Show me the evidence!
If you asked me the question ‘Is coconut good or bad for you’ about 5 years ago, I would not have had an answer simply because I had not done enough research at that time to prove it one way or the other. However, as I embarked on this journey to document traditional Kerala recipes and as I started working on my blog, I began to undertake some serious research on this topic since Kerala cuisine features a lot of coconut and coconut oil. Needless to say, all the evidence I found reassured (I say reassured since I had a feeling it would be positive considering generations of folks in Kerala who were consuming coconut and not all of them were dying of heart disease!) me that I could continue to work on my blog. So here I would like to summarize the results of my research for your benefit. All the statements that I make are based on studies or literature that I have found on reputable journals or magazines or websites and I have provided the appropriate references here.
Coconut Oil- What does it contain? How is it different from other oils? And is it harmful for your body?
Most of the negative publicity that coconut oil received beginning in the 1980’s was based on the fact that coconut oil is composed of saturated fats. Latest research has shown that saturated fats are actually not bad for your body . A meta-analysis was published in 2010 (a meta-analysis looks at several studies done on a topic and analyzes all the combined data using statistical techniques)that looked at 21 different studies that studied effect of saturated fats on heart disease and stroke. The results of this meta-analysis proved that saturated fats actually do not increase the risk of heart disease or stroke (1).
Further, Coconut oil although a saturated fat differs from animal fat in its composition. – All fats and oils are composed of molecules called fatty acids. There are two methods of classifying fatty acids. The first method is based on saturation. You have saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats. Another system of classification is based on molecular size or length of the carbon chain within each fatty acid. In this system you have short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA), and long-chain fatty acids (LCFA). Coconut oil is a saturated fat composed predominately of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA), also known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCT).
Hopefully you are still reading this OK So basically, the physiological effects of MCFA in coconut oil are distinctly different from those of LCFA more commonly found in our foods. like meat, milk, eggs, and plants (including most all vegetable oils). They do not have a negative effect on cholesterol and help to protect against heart disease. MCFA help to lower the risk of both atherosclerosis and heart disease (2, 3).
Studies have found a modest beneficial effect of coconut oil on lipid profiles instead of any negative effect (4,5). Studies have shown that coconut oil due to its slightly different composition of fatty acids (coconut oil is rich in lauric acid while butter is high in palmitic acid), has a lower tendency to increase LDL (the bad cholesterol) as compared to butter. While coconut oil does not reduce total cholesterol as effectively as polyunsaturated oils do, it has a greater effect on HDL, meaning it increases HDL, the good cholesterol(6).
Polyunsaturated fats may reduce cholesterol more effectively but are they really good for you? One fact to consider is that saturated fats are stable and do not oxidize even at high heat cooking temperatures including deep-frying. However, it’s a different story with the polyunsaturated fats – high heat cooking will definitely oxidize polyunsaturated oils (vegetable oil, canola oil,soybean oil) and to a certain extent monounsaturated oils (such as olive oil), which then creates harmful free radicals which are not good for your body(7). So compared to vegetable oil and canola oil, coconut oil is better for deep frying.
OK so you might say all this is good, but do we have some SOLID evidence from say real populations using coconut oil for thousands of generations? Well I am happy to say “YES , we do!” Thankfully, we do have evidence from those populations. A study funded by the USNIH (United States National Institute of Health) that examined the association between consumption of coconut oil and lipid profiles in Filipino women between the ages of 35-69 years showed that coconut oil increased HDL (the good cholesterol) levels while having no negative impact on LDL and / Triglycerides (8).
In addition to no adverse effect on cardiovascular health and a possible beneficial effect, coconut oil has shown to have numerous other benefits such as antimicrobial action, in skin care and as an effective weight loss agent. A study in 40 women with abdominal obesity, given 30 mL (1 ounce) of coconut oil per day lead to a significant reduction in both BMI and waist circumference in a period of 12 weeks (9,10).
I have been talking only about coconut oil thus far but its not just the oil that’s good for you but coconut meat (the white part of the coconut), coconut milk(you get by grinding the coconut meat) and coconut water (the clear water inside the coconut) all have beneficial effects on our body . Coconut has no effect on cholesterol (it may have a beneficial effect on HDL), it increases metabolism rates, has antioxidants, has antimicrobial action and is an excellent source of fiber. The only form of coconut that is not recommended is ‘sweetened dried coconut’ which is a highly processed food with a lot of added sugars etc(11).
Are you convinced about the goodness of coconut and coconut oil yet? Well I certainly am and I believe a lot of other folks are as well and hence finally the humble coconut that has been greatly ‘demonized’ in the past is finally getting a comeback in recent years. You just need to look around – Coconut oil and goods containing coconut can now be seen in all major health food stores in the US, celebrities are using it, nutritionists are recommending it, and patients are extolling its many virtues.! I think its time to GO NUTS Over COCONUTS!
1. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease , Am J Clin Nutr doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.27725. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/early/2010/01/13/ajcn.2009.27725.full.pdf
4.J. Lipid Res. 1995. 36: 1787-1795 http://www.jlr.org/content/36/8/1787.full.pdf
11. The Good Fat Cookbook, Fran McCullough, pages 57-68