Is coconut oil the superfood that it's often said to be? We take a closer look at what makes this tropical oil different 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 (actually it’s 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/extra virgin coconut oil uses younger, fresher coconuts and is the unrefined version with a lighter taste. Virgin coconut oil is deemed the better of the two.
There is little substantial research into the health benefits of consuming coconut oil over other fats. However, virgin coconut oil is preferable when compared to hydrogenated margarines and highly processed oils, even though the saturated fat content is high.
When margarine/spreads shot to fame, manufacturers were seeking oil that was solid at room temperature and so to achieve this, they used the process of hydrogenation. This led to the production of trans fats, which are now deemed more dangerous than saturated fats. Therefore, coconut oil is a better choice if you are seeking the solid-at-room-temperature consistency, without the trans fats.
Additionally, coconut oil contains high levels of medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs). MCFAs are metabolised differently – absorbed and used in the liver as a source of energy. MCFAs such as lauric acid raise levels of HDL (beneficial) cholesterol. Therefore, consumption of a fat rich in lauric acid may give a more favourable cholesterol pattern than consumption of an oil rich in trans-fatty acids.
Specific health issues
However, regardless of the MCFAs, coconut oil is one of the richest sources of saturated fat; around 90% compared to butter at around 50%. Saturated fat has long been seen as a risk factor for elevated cholesterol and heart disease. This is because it is saturated fats that 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 20-30g per day. Two tablespoons of coconut oil contain approximately 25g of saturated fat.
...But is saturated fat bad? I thought opinion had changed?
There is much debate around saturated fat so a wide review of the data is being examined by the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) Task Force and is due for publication next year. The advice still remains that for heart health, saturated fatty acids are to be replaced with small amounts of unsaturated fatty acids such as 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 European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) approval. This cannot be said for coconut oil, which does not have the same level of scientific evidence to back up the claims so for now use your better judgement when reading articles and deciding which fat to use in your diet.
At 9kcal/gram, fats are the most calorie dense foods. Therefore consuming large amounts of any fat/oil, whether it’s from a coconut or another source, can lead to an increase in energy and weight gain if you have more than the recommended daily amount. Fats should be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet. The EFSA have not found enough evidence that the MCFAs present in coconut oil can reduce body weight.
There is some evidence to suggest that consuming coconut oil can impact on satiety, therefore reducing our appetite. This has been linked to the MCFAs and their metabolism in the liver.
Extra virgin raw coconut oil is kind on the skin as a moisturiser, eye makeup remover, lip balm or as a deep conditioner for the hair. It has been shown to help some more complex skin conditions such as eczema or psorasis.
Cooking with coconut oil
Coconut oil has a higher burning point and longer shelf life than some other fats. If you choose the flavoured variety, it can add a coconut flavour to cooking. As it is solid at room temperature, it can be used to bake, fry, grease baking pans and as a replacement for the butter or vegetable oil called for in recipes.
Most of the research so far has consisted of short-term studies to examine the effect of coconut oil on cholesterol levels. Coconut oil is not as healthy as vegetable oils like olive oil, which is mainly unsaturated fat and therefore both lowers LDL and increases HDL. Coconut oil's special HDL-boosting effect may make it 'less bad' than the high saturated fat content would indicate, but it's still probably not the best choice among the many available oils to reduce the risk of heart disease and control weight.
Jo Lewin holds a degree in nutritional therapy and works as a community health nutritionist and private consultant. She is an accredited member of BANT, covered by the association's code of ethics and practice.
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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...