The claimed health benefits of coconut products are in abundance, but how much of this information is true? Dietitian, Jessica Oosthuizen, tells us.
Coconut products are abundant on the shelves of supermarkets and health stores. These products promise so many health benefits. Apart from coconut oil, you will find coconut milk, coconut water, coconut yoghurt and coconut snack bars just to name a few.
If you Google the health benefits of coconut oil, the websites and lists will be endless. Claims for coconut oil will vary from increasing fat burning; reducing hunger therefore help you to eat less; ability to raise your ‘good’ HDL cholesterol; protection of skin, hair and dental health; reducing inflammation; and stimulating organs, such as the thyroid and the brain, to assist in weight loss. Let’s take a further look at the health claims.
Coconut oil lowers your risk for heart disease
There are claims stating that populations who eat a lot of coconut oil are healthy. Such as those in India, Sri Lanka and countries in the South Pacific area. However, when evaluating these claims, it’s important to remember that there are various factors other than cholesterol that contribute to one outcome, such as heart disease.
The overall diet will play a key role towards how nutrients influence health outcomes. The diet consumed by these populations will contribute to their minimal risk for developing heart disease, as their diet is mostly unprocessed, and rich in wholegrains, fish and fresh fruit and vegetables. This type of diet contrasts with the typical Western diet – high in refined carbohydrates, sugars and saturated fats.
Clinical trials comparing the direct effect on cardiovascular disease (CVD) of coconut oil have not been reported. Therefore, there is no scientific evidence stating that coconut oil can reduce your risk for CVD.
Many studies have evaluated the effect of consuming a variety of fats and oils on blood lipid profiles, including coconut oil, butter, coconut butter and unsaturated fats (olive oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil and corn oil). Coconut oil raised both HDL and LDL cholesterol.
Numerous studies have shown that you can lower your risk of heart disease by replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats in the diet. Individuals who adopt the Mediterranean style of eating that includes nuts, olives and olive oil had a lower risk for developing heart disease, stroke and death compared to those who follow a low-fat diet.
Coconut oil is healthy as it contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCT)
All dietary fats consist of a variety of fatty acids. Depending on the length of the fatty acid chain, fatty acids are classified as short-, medium- or long-chain fatty acids. MCTs are easily digested and absorbed by the body.
The truth lies in the fact that lauric acid, which is the predominant property in coconut oil, has a higher molecular weight and is metabolised differently to the lower-molecular-weight triglycerides, such as caprylic and capric acids.
Most MCT fats are made up of caprylic and capric acids and not the lauric acid found in coconut oil. Since the triglycerides that are present in coconut oil cannot biologically or functionally be classified as MCTs, it is incorrect to apply these health benefits of coconut oil as the research is not relevant.
Coconut oil is better to use for cooking
It’s imperative to understand the smoke point of certain types of oil when determining if it is suitable for cooking. The smoke point refers to the temperature that the oil can be used in cooking. The higher the smoke point, the more cooking methods it can be used for. The smoking point of coconut oil is 177°C compared to healthier options, such as virgin olive oil which has a smoking point of 210°C; sunflower oil (227°C) and canola oil (204°C).
The conclusion on coconut oil
The evidence showing an association between coconut consumption and risk factors for heart disease is mostly of poor quality. However, it does show that coconut oil compared to unsaturated plant oils raises total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. There is no convincing evidence to support the benefits of consuming coconut oil. Research suggests that replacing coconut oil with unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, could reduce your CVD risk.
With this said, it does not mean that all coconut products need to be completely avoided. They can add flavour to the occasional Thai or Indian dish.
When selecting an oil to use every day, it would be best to choose an unsaturated fat, such as olive oil. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends reducing saturated fats to <10% of total energy intake. Practically speaking for a man following an 8400kJ (2000kcal) diet, 10% of this would be 22g of saturated fat per day. One tablespoon of coconut provides 12g of saturated fat. Therefore, you can get an idea of how easy it is to reach your saturated fat intake for the day if using coconut oil. As a comparison, 1 tablespoon of olive oil only has 2g of saturated fat and 10g of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
- Sacks et al. (2017). Dietary fats and Cardiovascular Disease. A Presidential Advisory from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 135 : e00-23.
- Clifton, P.M. & Keogh, J.B. (2017). A systematic review of the effect of dietary saturated and polyunsaturated fat on heart disease. Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases. 27:1060-1080.
- Eyres, L., Eyres, M.F., Chisholm, A. & Brown, R. C. 2016. Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans. Nutrition Reviews. 74(4):267-280.
- World Health Organisation. Practical advice on maintaining a health diet : Fats. 2018.
MEET OUR EXPERT
Jessica Oosthuizen RD (SA) is a Type 1 diabetic herself (since the age of 13). She has a special interest in the nutritional management of children and adults with diabetes. She also has a key interest in weight management and eating disorders. Her experience includes working in the clinical hospital setting as well as experience with a variety of chronic diseases of lifestyle, such as obesity, hypertension and Type 2 diabetes.