Is coconut oil the superfood it's often said to be? We examine the latest scientific evidence to see how this tropical oil compares to other fats...
Coconut oil comes from the meat of matured coconuts harvested from the coconut palm tree. Whether it’s drinking coconut water, using the oil as a moisturiser or popping a spoonful into baking, the last couple of years have seen the coconut rise to prominence in kitchens and bathroom cabinets. So is the oil from this nut (or technically, a drupe), all that it’s cracked up to be?
Refined coconut oil is typically cheaper and unlikely to have the coconutty flavour and smell. Virgin coconut oil uses fresher coconut and is the unrefined version with a lighter taste. Virgin coconut oil is deemed to be a higher quality than refined coconut oil, and is said to be richer in antioxidant polyphenols.
Fat is an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet — it is a source of essential fatty acids and helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K. Although studies examining the health benefits of consuming coconut oil over other fats are scarce, coconut oil has one notable difference. Coconut oil contains a high proportion of a type of fat called Medium Chain Fatty Acids (MCFAs), most notably in the form of lauric acid. MCFAs reputably have various health benefits including being less likely to be stored in the body as fat and more readily used as a source of energy.
Coconut oil is one of the richest sources of saturated fat; around 86% compared to butter at around 52%. Saturated fat has long been seen as a risk factor for elevated cholesterol and heart disease. This is because studies have shown that saturated fats raise levels of LDL (unfavourable) cholesterol. This provides the basis for current dietary advice which recommends that we limit the amount of saturated fat in our diets to 20g per day for women and 30g per day for men. Two tablespoons of coconut oil contain approximately 19g of saturated fat.
...But is saturated fat bad? I thought opinion had changed?
There is much debate around saturated fat. However, at present, Public Health England still advises that for heart health, saturated fatty acids should be replaced with small amounts of unsaturated fatty acids found in olive and rapeseed oils, avocados, nuts, seeds and oily fish.
Olive oil – a monounsaturated fat – has a much larger evidence base to support health claims, as well as EFSA approval (European Food Safety Authority). At present, the same cannot be said for coconut oil, which does not have the same level of scientific evidence to back up the health claims.
Impact on weight
At 9kcal per gram, fats are the most calorie-dense macronutrient. Therefore consuming large amounts of any fat or oil, whether it’s from coconut or another source, can lead to an increase in energy and weight gain if you have more than your body needs. Fats should be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet. The EFSA have not yet found enough evidence that the medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) present in coconut oil can, as frequently cited, reduce body weight.
Virgin coconut oil is often applied topically and as such can be used as a moisturiser, eye makeup remover, lip balm or conditioner for the hair. It has been shown to alleviate some complex skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis.
Cooking with coconut oil
Coconut oil has a high smoke point and longer shelf life than some other fats. As it is solid at room temperature, it can be used in baking recipes, for frying, for greasing baking pans and as a replacement for butter or vegetable oil in recipes.
Most of the research so far has consisted of short-term studies to examine the effect of coconut oil on cholesterol levels. Despite the many health claims surrounding coconut oil, it's still probably not the best choice among the many available oils to reduce the risk of heart disease and manage weight.
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This article was last reviewed on 23rd August 2018 by Kerry Torrens.
A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).
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Have you experienced the health benefits of coconut oil first-hand? Do you regularly use it in your cooking at home? Share your tips and experiences below in the comments...