In recent times, no food has created so much debate or divided people as much as coconut oil. Those who claim it as a miracle food use it to moisturise their skin, clean their teeth and simply eat it by the tablespoon. Those who state it’s not good for us, have been concerned about the saturated fat levels.
Last week my social media feed was flooded with headlines declaring that coconut oil is not a magical health food after all, as unhealthy as beef fat and butter, and that it may not be safe. Comments following these headlines were mixed and became a debating ground for those sitting in both pro and anti coconut camps.
As a dietitian who promotes ‘eating close to nature’, I thought I’d sit down this week and wade through the science and research to find some sort of common ground.
Firstly, let’s take a closer look at this supposed ‘bad guy’ known as saturated fat. Coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat, which is a higher percentage than butter (64% saturated fat), beef fat or lard (40%). Typically, too much saturated fat in the diet is unhealthy because it raises ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol levels, which unfortunately increases the risk of heart disease.
BUT that’s where we need to stop and reconsider grouping all saturated fats together because we need to acknowledge that all saturated fats are not the same.
What’s distinctive about coconut oil is that it also gives rise to the good HDL cholesterol. Coconut fat is extremely rich in a saturated fat called lauric acid. Unlike the longer chain saturated fats, lauric acid has a positive effect on blood cholesterol profiles. Coconut oil also has small levels of medium chain saturated fats and the body is able to break down these fats as fuel more easily than long chain saturated fats.
BUT does that make it OK to add spoonfuls to your smoothies or to deep fry your potato chips in? Put simply, is coconut oil some sort of fat burning superfood?
What we need to keep in mind is that coconut oil, like any other fat, is extremely high in calories. Along with high energy levels, there are virtually no vitamins and minerals in coconut oil and the antioxidant compounds are inferior to the levels you would find in extra virgin olive oil.
In terms of research, there are no long-term population studies to examine its effect on cholesterol levels over time, nor is there solid evidence to explain how coconut oil affects heart health/disease. At this time, the lack of research and the current science fails to convince me it is a ‘superfood’.
Sure, coconut oil’s distinctive HDL boosting effect certainly makes it a better choice than butter or lard, but it’s still not the best choice amongst a range of oils that have been proven to reduce the risk of heart disease. If you love how it makes your Asian dishes taste or how it works in raw fudge, have a little for that delicious flavour. What you need to keep in mind is that it’s not a miraculous cure for your heart, nor is it going to get you lean. It is however delicious and should be consumed in sensible portions and be neither revered or feared.
My final recommendation? Eat your coconut as a whole food, enjoy the taste and gain benefit from the awesome fibre it contains… As for the oil, use small amounts for the flavour rather than the health benefits.