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09 September 2016

Clearing up the confusion around coconut oil

Coconut oil has become a feature on the shelves of supermarkets and health shops in South Africa, but we need to ask if this food is really as healthy as it is claimed to be.

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Until just a few years ago, the coconut was a considered an exotic tropical food, with its sweet smell conjuring up images of holiday cocktails and lazy days on the beach.

However, aggressive marketing by manufacturers, touting it as a healthier alternative, has led to an abundance of coconut products on our supermarket shelves. We have coconut water for hydration, coconut shavings in health bars, coconut flour in our favourite baked treats – and of course coconut oil. 

Read: Coconut water – the ultimate thirst quencher

As coconut oil is probably the most popular of the coconut products, we need to ask if this “healthy” food lives up to its marketing hype.

A closer look at coconut oil

Refined coconut oil (as opposed to “extra virgin”) is a colourless, bland oil extracted from dried coconut flesh that is refined, bleached and deodorised, in a process similar to the production of traditional vegetable oils. As the case with all vegetable oils, it is naturally cholesterol-free, and classified as a fat.

Claim: Coconut oil is good choice for heart health:

Nutritionally speaking, coconut oil is high in saturated fats (92%). Lauric acid is the name of the main type of saturated fatty acid found in coconut oil. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fats to less than 7% of our total daily energy intake. For a person following a diet with an energy intake of 8,400 kJ per day, this works out to 16 g of saturated fat per day.

As one tablespoon of coconut oil has 12 g of saturated fat (and less than 1g of monounsaturated fat), it’s easy to see how easy it is to reach your saturated fat intake for the day when using coconut oil. In comparison, one tablespoon of olive oil has 10 g of monounsaturated fatty acids and only 2 g of saturated fat.  

Read: Go 'nuts' about Coconut oil                                                

There has been some research into the positive health benefits of coconut oil, focusing on its effect on HDL (high density lipoprotein), the good type of cholesterol. Unlike other saturated fats such as butter, coconut oil doesn’t actually raise total cholesterol or LDL (low density lipoprotein), the bad, unhealthy cholesterol.

This a definite advantage, but very importantly, it does nothing to help to lower LDL cholesterol– the very thing polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids do achieve. Coconut oil thus is almost as good, but just not good enough.

Population-based studies in countries that traditionally use coconut products in their diet are also interesting to analyse when it comes to coconut oil. In 2015, research on 176 Sri Lankan hospital patients concluded that coconut oil had a protective effect on heart disease. But these findings have to be seen against the background of the lifestyle of that particular country, i.e. a diet rich in healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and fish, and high levels of physical activity. As additional factors such as genetics may also play a role in the outcome of such studies, extrapolating these findings to the western diet may not be scientifically accurate.

Claim: Coconut oil has a high smoking point and thus good to cook with:

An oil’s smoke point is the highest temperature at which that oil can be used in cooking. The higher an oil’s smoke point, the more versatile its use. The smoking point of coconut oil (177°C) is in fact lower than that of a number of other oils, for example virgin olive oil (210°C), sunflower oil (227°C), and canola oil (204°C).

Claim: Coconut oil is high in medium chain triglycerides (MCT):                                           

Fatty acids are further classed as either short, medium, or long-term fatty acids depending on the length of the fatty acid chain. MCTs are easy to absorb and break down by the body to be used as quick energy. 

The lauric acid found in coconut oil, while chemically classified as a MCT, actually behaves like a long chain fatty acid and is digested, absorbed and metabolised as such. The MCTs in coconut oil mostly consist of a small amount of caprylic and capric fatty acids. Since the triglycerides in coconut oil cannot actually be classified as MCTs, it is therefore scientifically incorrect to apply the outcome of studies on the health to coconut oil. 

Read: Caprylic acid

Conclusion

Convincing research has shown that replacing saturated fatty acids with polyunsaturated fatty acids (and, to a lesser extent, monounsaturated fatty acids) decreases bad LDL cholesterol. For this reason, international bodies such as the American Heart Association and the European Society of Cardiology recommend the use of unsaturated oils such as olive oil over coconut oil.

While coconut oil may be better than other fats such as butter at improving heart health and cholesterol levels, research shows that unsaturated fats like olive oil are still better for our health. Olive oil has anti-inflammatory qualities and arteriosclerosis to a large extent is an inflammatory process. From a weight control point of view like all oils, coconut oil is high in energy (kilojoules), so you can’t simply add it to your diet without compensating for these kilojoules elsewhere.

As always, when it comes to our diet, fats are just one piece of the nutritional puzzle. It is important to consider any food type in the greater context of the diet. While coconut oil may be used to add flavour to culinary and traditional dishes such as curries and coconut baking, it might not be the healthiest fat to include into your diet on a daily basis.

Read more:

Coconut meat, milk: healthy or not?

Why coconut milk may not be so good for you

7 reasons to use coconut oil

References:

1.       Eyers L. Evidence Paper: Coconut Oil and Heart Health. New Zealand Heart Foundation. 2014. 

2.       FAO/WHO. Fats and fatty acids in human nutrition: Report of an expert consultation. 2010; Rome, Italy.

3.       Kasturiratne AL, Wickremasinghe, A.R. Coconut consumption and cardiovascular disease incidence, is there an association? a case control study in Sri Lankan population. Abstract of 15th International Nutrition and Diagnostics Conference. 2015; Prague, Czech Republic.

4.       Lawrence GD. Dietary Fats and Health: Dietary Recommendations in the Context of Scientific Evidence. Advanced in Nutrition. 2013; 4: 294–302.

5.       Lichtenstein AH et al. American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. Diet and lifestyle recommendations revision 2006: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association nutrition committee. Circulation. 2006; 114 (1) :82-96.

6.       Nutrition Data. Available from http://nutritiondata.self.com/. Accessed 23 July 2016.

7.       Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Dietary Fatty Acids for Healthy Adults. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2014; 114: 136-53.

The dietitians from Nutritional Solutions are Health24's expert team of registered dietitians.

 
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