Some readers have expressed concern over the use of coconut oil as fat component in few of the vegan recipes I’ve posted on the blog.I was not surprised by these reactions, as coconut oil still pays the price of decades of unsubstantiated misinformation that has led to the popular belief that it’s one of the unhealthiest oils around. Jam-packed with “evil” saturated fats, causing artery-clogging, cholesterol-raising, and heart-attacks; almost poisonous for the human body.
Truth of the matter, coconut oil is not the Lex Luthor of fats portrayed. Recent studies point in the opposite direction; backtracking on the worst accusation against it and claiming that, after all, it might belong with the good guys.
Vegans, excited of this new found evidence, have made coconut oil a staple food in their diet. Relying on it as a sweet vegetable fat that is solid at room temperature and that - just like butter - can create sumptuous batters, flaky pie crusts and chewy cookies.
Even if coconut oil is enjoying a sparkly new makeover, the doubt still remain: coconut oil, friend or foe?
What is coconut oil
Coconut oil is an edible oil extracted from the kernel of coconuts harvested from the coconut palm.
Coconut oil is made up of about 90% saturated fat. The fats in coconut oil are mostly composed of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), different from the saturated fats found in butter, lard or beef tallow. It also has only 1% of Omega-6 fatty acids and, coming from a plant, it’s cholesterol-free.
Why the bad rep?
There are a number of reason why coconut oil has suffered a bad reputation for years.
As mentioned above, coconut oil has a high content of saturated fat.
Saturated fats have long been accused of clogging arteries and leading to cardiovascular diseases (CHD). They are said to raise cholesterol in the blood, leading to the deposition of cholesterol and fatty material as pathogenic plaques in the arteries.
The Federal dietary guidelines - relying on this hypothesis1 - recommend that consumers limit saturated fat to less than 10% of daily calories2, and replacing them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
However, several nutritionists have pointed out that not all saturated fats are the same. Different types of saturated fats behave differently.
The ones found in coconut oil are medium chain fatty acids whose properties are different to those of animal origin. They are in fact more easily metabolised by the human body3.
Unlike long-chain fats, medium-chain ones do not have to be broken down in the small intestine. Because they are smaller, they’re absorbed intact and delivered directly to the liver to be used for energy.
Medium-chain fats don’t store in fat cells to the same extent as long-chain ones. They also appear to increase calorie burning in the body.
The main saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, a fatty acid known for its antibacterial and antiviral properties. Some recent studies have also suggested that lauric acid may help lowering bad cholesterol (LDL), increasing good cholesterol (HDL), and even aiding in blood glucose control when virgin coconut oil is used in place of other fats4.
On top of that, the nutrition community is starting to clear saturated fats’ reputation around. Many start to believe that they might not be that bad after all. A systematic review of the studies conducted on saturated fats unveiled that the evidence gathered was particularly weak and often distorted.
Another reason for coconut oil’s stigma can be traced in the protocol of the studies carried out on its composition during the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
Researchers, in order to conduct their experiments, fed animals partially hydrogenated coconut oil as they needed to raise their cholesterol dramatically for the purposes of collecting relevant data.
The outcomes of said studies were only pertinent to partially hydrogenated coconut oil not virgin coconut oil. However, they were inappropriately used to draw conclusions on the latter, which is like hammering square pegs into round holes.
Thing is, partial hydrogenation process creates dangerous trans fat, destroys almost all essential fatty acids, the antioxidants and all other precious nutrients present in virgin coconut oil.
Partially hydrogenated coconut oil and virgin coconut oil are two completely different products, that cannot be compared. Most certainly, the results of experiments conducted on one cannot be imputed to the other.
Using those studies to undermine virgin coconut oil “credibility” is like using researches on french fries to bash the nutritional value of potatoes.
Is coconut oil good for us?
The literature on the health benefits of coconut oil is steadily increasing, but has not yet attain the level of certainty necessary to effectively vanquish all issues surrounding it.
Population-based observational studies
Some encouraging data was collected in population-based observational studies of the inhabitants of small islands in Polynesia. Fat in their diet comes mostly from the flesh of coconuts, but contrary to the belief that high-levels of saturated fats are the main cause of CHDs, in these communities deaths due to these conditions are not rampant5.
Similarly, in many areas of Sri Lanka, where the coconut tree and its products have for centuries been an integral part of life6, the population doesn’t show high levels of cholesterol and the mortality rates due to CHD is low. In fact, the figures are much lower than in other regions of the world where the consumption of coconut oil is close to none.
The antimicrobial properties of medium chain fatty acids, such as lauric acid contained in coconut oil have been the object of several studies which have confirmed that this saturated fatty acid can inhibit the growth of many pathogenic microorganisms7. These conclusions validate the theory that coconut oil can be utilized for its preventive and healing properties.
Weight loss and other health benefits
Some researchers have claimed that coconut oil can promote weight loss and may help ward off Alzheimer’s disease. Although some preliminary data shows promising results, the evidence is far from being conclusive8. All that has been studied in depth is the impact of coconut oil on blood-cholesterol levels.
Let’s not forget that coconut oil is cholesterol-free and since it comes from a plant, it may contain beneficial phytochemicals yet to be discovered.
“There are a lot of claims that coconut oil may have health benefits, but there is no concrete scientific data yet to support this” Dr. Daniel Hwang, a research molecular biologist specializing in lauric acid at the Western Human Nutrition Research Center at the University of California, Davis, told the New York Times9.
If you’re on the fence whether to use coconut oil or not, I’ll say go for it. It’s good food, in moderation.
Plus, I honestly can’t picture how one could use coconut oil if not in moderation. In my personal experience, a 15oz jar of coconut oil lasts more than a month.
Besides baking with it (chocolate cake and pumpkin cinnamon snails, anyone?). I use it sometimes in lieu of olive oil for my roasted sweet potatoes and occasionally (rarely though) I add a tablespoon in my morning oatmeal or in my post-workout smoothies. I’ve been told that making caramelized onions with coconut oil is the ultimate thing to do, but still have to try this.
Anyway, I’m really looking forward to experiment more with coconut oil in the kitchen, it has a high smoke point, which makes it well suited for high-heat cooking. Most of all, I really enjoy the taste. It’s milder but richer tasting than butter and has a sweeter and lighter texture than lard but none of the bitterness of olive oil.
4 Halden VW, Lieb H. Influence of biologically improved coconut oil products on the blood cholesterol levels of human volunteers. Nutr Dieta 3:75-88;1961.