Coconut oil: The new sexy superfood?
AN APPLE A DAY - Tyrone M. Reyes M.D. (The Philippine Star) - May 4, 2015 - 10:00am

Not so long ago, we were warned that coconut oil was a sneaky vegetable food hiding a high percentage of saturated fat.  Now, the same product has re-emerged as a sexy new superfood! 

To set the record straight, nothing has changed about coconut oil’s fat composition.  It still contains about 90-percent saturated fat — a much higher proportion than butter or even lard.  However, unlike fats from animal sources, coconut oil is composed largely of medium-chain fatty acids.  The liver converts these smaller molecules into energy more easily, so they are less likely to form artery-clogging LDL (bad cholesterol).

So currently, coconut oil is promoted heavily on the Internet and TV talk shows, and endorsed by celebrities.  Indeed, rarely has a food gone through a dramatic transformation from dietary villain to superhero as coconut oil, and it seems, all things coconut.

Coconut oil

Coconut oil is extracted from the “meat” inside the hard-shelled fruit of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). Like lard, it is solid at room temperature and has a long shelf life, which makes it attractive for many kinds of food processing and baking.  For years, it had a bad reputation because it is high in saturated fat, the kind found mostly in animal products.  This is also true of its tropical brethren palm kernel oil and, to a lesser extent, palm oil (in contrast, vegetable oils are high in unsaturated fats).

In the 1980s, a media campaign demonized coconut and other tropical oils and blamed them for heart attacks because of their saturated fat content.  The health establishment in the US and other parts of the world quickly jumped on board. As a result, food companies stopped using tropical oils, replacing them largely with partially hydrogenated oils.  This was a bad move since those oils contain trans fats, which were subsequently found to be more of a health hazard than any saturated fat — and as we know now, tropical oils turned out to be not so bad after all.

So what did food companies do next?  They began removing trans fats from many of their processed foods, often replacing them with — you got it —tropical oils. Coconut oil, in particular, has now garnered shelf space in health food stores and supermarkets, as well as in restaurants and home kitchens, for many cooks now use it for frying and baking, instead of butter or lard.  Its fans rave about the rich, nutty, almost sweet flavor of the oil, especially if it has been minimally processed (“virgin” oil).

Turning the tide

The tide has turned so much that its proponents now claim that coconut oil is actually healthful — downright medicinal.  It is said to promote weight loss; prevent heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and other chronic diseases; improve digestion; treat AIDS and herpes infections; and strengthen the immune system.  Apply it topically, and it is claimed that it rejuvenates skin and hair; swish it around your mouth and it fights gum disease and cavities.  What can it not do?

The title of one book calls coconut oil a “miracle,” and another suggests it’s a “cure” for Alzheimer’s disease.  Then there are the websites offering lists of 50 to 101 uses of the oil and 10 or 20 “proven” health benefits.  Not surprisingly, Dr. Oz has promoted the “super powers” of coconut oil (especially for weight loss) on his TV show.  Indeed, the pendulum may have swung in the opposite direction with claims of cures from the use of coconut oil, which remain scientifically unsubstantiated today.

Coco claims

Here is a brief review of some of the health claims on the use of coconut oil in selected medical conditions and the status of current investigations on its use.

• Blood cholesterol and heart health.  Saturated fats tend to raise LDL cholesterol, but they vary in chemical structure and thus in their cardiovascular effects.  Though research in humans has been remarkably limited, the saturated fats in coconut oil (like those, for example, in chocolates and dairy products) appear to be more neutral in this effect on blood cholesterol than those in, say, meat.

Coconut oil’s main saturated fatty acid is lauric acid.  Some research has found that lauric acid raises HDL (good) cholesterol and probably LDL as well.  In a 2009 Brazilian study in the journal Lipids, for instance, young obese women who consumed an ounce of coconut oil a day for 12 weeks had increases in both HDL and LDL, but their HDL rose proportionately more, so their LDL/HDL ratio improved.

Promoters of coconut oil often point out that in places where people consume a lot of it, such as Sri Lanka and Polynesia, studies show that cholesterol levels tend to be healthy and rates of cardiovascular disease relatively low. But that could be due to various factors, such as genetics, exercise, and other dietary differences.  We still don’t really know how coconut oil affects the risk of cardiovascular disease.

• Weight control.  There’s no convincing evidence to support the claim that coconut oil can promote significant weight loss — regardless of what Dr. Oz says.  The claim is based on the fact that the oil contains medium-chain triglycerides (triglycerides are the main component of dietary fats and are usually long-chain).  Lab research has shown that medium-chain triglycerides are metabolized differently from other fats, with slightly more calories in the process.  However, the few human studies on the effect of coconut itself on body weight have had inconsistent results. Like all edible oils, coconut oil is high in calories — about 120 per tablespoon — so it would be counterproductive to consume large quantities in hopes of losing weight.

• Alzheimer’s disease.  In 2012, a widely publicized book claimed that very large doses of coconut oil can treat Alzheimer’s (and other neurological disorders), based on theoretical research, preliminary animal studies, and primarily the author’s anecdotal evidence involving her husband. The theory is that medium-chain triglycerides such as those in coconut oil, by boosting the liver’s production of ketones (byproducts of fat breakdown), provide an alternative energy source for brain cells that have lost their ability to use glucose as a result of Alzheimer’s.  Since then, there have been no published human studies to back the claims about coconut oil for Alzheimer’s.  It is unlikely that coconut oil would yield enough ketones to have a meaningful effect.  Keep in mind that all of this is about treating people who have Alzheimer’s.  There’s no reason to think that coconut oil can help prevent the disease.

Coconut concoctions

Coconut is an important crop in many countries, notably the Philippines, Indonesia, and India, where substances from it have long been used in folk medicine and where the tree is often called the “tree of life.”  Nearly every part of the tree and its fruit are used by humans, including the following:

• Coconut meat.  This is the thick white lining inside the coconut.  A one-ounce raw piece has 100 calories, nine grams of fat, and nearly three grams of fiber.  It naturally contains only a little sugar, but lots of sugar may be added to packaged dried coconut (shredded or flaked).  You can sprinkle grated or shredded coconut into Asian-style dishes.

• Coconut water.  This thin liquid from inside young green coconuts is now the hottest of all coconut products. It has a mild sweet/salty flavor and is virtually fat-free and low in calories; some products contain added sugar.  It is touted as a “natural” sports drink because of the electrolytes, especially its high potassium level.  But it has less sodium than standard sports drinks, so it may not be as good a fluid replacer.  Keep in mind that you don’t need any special sports drinks unless you work out intensely for more than an hour, and even then, plain old water is usually fine.  As for all the other health claims — that coconut water can control diabetes, fight viruses, speed metabolism, treat kidney stones, and so on — don’t believe them.

• Coconut milk. Made from grated and squeezed coconut meat, the milk is very high in calories (445 per cup, canned) and fat (48 grams per cup, canned, almost all saturated).  Like coconut oil, the milk does not seem to have a detrimental effect on blood cholesterol, as was seen on an eight-week study from Sri Lanka published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism in 2013.  It is not for drinking straight up or for cereals, but can be used in cooking, especially for curries and other Asian dishes.  “Light” coconut milk has half the fat and calories (still a lot).  Lower-calorie coconut milk products are marketed as alternatives to regular milk and as frozen desserts.

• Coconut sugar.  This is not made from the coconut fruit itself but from the nectar of the flowering buds of the coconut tree. Despite the claims, it is really just another form of sugar, with negligible extra nutrients and no health benefits. Less sweet and more expensive than regular sugar, it has a slight caramel taste.

Bottom line

Coconut oil certainly did not deserve its bad reputation. But a lot more long-term research in humans is needed to determine if it deserves to take its place as a health food for various medical conditions. Maybe there is a need for the coconut industry in the Philippines to spearhead research on the various health aspects of coconuts in Filipinos.  After all, millions of Filipinos depend on coconuts for their livelihood. Paging the Philippine Coconut Authority!

Meanwhile, there is no question that for the moment, unlike in the past, coconuts are on a roll!


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