Coconut Oil: Healthy or not?
Producers of coconut oil are boldly claiming the benefits of their products 'include hair care, skin care, stress relief, maintaining cholesterol levels, weight loss, increased immunity, proper digestion and metabolism, relief from kidney problems, heart diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, HIV and cancer, dental care, and bone strength.'
But is coconut oil really what it is cracked up to be or is this simply another health fad? Like most questions in the nutrition world, there is rarely a straightforward answer (#soz). But with help from my friend 'scientific research', I investigate the recent coconut craze and give you my recommendations.
Are coconuts good for our health or simply a health trend gone coco-loco?
Coconuts oil is 100% fat. Fat contains more than double the amount of energy in protein and carbohydrates. This means that foods which are made of fat, like coconut oil - are a very rich source of energy. Whilst eating fat will not make you fat, eating too much energy will cause you to gain weight (4). Ultimately, excess energy will lead to gain weight - regardless of the source of energy.
Saturated fat from foods sources such as meat, biscuits, cakes, hamburgers, hot chips and donuts tend to be bad for our health if we eat too much, raising bad cholesterol levels, clogging arteries and increasing the risk of heart disease (1,2,3). Approximately 86% of coconut fat is saturated (4). But it appears that not all sources of saturated fat are bad for us.
Full fat dairy, for example contains a generous amount of saturated fat however, regular consumption of dairy leads to improved health - not disease (1). Scientists are still trying to work out why this is. Meanwhile, coconut oil contains a high proportion of shorter chain fatty acids. Research suggests that these shorter chain fatty acids may not be so bad for us as longer-chain varieties (2).
It is true that coconut oil is slightly more stable than other oils at high temperatures. Horay! But only by about 17 degrees higher than extra virgin olive oil. This is because coconut oil contains a high amount of saturated fat making it oxidatively very stable (4) showing no changes in fatty acid profile on heating (5).
Then, isn't coconut oil better to cook with? Well, not so fast. Many unsaturated oils are stable at high cooking temperatures including canola, sunflower, olive, grapeseed, safflower, sesame, soybean, corn, peanut, almond, avocado, linseed, walnut, macadamia, rice bran oils.
The antioxidants in extra-virign olive oil help protect the oil from oxidising when it is heated. Extra virgin olive oil does not turn carcinogenic (cancer-causing) when it is heated as commonly thought (7). Whilst some nutrients are lost during heating, extra virgin olive oil is healthy to cook with below 120 degrees. When you are cooking at higher temps, you might want a more stable oil.
Extra virgin olive oil is mostly made of mono-unsaturated fats (6). Unlike polu-unsaturated fat oils, mono-unsaturated fats are more heat stable and less likely to go rancid at high tempreatures (7, 8). High consumption of extra-virgin olive oils, which are particularly rich in phenolic antioxidants, provide protection against cancer (colon, breast, skin), coronary heart disease, and ageing by inhibiting oxidative stress (8). Yah!
So while it appears that coconut oil is not bad for us when consumed in moderation, there is no evidence that coconut oil is good for us either. The only study I could find that investigated the effects of coconut oil found no improvement in the health of the participants when consuming coconut oil (5). The study included a very, very small group (n=40). I would love to see more research on this topic. Please send me reputable research if you found something I didn't.
The bottom line
Coconut and coconut products contain a large amount of energy. If you add more fat or oil in your diet (regardless of the source) - you will need to burn off the extra energy to avoid weight gain.
It is unclear whether coconut oil offers the heart protective health benefits that we get from olive oil. There is no research confirming or refuting these health benefits.
Due to this lack of evidence I do not promote, recommend, or eat coconut oil.
However, if you would like to use coconut oil - you can do so at your own risk. Simply swap in place of your regular oil instead of adding coconut oil on top of your diet. This will help prevent weight gain.
If in doubt, conventional advice is correct. Eat less sat/trans fat and more poly/mono-unsaturated fat (4). In other words, replace deep fried food, baked goods and processed foods for oily fish, nuts and seeds, avocado and olive oil. Eat fresh wholefoods with minimal processing.
Which is the healthiest oil to cook with?
Unsaturated fats like extra virgin olive oil can also stand up to (medium to high) heat (<120 degrees). Whilst you might lose some delicate flavours, it is very safe to use extra virgin olive oil to cook. When you are cooking at higher temps, opt for mono-unsaturated based avocado oil. Avocado oil has an extremely high smoke point and contains plenty of healthy mono-unsaturated fats.
Disclaimer: As you see from my Instagram pic, I love to drink from a fresh coconut. It is a hydrating and refreshing snack. However, due to the lack of evidence supporting the oil, I do not use coconut oil in my cooking or baking.