As researchers continue to explore the science behind nutrition, and unveil new discoveries every year regarding how food affects our health, I’m continually aware that I’m working in a field that is ever-changing. I’m also aware that my chosen field is one which combats persistent quackery and endless marketing ploys aimed to sell the next big “miracle cure.” But even I am surprised at what is happening with coconut oil. Coconut oil has found itself in the spotlight in the last few years due to restrictions placed on trans fat use in manufacturing. Food companies find themselves once again relying on tropical oils, like coconut and palm oil, to ensure the quality and shelf-life of many food products such as cakes, cookies, and crackers.
Even before becoming a dietitian, I grew up knowing coconut oil contained saturated fat, the type of fat usually found in animal products, but also found in tropical oils. I knew because my mother stayed abreast on the latest in nutrition, and armed with this knowledge, knew enough to refuse to buy me the Keebler Fudge-stripe cookies I remember wanting as a child. Saturated fat is known to raise LDL (bad cholesterol) and total cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease. However, a new perspective has made some scientists, vegans, and even health professionals cuckoo for coconut oil.
The controversy is this: the saturated fat in coconut oil is mostly in the form of a medium-chain fat, lauric aid, as well as other medium-chain fats, which raises good AND bad cholesterol (HDL and LDL). Since it raises both, scientists speculate that this particular type of saturated fat may not be as harmful as that found in animal products, which consists of long-chain fatty acids.
There is also criticism of the initial studies that labeled coconut oil as a villain in the first place. The coconut oil used in those studies was hydrogenated, meaning they artificially saturated the miniscule amount of unsaturated bonds that exist, as coconut oil is 92% saturated (far more saturated than animal fat). This is the same process that is used to turn vegetable oil into trans fats. These early studies also eliminated essential fats from the diets of test animals, making coconut oil the only fat source. Critics of these studies state the atherogenesis that resulted may have been in part due to an essential fatty acid deficiency. Also, early studies often used rabbits, rats or mice, which are considered poor models for cholesterol studies. This is leading many to the conclusion that although coconut oil was atherogenic in these studies, virgin coconut oil is not as bad for us as we thought. In fact, an enthusiastic few have taken the leap to say it’s actually healthy.
Proponents state coconut oil actually promotes heart health, weight loss, immune health, metabolism, provides immediate energy, keeps skin healthy and “youthful-looking”, and supports proper thyroid function. However, there is a great deal of evidence indicating that even medium-chain lauric acid raises LDL.
It does raise questions, though, that in those areas in which native diets are rich in tropical oils, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and India, there is no apparent correlation between coconut consumption via coconuts, coconut water, coconut milk, or coconut oil and heart disease. In fact, the research is mixed with some studies pointing to less oxidized LDL and better fibrinolysis (breaking up of blood clots) with coconut consumption. Talk about mixed evidence!
Yet it didn’t take much for people to jump ship. Blogs are popping up praising coconut oil to high heaven; foodies are coming out of the woodwork with coconut oil recipes for pastries, icings, brownies, muffins, stir-frying vegetables and even to put in your oatmeal! The sweet, vanilla-like, nutty flavor makes people go nutty for this fluffy oil, and it’s never been denied that coconut oil does wonders for the texture and quality of food products. After hearing of the speculation, Melissa Clark of the New York Times went on an experimental frenzy, using coconut oil in everything from home-made ice cream magic shell to roasting sweet potatoes.
My advice: at ease! Before you go pouring coconut oil on your corn flakes, let’s keep the big picture in mind. It is reasonable to say that until we have more conclusive scientific evidence, coconut oil should be consumed in moderation. All that’s safe to say is that small amounts probably aren’t harmful. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend no more than 10% of dietary calories be from saturated fat, which is about 20g a day for a 2000 calorie diet. I would still rely on olive oil and other sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (from vegetable sources) as my primary source of fat. And, don’t forget the essential Omega 3 fats. Continue to avoid hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated coconut oil, which contain trans fats that are known to have atherogenic effects. Even if coconut is not as bad for us as we once thought, that doesn’t mean it’s good for us. If nothing else, it still contains 120 calories per Tbsp. And as for your corn flakes, for the time being, milk works just fine. Your thoughts?
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