Is coconut oil good or bad for your health? Experts weigh in.
In June, legions of coconut oil fans nearly had a collective heart attack. That was when the American Heart Association (AHA) issued a statement to advise people to stop consuming their much-revered superfood. In its report, “Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease” published in the medical journal Circulation, stated that saturated fats, found in coconut oil, butter and animal fat, raises LDL, or “bad cholesterol”.
Mary Newport, author of Alzheimer’s Disease: What if There Was a Cure? and The Coconut Oil and Low Carb Solution for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Other Diseases, disputes the AHA’s latest findings. The AHA has been publishing advisories with negative information on coconut oil since the 1960s, she notes in response to BTWeekend’s queries. “Some of the people on the advisory groups for each of these reports have had connections to the soybean and corn oil industry. This same group heavily promoted use of margarines, most of which were made with harmful trans fats in the 1980s and beyond.”
Soybean oil currently accounts for 90 per cent of vegetable oil consumption in the United States; coconut oil, less than 5 per cent. “So coconut oil could not be the cause of the very high rates of heart disease in America,” Dr Newport argues.
While coconut oil does contain 80 per cent saturated fat, about 70 per cent are beneficial medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), according to Dr Newport. Then, as natural oils and fats don’t come as individual but combinations of fatty acids, the properties might be balanced out by another fatty acid. Half of coconut oil constitutes lauric acid which has antimicrobial effects on many types of bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa.
“When the AHA reported that HDL (“good cholesterol”) and LDL went up a fraction of one point if lauric acid replaced sugar in the diet, it didn’t discuss results of what happens to cholesterol when polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat replace sugar. The report also didn’t show that coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, just that lauric acid does, by one point. These are minuscule changes,” Dr Newport points out.
Fabian Dayrit, chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee for Health, Asian and Pacific Coconut Community and a professor at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, notes that the fatty acid composition of coconut oil is very different from those of animal fats, including butter. But studies don’t distinguish between coconut oil and animal fat, simply referring to them as “saturated fat”. “This is a serious misunderstanding as coconut oil is 65 per cent medium-chain saturated fat, while animal fats contain 40 to 50 per cent long-chain saturated fat, and cholesterol.”
Polyunsaturated fat oxidises readily with heat, and in the presence of cholesterol, produces oxidised cholesterol which has been shown to accelerate the development of atherosclerosis, leading to heart disease, points out Dr Dayrit.
All naturally-occurring fats and oils are made up of a combination of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in different proportions. Olive oil is 73 per cent monounsaturated fat and soybean 58 per cent polyunsaturated fat, for example. But the good thing about coconut oil’s natural fatty acid is that it fits into the cell membrane normally. “Many cells in our body, including those in the brain and lungs, and white blood cells, need saturated fats to function normally,” explains Dr Newport.
Melvin Look, director of PanAsia Surgery and a consultant in gastrointestinal and weight loss surgery in Singapore, notes that a lot more research is needed to understand coconut oil’s benefits and harm. “Maybe you don’t want to consume it as a health supplement … but using it occasionally is fine if you enjoy the flavour and when the recipe calls for it.”
Health energy boosters
Controversy over coconut oil aside, its medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are accepted dietary fat derivatives which give the best benefits of coconut oil.
In nature, MCTs can be found in human breast milk (10% of the fat in breast milk), coconut oil, palm kernel oil, cow and goat milk. However, coconut oil contains the largest source of MCTs by far (up to 60%), extracted through a chemical process, points out Daniel Wai Chun Hang, consultant endocrinologist.
The benefits of MCTs have been recognised since the 1950s – they are known to be a quick source of energy, and also improve cognitive functions and mental alertness. Most amazingly, MCTs don’t accumulate as fats, nor do they circulate in the blood where they can potentially clog up arteries. “They are broken down to give energy directly, or changed to ketones which are then burnt to provide energy,” explains Dr Wai.
MCT oils have been used to feed premature babies and for patients whose digestive systems are not functioning properly (due to conditions like pancreatitis or inflammatory bowel disease etc). MCT oils have been shown to help those with Alzheimer’s Disease, and patients with type 1 diabetes with low sugar, and they also promote fat burning which has a positive effect on metabolism.
“Together with vitamin D and leucine (an amino acid), they were shown to improve strength in a group of elderly people,” adds Dr Wai. “Certain MCTs with C-8 and C-10 fatty acids have been found in studies to decrease LDL or ‘bad cholesterol’ and increase HDL or ‘good cholesterol’. The oil itself, like all plant oils, doesn’t contain cholesterol which is found in animal products like meat, egg yolk and seafood.”
Different people react differently to different foods though, so Dr Wai’s advice is to check with your doctor about your diet and nutrition.
The latest MCT oil in the Singapore market, dr. MCT, is a 100 per cent MCT oil formulation which is odourless and unflavoured. Produced by Singapore company Keto Science Pte Ltd in collaboration with Takasago international in Japan, the dr. MCT oil and powder is derived from coconut oil and palm kernel oil.
For more information, please go to mydrmct.com.
A version of this story first appeared in The Business Times on October 7 2017, with the headline, ‘Cracking a controversy’.