Coconut oil will have their detractors and supporters. Whichever study one chooses to believe in, the key is to consume it in moderation.
WE have heard countless times that broccoli, blueberries, kale and salmon are superfoods.
This is because they contain high levels of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants as well as fibre.
Many believe that these nutrients can prevent cancer, stroke, heart attack and Alzheimer’s disease. They are also believed to have anti-ageing properties.
In recent years, coconut oil has been added to this list. A quick Google search will reveal thousands of links on its health benefits.
Coconut oil is said to be able to reduce the risk of heart disease, aid in weight loss, kill bacteria and viruses, boost digestion, and even help in HIV/AIDS and cancer treatment.
A The New York Times survey showed that 72 per cent of the public, compared with 37 per cent of nutritionists, believed that coconut oil was healthy.
Hollywood celebrities have also been touting the wonders of coconut oil for health and beauty.
Angelina Jolie reportedly includes virgin coconut oil in her breakfast cereal while model Miranda Kerr takes four teaspoons of coconut oil per day either in her salad, through cooking or in green tea to manage her weight.
However, the question remains whether it is really as healthy as people claim.
This is because coconut oil contains high saturated fat which is associated with high low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or bad cholesterol that increases the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.
Last year, the American Heart Association (AHA) released a report advising against the use of coconut oil.
Its Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease advisory reviewed existing data on saturated fat, showing that coconut oil increased LDL in seven out of seven controlled trials.
According to the researchers, 82 per cent of the fat in coconut oil is saturated, far beyond butter (63 per cent), beef fat (50 per cent) and pork lard (39 per cent).
Saturated fat is commonly found in animal fats, but it is also found in tropical plant oils.
But many believers of coconut oil do not agree with the AHA report as they believe saturated fat is not the cause of coronary disease.
They say saturated fat is actually beneficial for hormone production and regulation and for keeping cells healthy.
Sunway Medical Centre dietitian Michelle Gan Pei Chee says the hype over the health benefits of coconut oil is attributed to its high content of medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) or lauric acid.
People believe the MCT content in coconut oil increases good cholesterol which reduces the risk of coronary heart disease.
They say the saturated fat in coconut oil behaves differently to typical saturated fats, thus preventing negative effects on health.
Gan says coconut oil contains 16 per cent of lauric acid, a type of saturated fatty acid. This type of fatty acid tends to mimic healthy unsaturated fats by boosting good cholesterol.
“A recent study found that consumption of coconut, coconut cream and coconut oil does increase levels of high density lipoprotein which is good cholesterol.
“But it also raises levels of LDL, total cholesterol and serum triglycerides, all risk factors for cardiovascular disease.”
Gan says coconut oil contains very little vitamins and minerals. It has only 0.66mg per 100g of vitamin E and one microgram per 100g of vitamin K.
It comprises of 99.9 per cent fatty acids — of which 91.9 per cent is saturated fatty acids, 6.4 per cent monounsaturated fatty acids, and 1.5 per cent polyunsaturated fatty acid.
Gan says coconut oil is a staple food among indigenous populations in India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Polynesia, and Melanesia.
Observational studies of indigenous populations who consume significant amounts of coconut oil have found no adverse effects with regards to cardiovascular disease risk.
Based on the diet of these populations, urban consumers who practise clean eating also believe that coconut oil is healthy. However, these people do not look at the entire diet of indigenous populations.
“Firstly, people in these populations tend to eat coconut flesh or squeezed coconut cream, not coconut oil. They are more likely to consume a traditional diet with sufficient polyunsaturated fats, limited refined carbohydrates, and fibre-containing coconut products, such as coconut flesh and flour, which is a dietary pattern more in line with what is recommended for heart health and quite different from the typical modern diet.
“As a result, these findings on indigenous people cannot be directly attributed to their consumption of coconut oil, but instead is the result of their overall dietary pattern and lifestyle,” says Gan.
She says scientific evidence on the health benefits of coconut oil is sparse. There is only one human study that suggests coconut oil can improve the quality of life for advanced cancer patients when given as a supplement.
So far there is no human research that has looked at its impact on Alzheimer’s disease, type 2 diabetes or thyroid function.
There is also no study on coconut oil supplementation and improved nutritional status of people with HIV or AIDS that has been published in peer-reviewed literature, she says.
Gan says support for coconut oil’s health benefits can be traced back to the work of Marie-Pierre St-Onge, a professor of nutrition at Columbia University in 2003.
St-Onge had found that eating and cooking with medium chain fatty acids — a type of molecule found in coconut oil — can help dieting adults to burn fat.
But as St-Onge pointed out, coconut oil has only 16 per cent medium chain fatty acids. The participants in her studies had received 100 per cent medium chain fatty acids, a custom-made mixture.
Gan says this research has been seized upon by health food marketers and bloggers. Dieting blogs and websites praise coconut oil as a “fat-burning diet miracle” and dietary supplements containing the oil advertise their supposed weight-loss benefits on the label.
“Basically, data from the original research on medium chain fatty acids has been extrapolated very liberally. To date, most studies done on coconut oil have been either animal studies or small case control or observational studies, which are not sufficient to support and make a consensus on the claims about coconut oil.”
Gan says reducing saturated fat alone, without considering what it is replaced with, may not be beneficial. Evidence demonstrates that reducing saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fat improves cardiovascular risk factors and reduces the risk of heart disease; replacing it with wholegrains improves some cardiovascular risk factors and reduces the risk of heart disease but not to the same extent as unsaturated fat; and replacing it with refined carbohydrate does not improve cardiovascular risk and does not reduce the risk of heart disease.
On the other hand, diets high in trans-fats, regardless of whether they are accompanied by other beneficial food sources, are consistently linked to cardiovascular risk and to heart disease. As such, unsaturated fat is preferred to saturated fat and both are preferred to trans-fat.
Gan says although coconut oil does not have healthy properties, it is possible to include it in your diet as long as it is consumed in moderation. Just like other saturated fats, coconut oil should be limited to between seven and 10 per cent of total calories.
“As one tablespoon of coconut oil contain 115 calories, use it occasionally. Using too much coconut oil is not a good way to cut down on calorie intake.”
A better choice is virgin coconut oil as the manufacturing process allows the oil to retain the scent and taste of coconut, as well as high levels of antioxidants and polyphenols. Virgin coconut oil has been found to contain up to seven times higher concentrations of polyphenols than refined coconut oil, says Gan.
“But even if the coconut oil you are using is virgin, the saturated fats effects outweigh any beneficial effects of the antioxidants. In short, unsaturated fats are preferred to both refined and virgin coconut oils.
“The bottom line is, no one food alone will make you healthy. It’s important to recognise that the entire picture is what matters the most. The combined evidence suggests that improving our whole eating pattern, not just altering one nutrient is what’s required to promote cardiovascular health.”
FOCUS ON WHOLE EATING
THE whole eating pattern, not just one nutrient, is important for overall health, says dietitian Michelle Gan Pei Chee
This is the key message to keep in mind for healthy eating, she adds.
Gan says the Malaysian Dietary Guidelines 2010 promote a healthy eating pattern based on a combination of foods, chosen regularly, over time. It has been categorised into five healthy eating tips for ease of reference:
1. Enjoy a variety of wholegrains and consume five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
2. Eat a variety of healthy protein sources including fish, chicken and lean meat, legumes, nuts and seeds.
3. Prepare food using healthier cooking methods such as steaming, grilling, boiling, baking, roasting or stir-frying with less oil to reduce total fat consumption.
4. Unsaturated fat is preferred to saturated fat, both of which are preferred to trans-fat. Opt for healthy fat choices with nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and their oils for cooking.
5. Use herbs and spices to flavour food instead of adding salt.
Gan says all these will result in a diet that is naturally low in saturated and trans fats, salt and added sugar and rich in wholegrains, fibre, antioxidants and unsaturated fats (omega-3 and omega-6).
“Eating this way will improve overall health by reducing the prevalence of diet-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and certain forms of cancer, ultimately decreasing the risk of morbidity and mortality.”