Coconut oil seems to be getting more and more attention with health claims abound: restoring thyroid function, curing Alzheimer’s, weight loss, etc. Unfortunately the health claims are also full of controversy. What is the truth?
What is coconut oil?
Coconut oil comes from the meat of fresh, mature coconuts harvested from coconut palms. There are two main types of coconut oil: virgin and refined. The virgin oil is extracted from fresh coconut meat without the use of high temperatures or chemicals, while refined oil is from dried meat that’s often chemically extracted, bleached and deodorized. Some coconut is further processed, creating partially hydrogenated coconut oil containing trans fatty acids.
Healthy or unhealthy?
For many years coconut oil has been touted as unhealthy due to its high saturated fat content, stemming from research on saturated fat in meats with no research on the saturated fat in coconut oil itself. But coconut oil may have gotten a bad rap. Here are a few facts for consideration:
Coconut oil is very high in saturated fat, even higher than butter. It contains only about 8% of its fat from mono and polyunsaturated fats. Like other plant based oils, it contains no cholesterol. It does contain antioxidant properties due to its content of phenolic compounds (similar to virgin olive oil). The type of saturated fat in coconut oil is predominately lauric acid, which is classified as a medium chain triglyceride (MCT). Studies have shown that lauric acid increases both HDL (“good”) and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, but its greatest effect is increasing HDL’s thus helping to decrease the ratio of total to HDL cholesterol. Lower total to HDL cholesterol ratios are associated with decreased risk of cardiac disease. In addition, MCT’s are easier to digest, which may be especially important for people with fat malabsorption. Some studies suggest that MCT’s are more readily used for energy versus storage, which may serve as a benefit for weight control.
Health benefits in association with Alheimer’s disease, weight loss, thyroid function and other claims need more study.
What to do
The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fats, avoiding trans fats and choosing predominately mono and polyunsaturated fats. I suggest continuing to choose mostly liquid plant-based oils (cold pressed canola oil, virgin olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds). But, due to the type of saturated fat in coconut oil, I believe it’s a better alternative to shortening when solid fats are needed. Stick with the virgin coconut oil and avoid refined coconut oil that has been hydrogenated.
Pie Crust with Coconut Oil