The whole world seems to be coco loco — crazy for coconut oil. Fans of this ‘healthy’ fat also claim that it has curative powers. Paula Goodyer separates coconut-oil fact from fiction.
Here’s a recipe for creating a new superfood: Start with a few small scientific studies that showcase said food’s potential health benefits (often in mice), stir in a YouTube clip extolling its amazing powers, and then season with a celebrity endorsement from, say, Miranda Kerr or Gwyneth Paltrow. Garnish with a lengthy segment on The Dr. Oz Show, and bingo, sales of this food are likely to skyrocket.
Does this kind of promotion explain why coconut oil — which is a member of the saturated-fat family that health experts credit with damaging arteries — is now touted as a miracle food? And are the claims that it helps with everything from Alzheimer’s disease to weight loss based on solid science?
When Accredited Practising Dietitian Marike Joubert realised just how many questions about coconut oil she was having to field (from GPs as well as clients), she decided to find out what the studies of its potential benefits really say. After sifting through reams of research, Joubert found that coconut oil doesn’t live up to its wonder-food reputation, at least not yet.
“There’s very little research to back up the marketing claims,” says Joubert, who works at Sue Radd’s Nutrition and Wellbeing Clinic in Sydney. “A few small studies [show that coconut oil can reduce] waist circumference, for instance, but there are no long-term studies of its effects on weight or Alzheimer’s disease.”
To muddy the picture even more, people attribute many of coconut oil’s benefits to the less refined extra-virgin coconut oil, but only some studies specify which type of coconut oil the research involved, adds Joubert.
The facts on fat
The science of fat is complex, so before we dip into coconut oil’s pros and cons, let’s look at saturated fat, or sat fat. This is the fat that contributes to heart disease by raising the body’s blood levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, the kind that’s conducive to blocked arteries. Saturated fat is a component of animal foods, such as meat and dairy products. The vegetable fats palm oil and coconut oil are also high in saturated fat. And most fast food and processed foods, such as biscuits, pies and pastries, are high in sat fat, too.
According to the National Heart Foundation of Australia, saturated-fat intake is linked to heart disease and high levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol; however, different saturated fats behave differently. What really complicates things is that individual foods can contain various saturated fatty acids, each of which has different effects on the body. Coconut oil falls into this category, says Joubert, who explains that it comprises three types of saturated fatty acids: lauric acid, myristic acid and palmitic acid.
Coco claim: It boosts ‘good’ HDL cholesterol
“All of these saturated fats raise your total cholesterol, but here’s the twist: Lauric acid, the main saturated fat in coconut oil, raises total cholesterol by increasing your ‘good’ HDL cholesterol — the kind that helps safeguard arteries from the build-up of fatty deposits. This is the main reason that many people have jumped to the conclusion that coconut oil is super healthy,” says Joubert.
But before you get too excited, Joubert also points to 2006 research that puts coconut oil in a different light.
In a study of healthy adults who had no risk factors for cardiovascular disease, researchers from Sydney’s Heart Research Institute and Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute found that coconut oil may increase ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, but that it also appears to not only reduce this cholesterol’s protective anti-inflammatory properties, but also impair the normal functioning of blood vessels’ lining.
Another argument raised in coconut oil’s favour is that people in parts of Asia and the Pacific — who have used coconut oil as part of their traditional diet for centuries — enjoy lower rates of chronic disease. But studies also show that once people move away from their traditional diet and active lifestyle to a more Western diet and sedentary lifestyle, coconut oil appears to provide no health benefits, says Joubert.
Coco claim: It guards against Alzheimer’s
Could coconut oil really relieve the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease? The interest in this question largely stems from the experience of US doctor Mary Newport, who began to see improvements in her husband’s early-onset Alzheimer’s when she started giving him a daily dose of coconut oil. There are also anecdotal reports of coconut oil alleviating symptoms in other Alzheimer’s patients.
The theory here is that when you consume coconut oil, the liver produces ketones, organic compounds that may improve mental function in people who suffer from this degenerative brain disease. Researchers at the University of South Florida in the US are now conducting an eight-month clinical trial of coconut oil involving people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. Although this study is a spark of hope and may eventually tell us more, there’s no good evidence for coconut oil as the cure for Alzheimer’s just yet.
Coco claim: It’s a healthy cooking choice
One of coconut oil’s main selling points is its high smoke point. This means you can heat the oil to very high temperatures before it starts to smoke. (Smoke is a sign that the oil is deteriorating and releasing toxins.)
“It’s true,” says Joubert. “Heated saturated fat is more stable than heated vegetable oil, but that doesn’t mean coconut oil is the healthiest choice. Sri Lankans, for example, often cook with coconut oil, but Sri Lanka has high levels of cardiovascular disease.
“Extra-virgin olive oil has a high smoke point, too,” adds Joubert, who points out that according to the Australian Olive Association, good quality extra-virgin olive oil has a smoke point well above 180°C, the ideal temperature for frying food. “Olive oil is also rich in protective antioxidants, and health experts link it to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Joubert. Other healthy oils with a high smoke point include rice-bran oil and peanut oil.
So should you use coconut oil?
The bottom line is that until more scientific evidence assures us that consuming coconut oil carries no potential harm, this oil is still in the watch-this-space category, cautions Joubert.
If you do choose to eat coconut oil — and that’s not what Joubert recommends — remember this: Coconut oil provides only a few nutrients for its many kilojoules. Joubert suggests you view it as a ‘sometimes’ food (like butter) and use it sparingly.
“It’s better to use extra-virgin coconut oil, as it provides more antioxidants,” advises Joubert. “Studies show that once coconut oil is refined and processed with heat and chemicals, it loses key beneficial properties, including protective phytonutrients.”
As for those other sources of saturated fat, such as fatty meats, processed meats, takeaway food and processed baked foods, it’s smart to keep your intake to a minimum.
As Joubert confirms: “What’s really important for optimal health is to ensure you eat a variety of wholefoods every day, not focus on individual foods in isolation.”
Saturated fat: It’s complicated
Although the Heart Foundation advises us to avoid saturated fat, the research into its association with heart disease isn’t always consistent, says The University of Adelaide’s Robert Gibson, a professor of functional food science who’s been researching fats in foods for 25 years. Dairy products, for instance, contain a range of saturated fatty acids, but some studies show no link between the consumption of dairy food and heart disease, whereas others link milk consumption to lower rates of heart disease.
The sat-fat picture is indeed cloudy, and not just because different types of saturated fatty acids have different effects on the body, explains Gibson. Another problem is that individual foods are a complex mixture of nutrients and other substances that may interact with these saturated fatty acids and influence the way they behave in the body.
“There’s little doubt that if people eat a diet full of saturated fat, their cholesterol will go up, but if they eat saturated fats in moderation, as part of a healthy varied diet, this may not be the case,” says Gibson. “As the sat-fat picture is unclear, the message is about being on the safe side and limiting saturated fat.”
As for coconut oil’s having any health benefits, Gibson is sceptical. “I don’t see any evidence for a potential benefit, and at this stage, I can’t see a role for it.”