Andrew Siegel, M.D. Blog # 63
I previously expressed my opinion regarding coconut oil and other tropical oils in my book Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship With Food as well as in a few videos I have posted on YouTube:
“Even though they are not animal fats, tropical oils such as coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil are so saturated that they behave like animal fats. Clearly, they are too saturated for our good health and are better suited for use in sun block and skin moisturizing lotions, which they are! Beware of consuming any chemicals that are also products in moisturizers and cosmetics!”
I received a great deal of flack from the devout coconut worshipers, who are of the opinion that coconut and other tropical oils are nectar from heaven, super foods that have remarkable properties. After all, Dr. Oz told his television audience that coconut oil has “superpowers.” Internet guru Joseph Mercola stated that its benefits are “nearly miraculous,” and he aggressively promotes coconut oil on his website, where it is on sale for $65/gallon.
The strangest thing—the biggest paradox—is that coconut oil is beloved by the processed food industry, but at the same time is the lovechild of many members of the super-health conscious, organic community. When it comes to coconut oil, these polar extreme factions—usually at odds with each other—share a great degree of admiration, esteem and regard for the same product. When a product is lauded by both the corporate powers that control our food industry as well as by individuals who are very health conscious, it begs the question: is this an amazing and overwhelming substance with wonderful medicinal properties and a miraculous panacea for a myriad of diseases or is it underwhelming rubbish, just another tropical oil laden with saturated fats?
So what is the real deal with coconut oil? For many reasons—shelf life, heat stability, solid status at room temperature, etc.—it is a favorite of Big Food. It is also beloved by the cosmetics industry as coconut oil is a key ingredient commonly used in hair and skin products. Many food purists worship it as a sort of magical elixir. There are an abundance of Internet sites that extol the medical virtues of coconut oil, for example: www.coconutresearchcenter.org. Extensive lists of purported medicinal benefits make it seem to be the holy grail of nutrition. For example, the following is a bullet list of just the first 15 benefits (copied verbatim off the aforementioned website):
- Kills viruses that cause influenza, herpes, measles, hepatitis C, SARS, AIDS, and other illnesses.
- Kills bacteria that cause ulcers, throat infections, urinary tract infections, gum disease and cavities, pneumonia, and gonorrhea, and other diseases.
- Kills fungi and yeasts that cause candidiasis, ringworm, athlete’s foot, thrush, diaper rash, and other infections.
- Expels or kills tapeworms, lice, giardia, and other parasites.
- Provides a nutritional source of quick energy.
- Boosts energy and endurance, enhancing physical and athletic performance.
- Improves digestion and absorption of other nutrients including vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.
- Improves insulin secretion and utilization of blood glucose.
- Relieves stress on pancreas and enzyme systems of the body.
- Reduces symptoms associated with pancreatitis.
- Helps relieve symptoms and reduce health risks associated with diabetes.
- Reduces problems associated with malabsorption syndrome and cystic fibrosis.
- Improves calcium and magnesium absorption and supports the development of strong bones and teeth.
- Helps protect against osteoporosis.
- Helps relieve symptoms associated with gallbladder disease.
Is this truth, fiction or somewhere in between? As a physician, I have to conclude that many of these claims are simply not proven, and to scientifically demonstrate many of the claimed benefits would require long-term, highly complex studies that would be expensive and difficult, if not impossible to carry out. Coconut oil just might be the greatest thing since the iPhone, but we do not have that information. The jury is out and I do not believe they will be in for some time.
The coconut palm tree grows and bears coconuts all year round, producing a fruit that is potable, palatable, and portable. This fruit is a dietary staple for residents of tropical seashores like the Pacific islands where the coconut palm is native and plentiful. Coconut oil is edible oil extracted from the “meat” of mature coconuts.
Extracting the oil from the coconut involves a variety of physical methods including heating, milling, grating, pressing, centrifuging and expelling, and chemical methods such as hexane and enzymatic breakdown. The product is ultimately refined to remove impurities. Refined, bleached and deodorized coconut oil has the taste and scent of coconuts removed and is used for home cooking, commercial food processing, and for manufacturing by the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.
When refined and deodorized, coconut oil mixed with nonfat milk is often used as a substitute for whole milk. Other uses include imitation dairy products such as coffee creamers, soft-serve and frozen desserts, whipped toppings, milk shake mixes, chocolate milk, movie theatre popcorn oil, baked goods and snack foods. Since coconut oil is solid, it can be used as a butter substitute for vegans. In addition to its use for nutritional purposes, coconut oil can be utilized as an unguent for the hair, an emollient for the body, a rust inhibitor for iron, and a fuel for lamps. Its first industrial use in Europe was as a lubricant in textile mills.
So what is truth and what is fiction with this oil derived from the coconut fruit?
The following are facts about coconut oil:
- More than 90% of its fat is saturated fat as opposed to canola oil (7% saturated); olive oil (13% saturated); beef tallow (48% saturated); lard (43% saturated). Saturated fats have all of their carbons “saturated” with hydrogen as opposed to unsaturated fats in which the carbons have double bonds. The double bonds confer a bend to the molecule whereas the saturated fats tend to be straight. The significance of this is that the saturated fats tend to be more densely packed together, making them solid at room temperature and raising the melting point. Saturated fat is not considered healthy since it tends to promote fatty plaque accumulation in our arteries.
- It is solid at room temperature—an oddity for a fat derived from a plant source—on the basis of the very high levels of saturated fat.
- It is a durable product that is resistant to going rancid, a desirable feature for manufacturers of processed foods that want to prolong the shelf life of the product in question (also on the basis of the very high levels of saturated fat).
- It is very heat-stable, making it very suitable for frying.
- It is easily digested and is absorbed because of the low molecular weight of the fatty acids. The fatty acids in coconut oil are lauric, myristic, palmitic, oleic, caprylic, capric and stearic.
- Coconut oil is unusual because it contains a high percentage of medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), whereas most oils consist entirely of long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). Coconut oil is 40% LCTs AND 60% MCTS. MCTs are composed of carbon chains of 6-10 links vs. LCTs, which are composed of 12-18 carbons. The shorter chains are more rapidly absorbed and readily metabolized as fuel as opposed to being stored as fat. That stated, no study has ever proven that coconut oil promotes weight loss.
- Pure MCT oil that is specially formulated by extraction from coconut oil has been shown to result in increased weight loss in dieters as compared to liquid vegetable oil.
- In Polynesia, where residents consume most of their fat as coconut fat from fresh coconuts, there does not appear to be an increased incidence of heart disease, despite the saturated fat content of coconuts. That stated, Polynesia does not seem to be lacking in overweight individuals. In fact, in the top ten countries that celebrate female obesity are the following: Tonga islands, the Fiji islands, Samoa, Tahiti, and Nauru.
- As with dairy and meats, the following organizations recommend limiting consumption of significant amounts of coconut oil due to its high levels of saturated fat: USFDA; WHO; International College of Nutrition; ADA; AHA; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; British National Health Service; Dieticians of Canada.
Coconut oil is a natural product that is very high in saturated fat content, generally not such a good thing. The high MCT content of coconut oil confers a nutritional and metabolic benefit. These effects seem to balance each other out.
Until studies prove otherwise (and I am not sure they ever will), I do not believe that coconut oil has magical and mystical properties that will cure or prevent the scourges of mankind. I am a huge advocate of plant-origin fats—olives, avocados, nuts, etc.—as opposed to animal fats, but because of the high saturated fat content of tropical oils, I think it prudent to be moderate with intake of coconut oil, despite the predominance of MCTs. As is the case with anything imputed with extraordinary powers and claims, it simply remains to be demonstrated. Time usually will bear out truths and untruths, and I retain a healthy skepticism regarding anything that sounds too good to be true. Coconut oil is probably neither friend nor foe, but just is.
Andrew Siegel, M.D.
Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food
Available on Amazon Kindle
“The Internet is a treasure trove of information and misinformation.
Everything with a grain of salt…no, a salt shaker.”
The Cambridge World History of Food
Essentials of Food Science