The coconut oil debate: Is it a healthy or harmful fat?
True or False: Fats are bad for us and should be avoided as much as possible for optimal health?
With all the "fat free" products being advertised, a person may think that any and all fats are bad. The fact is, fats are needed for our bodies to function properly. Fats enable us to create energy, form cell membranes, absorb oil-soluble vitamins, produce hormones, regulate blood pressure, support immune response, cushion internal organs, keep the body warm and properly develop children's brain and nervous systems. One reason that fats get a bad rap, however, is that they contain lots of calories -- which can contribute to weight-gain and obesity (which increases our risk of diabetes and high blood pressure), cancer and heart diseases.
With the exception of most fruits and vegetables, almost all foods contain a combination of dietary fats (also called fatty acids) -- some of which nutritionists consider to be healthier for us than others:
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"Good" (or, at least, "Better") fats
When used in place of "bad" fats, unsaturated fats may help to lower blood cholesterol levels and our risk of heart disease. (According to the American Heart Association, these fats can be used interchangeably.)
The two categories of unsaturated fats include:
- monounsaturated: primary sources include nuts, vegetable oils, olive oil, avocado
- polyunsaturated: consists of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (found primarily in soybean, corn and safflower oil) and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (found primarily in cold-water fatty fish, flax seed, walnuts and soybean and canola oil).
These fats tend to increase LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) which may contribute to atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries) and increase a person's risk for developing heart disease and stroke.
- saturated: primarily found in animal products but also in the tropical vegetable oils: coconut, palm kernel, and palm oil
- trans fats: found naturally in animal meats and dairy foods, the majority of trans fats we eat are created synthetically, during processing, to affect (improve) food texture, shelf life and cooking ease. You will often see these listed on product labels as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats.
... and each of these 4 dietary fat groups (mono, poly, saturated and trans) can be broken down further into types (coconut oil is especially high in one type of saturated fat called lauric acid which we'll discuss in a few minutes.)
What's special about coconut oil?
As mentioned above, most foods contain a combination of the "good" and "bad" fats but lean more toward one end of the scale. Virgin olive oil, for example, contains approximately 14% saturated fats, 73% monounsaturated fats and 11% polyunsaturated fats -- so it is considered to be a good source of monounsaturated fats. Coconut oil, on the other hand, contains 87% saturated fats, 6% monounsaturated fats and 2% polyunsaturated fats so it is obviously high in saturated fats (especially when you consider that beef fat is 40% saturated fat). So, it is little wonder that most medical experts categorize coconut oil as a harmful fat that should be consumed in minimal amounts or avoided entirely.
As with most health issues, however, coconut oil may be more complicated than it appears at first glance.
In India, which for thousands of years, has been cooking with fats like ghee (clarified butter that's about 50% saturated fat), coconut oil and mustard oil (a source of monounsaturated fat) transitioned in recent years to "healthier" alternatives like sunflower and safflower oil (both high in polyunsaturated fatty acids), heart disease attributed to atherosclerosis and type-2 diabetes increased dramatically -- which is opposite of what one would expect. And a medical paper from Sri Lanka, where coconut products have been an important part of the diet for centuries, argues that coconut fats have been the subject of much misinformation and that coconut oil consumption may, in fact, be helpful in the prevention of heart disease, atherosclerosis, obesity and at lowering cholesterol levels.
Despite the fact that coconut oil is obviously extremely high in saturated fats, here are a few reasons why it may be an exception to the "all saturated fats are equally bad" argument:
- Like other fats, coconut oil tends to increase our HDL (good cholesterol). Until recently, most nutritionists felt that coconut oil's potential to increase in HDL was not enough to offset the evidence that it increases LDL (bad cholesterol) even more. At least one doctor, however, may be changing his position on this issue. In a Harvard Health Letter dated, April 1, 2006, Dr. Anthony Komaroff wrote, that "evidence (of nutritional benefits being attributed to coconut oil) is weak to nonexistent." More recently, on July 4, 2012 he suggests that coconut oil may be better than most fats at elevating HDL. And because it contains plant-based antioxidants, coconut oil may be "less bad" when compared with other oils that are high in saturated fat.
- Other articles go so far as to argue that, unlike you would expect from a saturated fat, coconut oil may not even lead to higher LDL levels.
- Unlike the long-chain fatty acids typical of saturated fats, the fats prevalent in coconut oil (medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs) are digested and absorbed by the body differently, making them much more beneficial.
- Coconut oil is rich in one particular fatty acid, lauric acid, that can otherwise only be found in mother's milk and cow and goat milk. The fact that about half of the saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid and this may help explain why it affects our HDL levels differently than that of other saturated fats.
- Early studies involving coconut oil used partially hydrogenated rather than virgin coconut oil and their health risk profiles are very different.
Like any fat, coconut oil is high in calories so almost everyone agrees that it should be consumed in moderation. Because it appears to be unlike other saturated fats, however, some medical experts feel that it may be included as part of a heart-healthy diet.
Note: when shopping for coconut oil, always buy extra virgin or expeller-pressed and avoid refined, bleached and deodorized (RBD), or chemically extracted varieties which come from copra or dried coconut kernel and offer no lauric acid benefit. Also avoid hydrogenated coconut oil which has been altered to prevent it from melting and is common in chocolate candies. Also note that unrefined coconut oil has a relatively low smoke point so may not be a good choice for frying purposes.
Sources, accessed July 8, 2012