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  • Emma Nuttall

Debunking the controversy around coconut oil

Updated: Jul 28, 2019

Is coconut oil good for you and should it be a pantry staple?

Coconut oil is one hotly debated food item! Research over the years has been conflicting and confusing and some of us are left with big jars of the stuff but lack the confidence to consume it.

So, what have we been told about coconut oil?

We know it is a saturated fat (solid at room temperature) and is therefore quite stable for cooking at high temperatures. We have been told saturated fat is not recommended in weight management however, being a medium-chain fatty acid (MCT), it is metabolised differently by the body and is less likely to lead to weight gain. Coconut oil boasts anti-microbial and antiviral properties but contains no antioxidants.

So, where does this leave us? Let’s look at what the latest research has to say and try and debunk some of the myths.

Coconut oil has high oxidative stability due to its extremely high saturated fat content. This is the rate at which it reacts with oxygen and breaks down when heated. It produces a low level of toxic by-products when exposed to heat. [i] Toxic by-products are harmful to our health. In comparison, canola and grapeseed oil produce high levels of toxic compounds when heated, as do many seed oils.

Medium chain fatty acids (MCTs) have a different chemical structure to other saturated fats that contain longer chemical chains. This allows them to be absorbed and metabolized more quickly. It is claimed that the speed they are metabolised by, means they are used for energy and less likely to be stored as fat. The only problem is that coconut oil contains 52% lauric acid. This is not an MCT and is digested more slowly. Therefore, the health claims made about MCT oils cannot be applied to coconut oil. Lauric acid is however, metabolised differently to other saturated fats such as palmitic acid which is abundant in butter.

Saturated fat has long been associated with cardiovascular and cholesterol risk. Many studies have shown that although coconut oil raises the good cholesterol that our body needs to function optimally (HDL), its also raises total cholesterol levels and unhealthy LDL cholesterol in the blood.[ii] Studies have however, also shown that lauric acid poses less cardiovascular risk than the saturated fats in butter.[iii]

As far as claims that consuming coconut oil can help you lose weight, strengthen the immune system and protect against dementia, these claims are not scientifically substantiated.

It is important to remember that coconut oil is very energy dense (high in calories). It contains 680kJ (163 calories) in one tablespoon.

Do I have coconut oil in my pantry? Yes, I do but I don’t consume tablespoons of it for antiviral or weight loss benefits. I use extra virgin coconut oil in place of butter in baking because I prefer the taste and often use it when cooking at high temperatures. I also use a lot of antioxidant rich extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) in my cooking and enjoy EVOO raw in dressings and homemade condiments.

I often use coconut oil as a beauty product. It comes in handy as a makeup remover or moisturiser when I have run out or am travelling (if you don’t mind the slightly greasy feeling on your skin). I love it as a pre-shampoo hair mask and enjoy the benefits of the daily ayurvedic practice of oil pulling. But more on that in another post!

As with all food, we need to consider the benefits holistically and on an individual basis. Coconut oil suits some constitutions and not others. I would not recommend it as part of a weight loss program. It should be consumed within the recommended limits for saturated fat intake.


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