Nu­tri­tion

Food Wise with Heidi Mor­ri­son

The Victoria Standard - - Front Page - HEIDI MOR­RI­SON

Is co­conut oil a healthy choice?

Co­conut flesh, co­conut milk and cream are com­monly used in var­i­ous food cul­tures all over the world. In the west­ern world, with in­creased avail­abil­ity and in­ter­est in eth­nic dishes, us­ing co­conut has be­come more pop­u­lar. Ex­tract­ing co­conut oil, how­ever, is a rel­a­tively re­cent phe­nom­e­non that has taken off like wild­fire. Uses range from hair con­di­tion­ing to skin mois­tur­iz­ing, as well as an al­ter­na­tive to but­ter, mar­garine and other oils for cook­ing and bak­ing.

Co­conut oil is 92% sat­u­rated fat. Like all sat­u­rated fats, it is solid at room tem­per­a­ture. Hy­dro­genated co­conut oil (used mostly in pack­aged foods) is 100% sat­u­rated fat. Co­conut oil typ­i­cally pur­chased for use at home is re­fined co­conut oil (which is bleached and de­odor­ized) or vir­gin co­conut oil, which is dif­fer­ent in that the co­conut is not dried be­fore be­ing pro­cessed, and it is not bleached or de­odor­ized, there­fore has a stronger smell and taste of co­conut.

Co­conut oil’s pop­u­lar­ity is partly based on it be­ing falsely ad­ver­tised as hav­ing a health­ier type of fat. A quick sci­ence les­son: triglyc­erides are a type of fat made of up fatty acids linked to­gether. Fatty acids can be short, medium, long or very long chains. Co­conut oil is falsely de­scribed as hav­ing a high quan­tity of medium chained triglyc­erides (MCTS). MCTS are thought to be eas­ily di­gested and ab­sorbed by the body and may po­ten­tially re­duce waist size and raise HDL (good choles­terol) with reg­u­lar con­sump­tion. One of the fatty acids in co­conut oil, lau­ric acid, is of­ten de­scribed as be­ing a medium chain, when ac­tu­ally it is a mix of medium and long chain fatty acids and acts more like a long chain fatty acid in the body.

Also, much of the ev­i­dence used to pro­mote the use of co­conut oil comes from his­tor­i­cal re­search on MCTS. This re­search used a spe­cific medium-chain oil that is ex­tracted from co­conut oil and pro­cessed in a way that changes the MCTS sig­nif­i­cantly. The re­sults were ap­plied to co­conut oil de­spite sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences in the oil used in the study and the co­conut oil on the shelf.

While most ev­i­dence around co­conut oil is of poor qual­ity, lim­ited ev­i­dence avail­able sug­gests that com­pared to other fat sources, co­conut oil does raise to­tal choles­terol and LDL ‘bad’ choles­terol, but not to the same ex­tent as but­ter. It also raises HDL ‘good’ choles­terol, but as the to­tal and LDL are also in­creased, any ben­e­fit is lost. Co­conut oil will con­tinue to be stud­ied and rec­om­men­da­tions on its use will evolve.

While many cul­tures around the world have been us­ing co­conut prod­ucts, with seem­ingly less heart dis­ease, it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that they mostly use co­conut flesh or co­conut milk. Also, these cul­tures typ­i­cally con­sume lim­ited amounts of pro­cessed foods, have a diet high in fruit and veg­eta­bles, and eat fish as their main source of pro­tein.

If you like the flavour that co­conut oil brings to your cook­ing and bak­ing, or if you are look­ing for a ve­gan ver­sion of but­ter for food prepa­ra­tion, than co­conut oil is an op­tion. Use it in mod­er­a­tion. Re­mem­ber that the un­sat­u­rated oils like olive and canola are proven to be a heart-health­ier choice.

Heidi Mor­ri­son has a Bach­e­lor of Sci­ence in Hu­man Nu­tri­tion. Have a ques­tion about food or nu­tri­tion? Email healthyeat­ing@vic­to­ri­a­s­tan­dard.ca.

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