We've been lead to believe that coconut oil has almost magical properties, that it is the cure for all ailments............until last week we were told it couldn't really be any more unhealthy.
This is what happens though; food is portrayed as good or bad, the media plonk it at one end of the extreme health spectrum and of course it ain't that simple. It also gets confusing when you read these conflicting stories and you end up uncertain of what to believe. And rightly so!
Here are just some of the claims made about coconut oil I found recently and to be honest I would love for them to true. Oh and I also love coconut, particularly the one with the taste of paradise ;-)
- Great for skin and hair
- Proven Alzheimer’s natural treatment
- Improves memory and brain function
- Prevents heart disease and high blood pressure
- Cures urinary tract and kidney infection
- Reduces inflammation and arthritis
- Improves digestion, reduces stomach ulcers & ulcerative colitis
- Improves energy
- Helps with weight loss
- Helps to build muscle and losing body fat
- Prevents osteoporosis
But then I put my cynical hat on because these are incredibly powerful words - proven...cure........it just sounds too good to be true! I'm all for smothering my skin and hair with it but when it comes to freely putting it IN my body, at 90% saturated fat I need to be sure it's the right thing to do. Plus the decent stuff is one of the most expensive oils available! So let's have a proper look and see what's what.....hold on tight!
What's in it?
Coconut oil is derived from the dried flesh of the coconut. It's very much a modern invention, not something you find separated out in nature. The oil is extracted through a Refining process and it is then Bleached and Deodorized to produce RBD coconut oil. It's pretty much taste and odour free. It's been interesting to read how fresh coconut features highly in some cultures and populations (particularly in the Pacific Islands) yet heart disease is not a problem. So can it be that good for us too? It's important to note that despite nearly 2/3 of their Calories coming from coconuts, they don't get their coconut from jars (and they eat a hell of a lot of fish, fruit and veg too!) Most of the coconut-based studies are also performed on animals and as much as we have lots in common, we can't easily translate these findings directly to humans.
The link between coconut oil and any potential health benefit has been attributed to the MCT's (medium chain triglycerides) that make up ~65% of the saturated fats found in the oil. Going back to my last blog on fats, this re-emphasises that not all fats or saturated fats are the same.
Coconuts are complicated and we definitely need more research but my aim here is to help you make a more informed choice about whether you should use it or not. I've selected a handful of interesting areas:
Hair and skin
Coconut oil is very absorbent so can be helpful for dry skin and hair. It may prevent hair damage because it can penetrate the hair shaft and appears to perform better than olive oil for atopic dermatitis. Coconut oil also provides vitamins E and C, also great for skin. If it stops wrinkles I'm on it!
For more information on coconut oil for hair loss, please click here
Because coconut oil is so saturated, it is very stable when heated - this means the heat doesn't mess up the chemical bonds so it doesn't change with heat. Polyunsaturated plant based oils however can be more sensitive and are often damaged by heat, turning rancid and their antioxidants rendered useless. In other words any benefits are wasted.
Some coconut oils can have a low smoke point though - unrefined coconut oil will burn at around 180℃ (yet refined, more commercially available will remain stable until 200℃ so is better for deep frying). Apart from setting all your smoke alarms off and smoking out your kitchen, a burnt oil releases potential cancer promoting 'carcinogens'. DO NOT reheat this oil either for the same reason.
A widely recognised feature of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is impaired glucose metabolism. This means the brain in AD doesn't take up glucose (that is needed for energy) very well. The next best fuel are ketones which you can make yourself by going on a low carb diet (probably not the best option in AD) OR by eating the types of fats that favor ketone production. MCTs that are found in coconut oil could do this but no-one has tested this yet. There is a clear difference in quantity between pure MCT oil and the MCT's IN coconut oil so we need to be mindful of not jumping to conclusions. Similarly, it's not clear if it will improve concentration or brain function in 'normal' adults.
Heart disease and blood pressure
Studies have shown that coconut raises HDL, otherwise known as 'good' cholesterol. A good thing if this helps protect against heart disease right? Hmmm maybe........we know that low HDL is a predictor of heart disease but increased HDL might not mean that much because raising it doesn't seem to effect heart health in a positive way. Damn it why is the answer never easy!!
Then there's the 'bad' cholesterol - the evil LDL.......or is it? Just to throw another spanner in the works, there are in fact 4 types of LDL and no, we can't label them all the same either. Coconut oil has been shown to raise LDL, which we have always thought is bad news for heart health. But coconut oil seems to raise both the beneficial and harmful LDL and to be honest, no-one knows by how much yet. So I'm sat on the fence with this one!
Some research suggests swapping some vegetable oil for coconut oil might help tame your appetite and aid in your weight-loss goals. One study in particular found that taking it at breakfast reduced food consumption by up to 500 Calories for the rest the day. IF this was maintained over time it COULD result in losing ~1 pound a week but it's a big IF. Coconut oil appears most effective when ~5- 10g of MCT's are included in the diet or approx 7.5 – 15g of coconut oil.
Now here's the caveat: if you just gulp a couple of tablespoons of MCT oil each day, you will most likley gain weight, since fat is energy dense. The other problem is that for every study that says it might work, another reports there was no effect. Worth the risk?
Gut bacteria and health are hot topics right now. Getting the right balance of good bacteria can have all sorts of implications for digestion, immunity and mood. Knowing there is the potential to influence the gut flora and therefore gut disorders could be huge.
One of the MCT's in coconut oil (lauric acid) makes monolaurin that has antiviral and antibacterial properties. In fact monolaurin is already used in many commercial products to prevent microbe growth. But and there's always a but.........anecdotally taking moderate to large doses of coconut oil gives some people diarrhoea so not a very pleasant side effect to deal with.
Coconut oil may have some influence on our immune response too hence the inflammatory bowel conditions like colitis listed at the start. There are no human studies yet though so hold your nuts. Oh and one animal study suggested that lauric acid could have harmful effects on certain autoimmune diseases. So if you have an existing immune condition, taking high doses of coconut oil (and we are not sure what a high dose is!) might be playing with fire.
Determined to finish on a positive note though, swishing your mouth with coconut oil might help prevent tooth decay but I'm not sure I'd like the feel of it to be honest - maybe that will help with curbing appetite too?!
So you see it's not black and white and it's very early days in terms of seeing solid evidence. We need to wait a bit longer and in the meantime, don't forget that eating well in all areas of our diet (less sugar, more fibre, more fruit and veg) and moving more (getting out of puff) will all undoubtedly help improve our health :-)