .
    This article based in part on the ML Master's Dissertation of the Assumption, Presented to the Faculty of Nutrition, Federal University of Alagoas, Maceió, Alagoas, Brazil, in 2007. A summary of the paper was Presented at the IX National Congress of the Brazilian Society of Food and Nutrition, São Paulo, SP, Brazil, 2007.

  4. superfoods

    My mother who is Fijian always touted the health benefits of coconut oil. They of course make thier own from fresh coconuts. The women in fiji daily apply it to thier hair as well. Unfortunately when Polynesians come to NZ and Aus they take the coconut products from canned which is usually processed and without any nutrition.

  5. Brian Dovorany

    When it comes to diet there seems to always be more than one “expert” opinion on what is right and what is wrong. It can often contradict the info that’s out there so it’s easy to get confused. The best policy when something could go either way, is just to consume it only in moderation.

    1. Melanie

      I agree, it can get very confusing indeed. A middle of the road approach can certainly be better than going too extreme either way.

  6. Shenette

    I am trying to determine if I should use extra virgin olive oil or unrefined virgin coconut oil to saute with. I have recently come across information that says we should never cook with olive oil because of the low smoke point and that because of this, the oil becomes rancid and toxic at high levels of heat. Therefore, I planned on cooking mostly with coconut oil. However, I have seen conflicting information on coconut oil as well. Ugghhh, trying to eat healthy is so difficult!

    1. Sandee Wichkoski

      I use extra virgin cold pressed olive oil for frying fish and sweet potato fries and it works fine. It has to be cold pressed though to avoid the tipping point in the tempesrature. I’ve just recently started using cold pressed extra virgin coconut oil as well. Costco has Carrington Farms coconut oil ($15.99 for 54 oz) and they also have a great cold pressed olive oil for 9.99 (large bottle, can’t remember the ounces)

  7. Arjun

    Hi,

    I am from India & after reading & speaking to many people – I decided to use a combination of Oils & here is what I decided:

    1. To make sweets, pour on curries & hot Indian bread & also to fry seasonings : Pure Cow Ghee
    2. Deep frying : Pure Mustard Oil
    3. Normal cooking : Pure Groundnut oil
    4. Cold dressings : Extra Virgin Olive Oil
    5. Daily 30 ml : Virgin Coconut Oil

  8. coconut oil on the skin

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