By Dr Julie Bhosale
Coconut oil is one of the most contentious foods of 2017- in one breath it is hailed as a miracle cure-all food and the next minute there are reports saying it will do us serious harm (largely thanks to an article released in June from the American Heart Association).
Maybe it is the researcher in me, always looking for a critical view at both sides of the coin but with few exceptions, I would rarely call a food ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This puts a moral connotation on it which stops our ability to assess just what the food is giving us – recently this has very much happened to coconut oil. So let’s unpack the science a bit looking at just what it is coconut oil and what does it provide us.
What is Coconut Oil?
Coconut oil, or copra oil, is an edible oil extracted from the kernel or meat of mature coconuts harvested from the coconut palm. The oil is extracted using both dry and wet harvesting.
What is the Structure of Coconut Oil?
Coconut oil is 99.7% fat, and is made up mostly of saturated fats (91%) with a small amount of monounsaturated fats (6%) and polyunsaturated fats (3%). Not all saturated fats are the same – there are long chain fatty acids (LCFAs), medium and short chain fatty acids (MCFAs and SCFAs respectively). Coconut oil is mostly made up of MCFAs and as they are of shorter length they are metabolised differently. LCFAs travel through the lymphatic system and MCFAs diffuse through the intestine wall directly to the liver. Therefore MCFAs are absorbed more rapidly and burned quicker (as a fuel).
Saturated Fat and Cholesterol
Fat is an essential nutrient for us, we need it for a number of important reasons including the absorption of our fat-soluble vitamins, brain development & growth and as a fuel source. Certainly one of the most hotly debated topics in nutrition research in the last few years is that of saturated fat. I have done many talks on this – including overseas and discuss in detail the research pertaining to this with infant nutrition in The Nourished Baby. Given that coconut oil consists mostly of saturated fat this food has been at the epicenter of this debate. Contrary to the low-fat message that I (and I am guessing most of you) were brought up on – there have been a number of recent reviews and meta-analyses (see below) to find no association between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. Potentially, some of the current conflict regarding saturated fat is due to the differences in how these types of saturated fat are metabolised in the body. Many recent research articles suggest that there needs to be further investigation of this – something I would agree with!
In regards to cholesterol – lauric acid is the major fatty acid in coconut oil. Lauric acid does increase cholesterol however, it also significantly increase the ratio of HDL-C (high density lipoprotein cholesterol; ‘good cholesterol’) to LDL-C (low density lipoprotein cholesterol; the ‘bad cholesterol’). This also lends weight to the evidence debunking the relationship between saturated fats (especially MCFAs) and cardiovascular disease risk. Interestingly you will find lauric acid in breast milk (an important clue as to how important it it is for us!) and it has a number of anti-inflammatory properties. I need another whole blog on the benefits of coconut oil!
Is Coconut Oil a Miracle Food?
Too much of one particular food, regardless of what it is – be it fish, coconut oil or chocolate has potential to be problematic as it will provide an ‘overdose’ of the nutrients it is rich in and also reduce the opportunity for other foods containing different nutrients we require. There is no single ‘miracle food’ and while there are a huge number of health benefits to coconut oil we still need to keep this in mind.
Given that there is now evidence with saturated fat and it’s (lack of) relationship with cardiovascular disease we expect to see a lot more research energy in this area and potentially it will not be well reported, like in the case of the AHA report in June.
You can look forward to future blogs discussing in more detail some of the particular benefits to coconut oil. Similar to a number of other products there has been a drastic increase in the amount (and brands) of coconut oil on the market so I will also do a critical review on these for you as well as highlight my preferred favourite (Blue Coconut). I also have a number of recipes that use coconut oil to share with you, so come back soon to check these out!
xxx Dr Julie Bhosale
References and Further Reading:
Bhavsar, N., & St-Onge, M. (2016) The diverse nature of saturated fats and the case of medium-chain triglycerides: how one recommendation may not fit all. Current Opinion Clinical Nutrition, 19, 81-87.
Medium Chain Triglycerides. (2002 ). Alternative Medicine Review, 7, (5).
Ferreira, L., et al., (2013). Influence of medium-chain triglycerides on consumption and weight gain in rats: a systematic review
Mumme, K., & Stonehour, W. (2015). Effects of Medium-Chain Triglycerides on Weight Loss and Body Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 115, (2), 249-263.
Wanten G, & Naber, A. (2004). Cellular and physiological effects of medium-chain triglycerides. Mini Review Medical Chemistry 4(8):847-57.
DiNicolantonio, J., Lucan, S., & O’Keefea, H. (2016). The Evidence for Saturated Fat and for Sugar Related to Coronary Heart Disease. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, 58, (5), 464-47.