50_of_the_best_uses_for_coconut_oil_imageNever in my nutrition career have I witnessed such a dramatic swing in the nutrition pendulum from demonized food to miracle food. Enter: coconut oil.

Coconut oil, the bad

Let’s step back for a minute. Coconut oil’s bad boy reputation dates back to the 1980s when a media campaign highlighted coconut’s high saturated fat content as being responsible for heart disease. This prompted many food manufacturers to replace coconut and other tropical oils with partially hydrogenated oils. We now know that partially hydrogenated oils contain significant trans fat, which we see in higher amounts in many processed foods, and is now widely accepted as being less healthy than saturated fats.

For a long time, all saturated fats were deemed bad for us, including coconut oil. In fact, coconut oil’s fat composition is made up of 90-92% saturated fat. Because of this, coconut oil was considered an unacceptable fat compared with other fat options.  Talking about coconut oil and saturated fat as a whole category caused them to be labelled as unhealthy and created the public health message that all foods high in saturated fat were bad for us.

This is where it gets tricky. Without getting too deep in the mire of nutrition jargon, coconut oil is made up of a number of fatty acids, the majority of which are saturated. While there is more than one type of saturated fat, we now recognize that the type of saturated fat seems to be a key part to understanding coconut oil’s health effects.

canola-fat-chart

The majority of the saturated fat in coconut oil is made up of lauric acid, a type of fatty acid. The reason lauric acid matters is because of its chemical structure – it is a shorter chain length fat compared with other fats, which means it is used by the body differently. Because they are metabolized differently than other saturated fats, more studies are showing the effects of coconut oil on markers like blood cholesterol levels and finding results that are more positive than we realized. This is where coconut oil starts to look different than the above fat comparison chart (canolainfo.org).

Let’s break it down

Early studies looked at populations (usually South Pacific islanders and surrounding areas) that traditionally eat coconut oil and found a trend of lower rates of heart disease. Because the studies were generally small and many were observational studies, we could only say there was an association between coconut oil and heart disease and that one didn’t cause the other. Also, it is important to note that these populations generally have diets with a greater emphasis on fruit, vegetables, and fish and few processed foods than many western diets.

Newer and larger studies, however, show a pattern that all blood cholesterols, especially LDL {bad} & HDL {good}, all increased with coconut oil. But, a blood fat we call triglycerides either increased or decreased, so the overall results here were inconsistent. Interestingly, when compared with butter, people using coconut oil didn’t have as high an increase in their bad cholesterol (LDL) as the butter users. However, vegetable oils such as olive and canola showed the best cholesterol changes than the other fats, even coconut oil. It is generally accepted that when LDL cholesterol levels rise, so does your heart disease risk.

The bottom line

Given the evidence we have right now, there isn’t enough data to support the claims that coconut oil is the ideal or “miracle” choice for use as your main source of fat in the diet. Using olive oil and canola oil are still seen as excellent choices to use in cooking and in your day-to-day diet. You can still use plant-based saturated fats, like coconut oil, in a stir fry to add another level of flavour but there simply isn’t enough evidence to say that as your primary oil, it is the cure-all it is purported to be.

-Samantha

Sources:

Canola Oil Info website: http://www.canolainfo.org/health/chart.php

Eyres, L. (2014) Coconut Oil and the Heart: Evidence Paper. New Zealand Heart Foundation. 1-27.

Hooper et al. (2011). Reduced or modified dietary fat for preventing cardiovascular disease (Review). The Cochrane Collaboration. Issue 7. 1-217.

Micha, R. & Mozaffarian, D. (2010). Saturated Fat and Cardiometabolic Risk Factors, Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke & Diabetes: Fresh Look at the Evidence. Lipids. 45: 893-905.