The Coconut Craze: Coconut Oil

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Last week I wrote about coconut water. I’m curious — how many of you drink coconut water, or have at least tried it? As I mentioned in my posting, I’m not a big fan of it. But unless you’re guzzling down glass after glass of this tropical beverage, there are really no major harmful ramifications. But what about coconut oil?

Controversial Coconut Oil
Many nutrition topics are murky, and the issue of whether coconut oil is a “good” fat or a “bad” fat is a prime example. A lot of people swear by coconut oil for various reasons. Those who enjoy baking like coconut oil because it makes a mean flaky pie crust and lends a unique, rich flavor to pastries and other goodies. Others use coconut oil for everyday cooking, claiming that it adds great flavor to vegetables, oatmeal, and even popcorn. Coconut oil is used extensively in Thai and Indian dishes, which, of course, is partly why these dishes are so tasty.

And then, there are those who swear by coconut oil for its supposed numerous health benefits, such as promoting weight loss, improving blood glucose control, and helping to treat heart disease. Can a tropical oil really live up to all these claims?

A Bit of Background
The use of coconut oil for cooking is nothing new in tropical regions. In the early 1900’s, this oil was actually used in the US as a cooking oil, but it gradually fell out of favor in the 1960’s when scientists began to examine coconut oil’s possible role in heart disease.

The link between coconut oil and heart disease stems from the fact that coconut oil is primarily a saturated fat (92% of the fatty acids in this oil are saturated). And, for the most part, saturated fat, or the “bad” fat, is linked with promoting heart disease. But the tricky thing about saturated fats is that not all of them are created equally. The saturated fatty acids in coconut oil are different than, say, those found in animal fats, like lard or beef fat. By the way, the use of the word “oil” when discussing coconut is a bit of a misnomer, as coconut oil is solid at room temperature (it becomes a liquid at temps above 75°F).

About half of the saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, which is a medium-chain fatty acid (and different than the long-chain fatty acids found in animal fats). The body uses medium-chain fatty acids differently than long-chain fatty acids; it may be that these medium-chain fatty acids are less harmful and possibly beneficial. Of note, a special type of oil, called MCT (medium-chain triglyceride) oil is available as a medical supplement for people who have difficulty processing regular fat as a result of certain medical conditions.

Lauric acid, surprisingly, may increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol, but may also boost LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, as well. Yet, it doesn’t seem to affect the ratio of the two in a bad way. Lauric acid may have other health benefits, including anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties, fighting acne, and boosting metabolism. Some of these benefits are unproven, however.

Is Coconut Oil OK to Use?
Back to coconut oil. Is it good or bad? Coconut oil got a bad rap, in part, because it was used in animal studies in a partially hydrogenated form. Virgin coconut oil, on the other hand, isn’t hydrogenated. And even though coconut oil still is high in saturated fat, some newer studies suggest that saturated fat may not quite be the villain it’s been made out to be.

Coconut oil may actually have some real health benefits. In one study, women given coconut oil as a supplement (along with a low-calorie diet) had a higher HDL cholesterol, a lower LDL:HDL ratio, and a decreased waist circumference compared to women given a soybean oil supplement. Another study, also with women, showed improved lipid levels with MCT oil compared with beef tallow. However, both of these studies were small, and at this time, there isn’t enough research to wholly recommend the use of coconut oil.

In terms of diabetes, a study published in 2009 in the journal Diabetes showed that mice fed coconut oil had less insulin resistance (their insulin worked better) and had less body fat than mice fed lard. The downside, though, was that the mice given coconut oil had higher insulin resistance in the liver, as well as greater fat build-up in the liver.

The bottom line? Using small amounts of virgin coconut oil is probably OK (avoid using partially hydrogenated coconut oil because it contains trans fat). Remember that coconut oil is still a fat: one tablespoon contains 117 calories and 14 grams of fat (and there’s not much evidence that swigging coconut oil will cause you to magically shed extra pounds).

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