Arsenic, cyanide, mercury. Sure. Coconut oil? Hmmm.
In response to a Harvard Professor’s comments about coconut oil being “one of the worst things you can eat”, coconut oil is being touted as the latest nutritional villain. This opinion centred on the fact that it is a saturated fat (which it is) and that it raises LDL cholesterol which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (which is only part of the picture).
First up, coconut oil is not just any old saturated fat but a Medium Chain Triglyceride (MCT). MCT’s are different to other types saturated fats which are classified as long chain fatty acids (LCT’s). Simply put MCT’s have chains of fatty acids of between 8 and 12 where as LCT’s have chains of between 14-18. These chain lengths effect how fats are digested and used by the body. MCT’s are absorbed intact from small intestine, metabolised in the liver and either used directly for energy or heat in the form of fatty acids or converted into ketones rather than readily being laid down as fat. LCT’s are absorbed though the large intestine and either stored as fat or sent to the liver for processing via the heart.
The grade of coconut oil matters too. Virgin coconut oil is extracted differently from refined coconut oil. Virgin coconut oil is extracted from fresh, mature kernels of the coconuts without chemical refining to help keep the nutritional value and various biologically active substances intact including a high polyphenol content. Refined coconut oil is taken from copra (the dried kernel of the coconut) by a process of refining, bleaching, and deodorizing, which results in higher levels of free fatty acids and negatively affects the nutritional properties of the product.
The link between saturated fat, cholesterol and cardio vascular disease was a key highlight in the coverage vilifying coconut oil. Coconut oil does increase total cholesterol (LDL `the bad’ + HDL `the good’) and the impact varies by person. Even so, high LDL (`bad’ cholesterol) is not necessarily associated with cardio vascular disease. In fact, for virgin coconut oil, several reviews indicate likely cardio protective properties rather than it being a source of cardio vascular issues. This is thought to be partly due to its high polyphenol content which offer anti-inflammatory and antioxidative effects.
Virgin coconut oil trials have also elicited positive effects on body composition, in particular waist circumference. Other studies indicate a possible role for virgin coconut oil in lowering blood pressure and blood vessel function improvements and improving insulin sensitivity. All of which positively correlate with cardiovascular health.
The Harvard Professor is correct on one point and that is that more research is needed. As with many research areas in nutrition there is still much more to learn. For example, the optimal mix of fats for the human diet is still under debate. In the meantime, what we can all agree on is that keeping trans fats (transformed fats) such as those found in highly processed foods, or hydrogenated fats, such as margarine, to a minimum is key.
Eat up everyone, in moderation of course 😉 x