Readers, I don’t know about you, but I often feel borderline bombarded by news of the latest miracle food. We seem to have new “it” foods almost every week. I hadn’t heard of chia seeds or flax seeds until Dr. Oz named them as must-eat foods, but after I did a little research, figured they couldn’t hurt, and said, why not? The road isn’t so easy for all “new” discoveries, which brings me to this post’s topic: coconut oil.
Poor coconut oil. Nutritionists can’t seem to make up their mind about this delicious tropical oil, but I can’t blame them. It’s a complicated food made up of almost exclusively saturated fats, but also boasts a laundry list of potential health benefits. Let’s review both sides of the aisle.
More coconuts, please!
The pro- coconut faction of the nutrition world has divided into those who hail coconut oil as a nutrient powerhouse and those who aren’t completely convinced, but don’t condemn it for its fat content. This divide is well-summarized by Mary E. Enig, PhD, who presented about coconut oil at the AVOC Lauric Oils Symposium and believes “coconut oil is at worst neutral with respect to atherogenicity of fats and oils and, in fact, is likely to be a beneficial oil for prevention and treatment of some heart disease”. Below are some of the potential health benefits often cited by coconut oil proponents as summarized by Carrie Wiatt, M.S. of the Huffington Post:
- Causes weight loss
- Cures Alzheimer’s
- Reduces diabetes/regulate blood sugar
- Increases bone and dental health by improving calcium absorption
- Fights inflammation and free radicals with its ferulic and p-coumaric acid components
- Decreases risk of heart disease
- Fights infections due to the lauric acid content
In addition to these health benefits, coconut oil’s high smoke point “makes it resistant to oxidation and shelf stable”, attributes not shared by olive oil and other vegetable oils, which requires much more care when cooking to preserve beneficial nutrients. Lastly, coconut oil has mostly medium-chain fatty acids (as opposed to long-chain triglycerides) which mean the fats are more likely used as energy instead of being stored as fat.
Hold the coconut, thank you
In the face of these purported claims, Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, of Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health believes “the impact of coconut oil on cholesterol levels” is the only aspect of coconut oil that has studied thoroughly “and the findings are intriguing but we still don’t know if it is harmful or beneficial⁵”. By reviewing some coconut oil studies, we can see why the jury is still out. The oil’s saturated fat content is a component capable of raising both LDL and HDL cholesterol levels. Some studies have shown that although the ratio of good to bad cholesterol (HDL to LDL) is improved by consuming coconut oil, the levels of LDL still rise, which is a big no-no for heart health. This is reason enough for many doctors to be wary of this oil. Confusing, right?
I did my first bit of research on coconuts when I was working for a coconut milk ice cream company. I had to field many questions regarding the cholesterol effect and saturated fat content of this plant, so I knew I needed to be up to speed on this research. While I came out the other side armed with information, I was still lacking conclusive evidence one way or the other. It is one doctor’s opinion against another’s right now, but that hasn’t stopped me from converting to coconut oil. I use it exclusively to cook and reserve other vegetable oils for garnish. This seems to work for me (and I at least have Dr. Oz behind me), but I want to hear what you think!
Do you use coconut oil regularly in your cooking? What have you heard about this interesting oil?