Food Wise with 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 email@example.com.