Is Coconut Oil Really That Healthy ?

A bottle of coconut oil with some broken coconuts around it.
Coconut oil. Copyright: lecic / 123RF Stock Photo
  • Coconut oil is a valuable cooking and frying medium – an interesting alternative to maize and corn oils.
  • The oil is exceptional as a moisturising ingredient in skin and hair care products.

Coconut oil is extremely versatile as a food ingredient and skin/hair care ingredient. 

You can use it for frying, baking, as an ingredient in smoothies and salad dressings. Hair products use it for moisturising if a personal care application is being sought.  Check for oil that can be used as a hair conditioner. One of the reasons it is ideal for frying is its high burning point because of the high saturated fat content. We shall see though that this saturated fat content is causing controversy in health circles. There is very little difference between coconut oils offered by suppliers.

[You might also see it described as Cocos nucifera oil which is the scientific name for the coconut tree.]

Nutrition Facts For Coconut Oil

A typical serving size is 1 Tbsp (15ml).

 Amount per serving%DV
Energy
Calories (kcal) – all from fat.
130 
Total Fat14g22
Saturated Fat13g65
Trans Fat0g0
Cholesterol0mg0
Sodium0mg0
Total Carbohydrate0g0
Dietary Fiber0g 
Sugars0g 
Protein0g 

Coconut oil is an insignificant source of vitamins and minerals including sodium. 

The Current Situation Regarding Its Healthiness

A lot of controversy has been stirred up recently over the benefits of coconut oil, especially its saturated fat content. The American Heart Association (AHA) has been quite forthright about its nutritional value. It’s as unhealthy as ‘beef dripping and butter’ – probably both combined ! The issue is certainly its high saturated fat content which increases the levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol in our blood stream. On the other hand a recent study suggested that ingestion of saturated fats might not be such an issue which we commented on (see article). This piece of research suggests, almost claim there is an absence of a link where saturated fats are concerned with heart disease for example. Some very statistically powerful conclusions were drawn from that study which threw the subject up in the air.

The AHA quite rightly asserts there is an absence of any good research to show that coconut oil is better for you than other foods like meat or butter. Coconut oil is now one of the key popular ingredients in health food shops. It’s also a popular item for health web-sites and blogs even though there is an absence of rigour and balance in these articles.  A number of recommendations have been made based on its many health properties. Some people drink a couple of teaspoons of it for breakfast although I cannot imagine why I’d want to drink something like suntan lotion so early in the day (but that’s only my opinion).

– The benefits of Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs) in Coconut Oil.

Coconut Oil is rich in saturated fats and the level is between 80 and 90% w/w. Beef fat and lard contain 50% w/w saturated fat whilst butter contains roughly 63% w/w saturated fat. Clearly, coconut oil comes out roughly 40% higher than other saturated fat rich foods. We know that consumption of high amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol as in cheese and meat raises  high total blood cholesterol levels and LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein) levels in particular. This is turn means a raised risk of heart disease and stroke. What we want to achieve is a high level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol because this means LDL cholesterol is transported into the liver for processing and removed from our blood system. You might have a high total cholesterol level but when its high with HDL cholesterol compared to LDL cholesterol then you have the best of it. 

– The Medium Chain Fatty Acids (MCFAs) Are Important For Overall Nutrition.

Coconut oil contains mostly medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs) and these are nutritionally different to their longer chain fatty acid counterparts (Babayan, 1987). MCFAs include caproic acid, caprylic acid, capric acid and lauric acid and they make up 59% of the fatty acid profile. The other fatty acids are saturated types including myristic acid, palmitic acid and stearic acid. Unsaturated fatty acids from both mono- and di-substituted types are also present. MCTs are not metabolised like long-chain fatty acids. They pass straight from food in the digestive tract into the bloodstream where they are metabolised in the liver. They form ketones which we explain later are valuable energy sources for the brain especially those suffering Alzheimer’s Disease. A number of suppliers claim MCTs are suitable for weight management based on the composition of the oil.

Replacing Saturated Fats

The AHA is very keen for us to replace our saturated fat content with unsaturated fats in a straight swap. Choosing sunflower oil and olive oil to replace coconut oil should be the decision. It is also worth stating that Public Health England recommend the following:-

-the average man should eat no more than 30g of saturated fat per day.

-the average woman should eat no more than 20g of saturated fat per day.

Incidentally we cannot cut out saturated fat altogether. It is an important energy source for a start, a source of various essential fatty acids and part of the transport systems for moving fat-soluble vitamins around the body. These vitamins include A, D, K and E.

Just to be controversial I thought I’d look at the case for coconut oil where a few health issues are concerned such as weight loss and mental issues.

– Coconut Oil Could Help With Loss Of Fat And Belly Fat In Particular.

We all know that being fat is a major health issue for the overweight. The technical term is obesity and even being moderately overweight can mean severe health issues including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even cancer. Fats are burnt by the body at different rates and generate different amounts of energy. Medium chain triglycerides in coconut oil are metabolised very differently to long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) and the effects has been known for over 30 years. What other sites don’t tell you is that substituting LCTs with MCTs can actually produce a weight loss if the energy intake remains constant. It’s an important feature and means that coconut oil certainly helps in this regards (Seaton et al., 1986).

– Coconut Oil – A Source Of Triglycerides For Improving Brain Function And Helping Those With Alzheimer’s Disease.

Alzheimer’s disease continues to develop as the leading cause of dementia globally and is mainly an issue for the elderly. Coconut oil contains a significant amount of certain important lipids and fatty acids which may benefit people suffering Alzheimer’s. The benefit exists because the brains of such patients are unable to use carbohydrates as effectively. In their place, ketones from medium chain triglycerides might serve as an alternative energy source. One important study in 2006 showed that consumption of medium chain triglycerides generated an improvement in the brain function of those with a mild form of the condition For brain cells which are starving for energy means they can use this alternative source which minimises the impact of Alzheimer’s (Constantini et al., 2008). A few studies suggest ingestion of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) can lead to increased levels of ketones in the blood which immediately alleviate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (Reger et al., 2004). These studies are backed up by others looking at ketogenic agents (Henderson, 2008; Henderson et al., 2009). 

Coconut Oil For Consideration From Various Suppliers Supported By Our Affiliate Marketing Partners

There is no shortage of suppliers of coconut oil although there is some differentiation by claiming it is organic or extra virgin. There are some products which contain spices to improve their healthiness or make them palatable. Most suppliers will have cold-pressed the oil from the coconut meat to minimise any deterioration. It is usually available in both solid and liquid forms. Viva (USA) produce an unrefined form for food and cosmetic use. Look for Garden of Life as they claim an organic coconut oil which is USDA Certified and from non-GMO sources.

Sevenhills Wholefoods have a 1L Oragnic Extra virgin raw coconut oil which is touted for not only cooking and baking but also for hair conditioning and skin moisturisers. Thei brand won a star in the UK’s Great Taste Award as a winner in 2017 and 2018. Their brand coconut oil is 100 per cent pure and endorsed as organic by the UK Soil Association. It is also registered with the Vegan Society.

Of course, coconuts provide us with a number of other ingredients with great nutritional benefit. Take coconut flour for example which can replace wheat flours if you are following a strict ketogenic diet.

Products In The United Kingdom


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References

Babayan, V. K. (1987). Medium chain triglycerides and structured lipids. Lipids, 22(6), pp. 417-420.

Costantini, L. C., Barr, L. J., Vogel, J. L., & Henderson, S. T. (2008). Hypometabolism as a therapeutic target in Alzheimer’s disease. BMC neuroscience, 9(2), Suppl. 16. doi: 10.1186/1471-2202-9-S2-S16

German, G.B. & Dillard, C.J. (2004) Saturated fats: what dietary intake ? Amer. J. Clin. Nutr. 80 pp. 550-559

Henderson, S.T. (2008) Ketone Bodies as a Therapeutic for Alzheimer’s Disease. Neurotherapeutics. 5(3) pp. 470-480

Henderson, S. T., Vogel, J. L., Barr, L. J., Garvin, F., Jones, J. J., & Costantini, L. C. (2009). Study of the ketogenic agent AC-1202 in mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multicenter trial. Nutrition & Metabolism (Lond.), 6(1), 31. doi: 10.1186/1743-7075-6-31

Reger, M. A., Henderson, S. T., Hale, C., Cholerton, B., Baker, L. D., Watson, G. S., … & Craft, S. (2004). Effects of β-hydroxybutyrate on cognition in memory-impaired adults. Neurobiology of Aging, 25(3), pp. 311-314

Seaton, T. B., Welle, S. L., Warenko, M. K., & Campbell, R. G. (1986). Thermic effect of medium-chain and long-chain triglycerides in man. Amer. J. Clin. Nutr., 44(5), pp. 630-634.

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