Coconut oil has seen a surge in popularity over the last decade as well as quite a few grandiose health claims.
By: Andy De Santis,RD/TorontoSun
With Valentine’s Day around the corner and February being Heart Health Month, what better time to chat about one of the more controversial topics in the world of cardiovascular health? Coconut oil: healthy or not?
Coconut oil has seen a surge in use and popularity over the last decade and comes packaged not only with a hefty price tag, but also quite a few grandiose health claims.
The people who make these claims do so on the back of the fact that coconut primarily contains a unique form of fatty acids known as medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) .
MCTs are metabolized more quickly and easily than other types of fats and travel immediately to the liver to be used as energy, which theoretically, means they are more easily digested and offer some sort of metabolic advantage.
There’s only one problem.
Coconut oil is high primarily in the MCT known as lauric acid, which structurally, is a MCT, but scientists believe that it doesn’t act like an MCT in the body – meaning it would not offer these theoretical benefits.
In other words, coconut oil is not a physiological equivalent to MCT oil, even if it is inappropriately presented as such. Which brings us to another question: What does coconut oil offer besides a pricey, smooth creamy taste?
Coconut oil is either virgin or refined. Both contain the same type of fats, but virgin coconut oil is higher in vitamin E — which is great for our eyes and liver — and dietary antioxidants known as polyphenols, which are good for our heart. Another difference between the two is smoke point — basically when the oil begins to burn. Virgin coconut oil, the healthier version, has a very low smoke point at 350°F, meaning it is not particularly suitable for cooking at high heat. Refined coconut oil however, is actually better for cooking at high heat, with a smoke point between 400°F to 450°F.
It’s a great moisturizer
Coconut oil is awesome for your skin and hair. Not only is it a highly effective moisturizer, but it may even be used topically in the treatment and prevention of atopic dermatitis.
Better than butter
Coconut oil consists of mostly saturated fat which has traditionally been associated with poor cardiovascular health. However, this is compared to foods such as nuts and seeds which, depending on the variety, contain what are considered to be heart healthy monounsaturated or omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.
The saturated fat from coconut, however, is unique in that it comes from a plant source, and according to research, it is superior to butter when it comes to heart heath. There are two reasons for this. First, it doesn’t raise “bad” cholesterol (LDL) as much as butter does and it uniquely raises “good” cholesterol (HDL).
However, despite all the good news, coconut oil still lags behind monounsaturated fat -rich olive oil in terms of the beneficial effects on good and bad cholesterol, according to the British Medical Journal and American Heart Association Journal.
The hype train
Coconut oil is certainly a unique product, but one that has been slightly carried away by its own personal hype train. So while it may not be the best choice for overall health — olive oil is better — there is no reason to avoid using it, especially if it’s used to replace butter. At the same time, there is also no reason to go out of your way to use it if you otherwise wouldn’t.
Andy is a registered dietitian and author who has operated a private practice in Toronto since 2015. He spends his free time eating, writing and talking about kale @AndyTheRD. He can be reached at AndyTheRD.com