Is coconut oil the new fix-it-all ingredient or just a fad? We find out. By Esther Au Yong
Is coconut oil really good for you? (Photo: 123rf.com/Ratchapol Yindeesuk)
Coconut oil, once a villain, is now the darling of the health food world. It’s being stocked at health and natural food stores, with more brands and new suppliers coming up to quickly fill the increasing demand for it. Proponents claim that, among its many benefits, coconut oil helps one lose weight, can kill bacteria and viruses, and increase good cholesterol (HDL) levels.
Really? Is it just good marketing or are the claims backed by science?
Here are three things to know about coconut oil before you stock up – or not:
What is it?
Coconut oil is a tropical oil that contains over 90 per cent saturated fat – that’s the highest amount in any form of fat. For some perspective, it is a higher percentage than butter (about 64 per cent saturated fat), beef fat (40 per cent), or even lard (also 40 per cent). Pure virgin coconut oil has not been altered by processes like partial hydrogenation, which creates trans fats.
Like all fats, coconut oil is a blend of fatty acids. However, coconut oil contains an unusual blend of short and medium chain fatty acids, primarily lauric (44 per cent) and myristic (16.8 per cent) acids. It also has no cholesterol. It is this unusual composition that may offer some health benefits.
Should you take it?
Coconut oil has been shown in some studies to increase levels of HDL (good cholesterol), or high-density lipoprotein. However, it has also been shown to increase levels of LDL (bad cholesterol), or low-density lipoprotein, in the blood. Overall though, it is not thought to have a huge effect either way, based on the limited studies that have been done.
However, any food that increases LDL should be minimised or avoided as it is one of the markers for heart disease. Generally, experts agree that for a healthy heart, it is better to replace saturated fats with healthier unsaturated fats such as olive oil and fish oils. These are either neutral or raise HDL levels but don’t raise LDL levels.
Proponents of coconut oil also say that the lauric acid in it contributes to the oil’s possible antibacterial, antimicrobial and antiviral properties. Not enough conclusive scientific studies have been done.
Health-wise, the risk of heart disease and other issues are not dependant only on consumption of one ingriedient – for instance, coconut oil – alone, but on a variety of factors. Hence, moderation is key. Overall, there needs to be more conclusive studies that will shed light on the advantages and disadvantages of coconut oil.
What can it be used for?
Cooking: Coconut oil has a high smoke point that makes it resistant to oxidation and it is shelf-stable. Many chefs are experimenting with these qualities. Coconut oil is also popular with vegans – it’s a way for them to get saturated fat from a non-meat source.
Cosmetic: Coconut oil’s creamy texture and high fat content make an excellent moisturiser. It can be used in many different cosmetic applications. A few examples: as a hair mask; a lip balm; as body or massage oil.
Oil-pulling: Also known as “kavala” or “gundusha”, oil-pulling is an ancient Ayurvedic dental technique that involves swishing some oil in your mouth on an empty stomach for about 20 minutes. Supposedly, this will draw out toxins from the body and improve oral health. Many people use coconut oil for this.