Coconut-derived products seem to be deemed superfoods in the world of wellness. Everyone appears to be promoting it, from bloggers, to cookbooks, to Holland and Barretts dedicating an entire section to different brands and coconut products. Some bloggers even use coconut oil to ‘oil pull’ (a way to disinfect the mouth). But is it all what it’s pepped up to be?
I remember about 5 years ago when Ross decided to cook dinner (shocking I know!) using coconut oil. I didn’t like the taste and upon reading the nutritional info on the back, was absolutely mortified by the amount of saturated fat in coconut oil. ‘Ahhh but it’s different’ Ross said, ‘this stuff is meant to be healthy’. I shunned his statement and insisted we no longer cook with coconut oil.
Fast-forward 5 years and several tubs of coconut oil later, I wouldn’t be without that stuff. After being reintroduced to coconut oil through Deliciously Ella’s first cookbook, I wouldn’t hear a bad thing said about coconut oil. Yes okay it’s primarily saturated fat, but it contains MCT oil don’t you know, that means it’s healthy…
Does it? Just what is a medium-chain fatty acid, and how does that make it any healthier than say butter, another saturated fat? Why did I drop everything I ever thought I knew about saturated fats because my favourite blogger said it was healthy? This isn’t a dig at anyone saying it is a healthier fat source than say butter, but more recently I’ve begun to question whether it is all it’s cracked up to be. I was doing a bit of research and found a journal article talking about current food trends and controversies, which basically reminded me of why I never wanted to use coconut oil in the first place. Population data suggested that the rates of heart disease in countries which predominantly use coconut oil as it’s cooking fat was much higher than anywhere else. Now you can’t base everything on population data as the people in those countries may be sedentary, eat high animal produce, have predispositions etc. So I turned to nutritionfacts.org.
Nutritionfacts.org is a website whereby nutrition videos are posted daily from Dr Michael Greger, author of How Not to Die. The website is non-for-profit and was created by Dr Greger (a qualified physician specialising in clinical nutrition) to better inform people about their diets using academic peer reviewed studies. I had a browse through the videos to see what was said about coconut oil and first video I came across began by stating that coconut oil has been recognised for the last 200 years as being one of the most potent agents for raising cholesterol. Coconut oil consumption was reported to raise cholesterol more than beef fat, but less than butter (small participant study mind you). In fact, coconut oil has been reported to raise cholesterol in 7 studies looked at in a meta analysis. Dr Greger points out that the rise in cholesterol was also due to a rise in HDL cholesterol (the good stuff), that must be good then, right? Wrong.
In a 2017 study, having higher levels of HDL cholesterol was no longer deemed to be protective. The reason why higher HDL levels was considered to be protective initially was due to the association between HDL and heart disease. Meaning those people with a higher level of HDL cholesterol have lower rates of heart disease. But it isn’t the HDL that’s protecting them, it’s other lifestyle factors (good diet, exercise, minimal alcohol, no smoking) that reduce their risk of heart disease, they just also so happen to have higher levels of HDL cholesterol. So the association link was made and since, it has been thought that it’s the HDL cholesterol that is protective. What is far more important in lowering your risk of heart disease is lowering your LDL levels (the bad cholesterol). Consumption of coconut oil raises your levels of LDL cholesterol in as little as 6 hours after consumption.
But what about MCT’s? Medium chain triglycerides are dubbed to be the magic shorter chain saturated fats in coconut oil that make them far superior than the longer-chain saturated fats in meat and dairy. The MCT oils caprylic acid and capric oil only make up about 10% of coconut oil. The remaining 90% is made up of cholesterol-raising longer chain saturated fats. Dr Greger points out that the popular belief that coconut oil is healthy is not supported by scientific data and said it should be treated no differently to animal fats. The only difference being that coconut oil doesn’t spike inflammation like animal fats immediately after consumption. The only study that favoured coconut oil in it’s impact on cholesterol was one that compared coconut oil consumption with butter. Not so healthy now?!
Typically speaking, I only ever use coconut oil in baking because I just don’t like the taste of it in cooking savoury dishes; for that I use avocado or olive oil. Because I save it just for baking, it means it’s only ever used as a butter replacer, and due to it’s (slight) superiority over butter, I’m happy to continue using it in this way. I’m sure there are other benefits of coconut oil over others in terms of vitamins and minerals, but in terms of looking after my heart, you won’t find me cooking with it or oil pulling with it!
photo courtesy of www.well-beingsecrets.com