Coconut Oil: Super Food or Super Fad?

The media is flooded with seemingly endless advertisements for fad diets that promise model looks, superfoods with near magical powers, and supplements that rival the most powerful medicines known to man with the benefit of zero side effects. For those of us grounded in reality, however, the assertions prove to be tough pills to swallow and the extensive claims in favor of the use of coconut oil beg a closer look with a healthy dose of skepticism.

According to many internet claims, such as the one found at Authority Nutrition, coconut oil can soften skin and hair, prevent wrinkles, repel insects naturally, heal eczema and acne, address obesity, boost energy, and it has antiviral, anti-fungal, and antibiotic properties. In addition, coconut oil is said to lower cholesterol levels, control seizures as part of a ketogenic diet, and may even boost brain function in Alzheimer’s patients. Of course, all of these benefits are yours as long as you only purchase the unrefined coconut oil. Which brings us into the next part of this examination of coconut oils.

As Rose Haney describes in her article on SFGate, coconut oil is sold in two primary forms – unrefined, otherwise known as “virgin”, coconut oil and refined coconut oil. Unrefined coconut oil refers to oil that has been ‘cold-pressed’ from the fresh meat of the coconut. The coconut is either wet milled or quick dried, meaning the oil is either removed from coconut milk or pressed from the quickly dehydrated coconut meat and is not bleached, dyed, chemically treated, nor exposed to high temperatures. In contrast,refined coconut oil is made from copra, which is a form of dried coconut meat. The drying process of copra creates a number of contaminants that must be purified using a bleaching process. In addition, the resulting oils require deodorization to remove the odor and flavor of the bleaching clays. Other chemicals and solvents are used to increase the shelf life and the resulting product is often partially hydrogenated as well.

Coconut oil in the unrefined form is touted as one of the healthiest oils by Dr. Joseph Mercola despite the fact that it is largely composed of saturated fats. The difference, he states in his article, is that “close to two-thirds of the saturated fat in coconut oil is made up of medium-chain fatty acids, which have antimicrobial properties, are easily digested by the body for quick energy, and are beneficial to the immune system.” (Dr. Mercola, an osteopath, has a long-standing reputation as a medical maverick who has been endorsed by Dr. Mehmet Oz, which is, itself, a questionable recommendation. – Editor.)

One of the primary sources of this antimicrobial property of coconut oil is lauric acid. WebMD cites lauric acid as a component in the medicines used to treat a number of viral infections including the common cold, swine flu, HIV, and the herpes simplex virus. In addition, lauric acid has also been shown to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, which could definitely show promise for improving cholesterol profiles.

However, it appears that the experts disagree on the benefits of the “good” saturated fat in coconut oil, unrefined or otherwise. Dr. Jay Kenney, Educator and Nutrition Research Specialist at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami, Florida states “this is a case where facts have been twisted into fiction.” According to the physicians, dietitians and scientists at Pritikin, coconut oil is 92 percent saturated fat. Although all oils are composed of a combination of saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, saturated fats are the artery clogging fatty acids to blame for heart disease that are found in many other sources including butter, lard, and tallow.

As discussed by Dr. Mercola, there are different types of saturated fats – Long chain, medium chain, and short chain fatty acids. The medium and short chain fats do not affect LDL or bad cholesterol in the same way as the long chain fats. However, contrary to popular understanding, the majority of the saturated fats in coconut oils are composed of long chain fatty acids, making coconut oils one of the more damaging oils to the heart, according to Pritkin. In fact, only 10 percent of the saturated fats are actually composed of medium chain fatty acids.

Although the focus so far has been primarily unrefined coconut oil, we cannot forget the dangers of refined coconut oil, which is often not differentiated in posts on internet sites trumpeting the wonders of coconut oil. Refined coconut oil is often partially hydrogenated resulting in a high amount of trans-fats as well as saturated fats in the oil. According to the Mayo Clinic , a preliminary conclusion by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is that trans-fats should be phased from food production as they are no longer recognized as safe. Additionally, the chemical components of the bleaching, drying and purification processes raise safety concerns regardless of the extended shelf life and higher smoking point of the cooking oil.

Ultimately, moderation is key, when it comes to fats and heart health. The Mayo Clinic recommends that only 25 to 35 percent of your daily calories come from fat and less than 10 percent of that amount should come from saturated fats. According to the label of a jar of unrefined coconut oil, one tablespoon equals 22 percent of the daily recommended fat consumption. Clearly, we will not get all of these promised benefits from less than a single tablespoon per day and we may require more to fry up chicken breasts for a family of five. Experts recommend sticking to monounsaturated fats that are found in healthier options such as olive, peanut, and canola oils. In addition, less than 8 percent of coconut oil is composed of monounsaturated fats. Consequently, with little scientific data to support the claims of the benefit of coconut oil, it is in your best interest to consider lighter, more heart-healthy choices.

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