Coconut Oil Controversy
I am fascinated by the fierce debate that continues around coconut oil, from being labelled a ‘miracle product’ to one that is detrimental to our health due to its high saturated fat content. Last month an article came out in the Guardian from a Harvard Professor who said coconut oil is “one of the worst things you can eat” and that is terms of health it was “pure poison” so I thought it was about time that I dig into the research and look at its chemical composition.
Whether dietary fats are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for health comes down to their fat structure. But first, a reminder about cholesterol, a type of waxy fat with 20% coming from the diet and 80% being produced by the liver. Cholesterol is transported around the body and is found in every cell. It is essential for building and maintaining cell membranes, producing hormones, making vitamin D and producing substances that help digest food.
There are two main types of cholesterol:
Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) 'bad' cholesterol – 80% is transported round the body in this form. LDL cholesterol can deposit in the arteries and form plaques that narrow the diameter of the artery.
High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) 'good' cholesterol – 20% is transported round the body in this form. HDL collects LDL cholesterol from tissue cells and transports it back to the liver for processing and removal from the body.
Fatty Acid Composition
There are 3 categories of fatty acids - Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs), Medium Chain Fatty Acids (MCFAs) and Long-Chain Fatty Acids (LCFAs), that all behave differently in the body. The chemical composition is:
SCFAs have 1 to 6 carbon atoms and are predominantly produced by colonic bacteria fermentation, utilising otherwise indigestible carbohydrates.
MCFAs are those with 7 to 12 carbon atoms and arise from dietary triglycerides.
LCFAs (14+ carbons) are generally stored in adipose (fat) tissue producing metabolites that interfere with insulin doing its job properly in the body, which can promote inflammation (McCarty & DiNicolantonio, 2016).
Both SCFAs and MCFAs are taken up by small intestine cells (small bowel) involved in absorption and are then transported by the portal vein to the liver, where they are broken down by liver cells. MCFAs particularly, stimulate bodily processes that favour energy usage rather than energy storage (body fat) like LCFAs (Schönfeld & Wojtczak, 2016).
The main constituents of coconut oil are MCFAs (63%) of which Lauric Acid (LA) makes up 47%. Although coconut oil is 92% saturated fat, it metabolises differently in the body than that of LCFAs because of the LA content. McCarty & DiNicolantonio (2016) state that although diets rich in LA tend to raise blood cholesterol, it has more of an effect on the ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol levels than the ‘bad’ LDL levels, improving the total cholesterol ratio. They also claim that as MCFAs are not stored in the body like LCFAs, they are unlikely to promote obesity (as with diets high in fat and carbohydrates) and furthermore, in cultures where LA is the predominant dietary fat source, cardiovascular disease is relatively rare.
Virgin, unrefined coconut oil (pressing of raw coconuts without heating) should be consumed along with cold-pressed olive oil and other healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats like nuts, seeds and avocados. These foods increase polyunsaturated (Omega 3) and monounsaturated (Omega 6) fats (Bhatnagar, et al. 2009), which are essential in the diet. The table below indicates the nutritional composition of coconut and its by-products.
Adapted from Eyres, et al. 2016
Coconut oil is also antibacterial and antiviral. The LA in coconut oil changes in the gut, which has been shown to dissolve the envelope that surrounds and protects pathogenic bacteria and viruses (Bhatnagar, et al. 2009). Coconut oil is also good for cooking as it is rich in phytonutrients and polyphenols and remains stable when heated (Eyres, et. al., 2016).
In summary, coconut oil as part of a healthy diet mainly consisting of fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, grains and fish (not processed, refined diets typical of western counties) is a good food. It can be used raw, in baking, smoothies or for shallow frying. It makes a great skin moisturiser (add a few drops of your favourite essential oil), use it on inflamed, itchy skin (good on pets too), for oil pulling, or as a hair moisturiser… the list goes on.
If you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure or are concerned about your weight, working with a Nutritionist can improve your health. Book an appointment with me at livingcure.co.nz and together we will make a plan to get you feeling great.
Coconut, chocolate truffles
For the truffles:
2 cups pitted medjool dates, coarsely chopped
1 cup boiling water
1 cup raw almond meal
2 tablespoons coconut oil, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3/4 cup coconut flour
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
For the chocolate coating:
225g dark chocolate (70% cacao content or higher), cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons coconut oil
1/2 cup boiling water
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
Place dates in a small bowl. Pour 1 cup boiling water over them and let stand until cool, about 40 minutes. Transfer the dates and liquid to a food processor. Add coconut oil, vanilla and salt; puree until smooth, scraping down the sides once or twice. Add coconut flour and cocoa and process, scraping the sides occasionally, until a thick dough-like paste forms. Refrigerate until very cold, about 2-3 hours.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Using 1 tablespoon per truffle, roll the mixture into 40 balls.
Place the chocolate and coconut oil in a heat-safe bowl and pour boiling water over it. Stir gently with a spatula until the chocolate is smooth. Place shredded coconut in a separate shallow dish.
Use a fork to dip each ball in the melted chocolate a couple times, until well coated. Let the excess chocolate drip off and transfer the truffle to the coconut. Roll to coat and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining balls (some can be coated in cocoa).
Place in the refrigerator and chill until the chocolate is set, about 1-2 hours.
Bhatnagar A.S., Prasanthkumar P.K., Hemavathy J., & Gopalakrishna A.G. (2009). Fatty acid composition, oxidative stability and radical scavenging activity of vegetable oil blends with coconut oil. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society, 86:991–999. file:///C:/Users/jacqu/Downloads/J_Am_Oil_Chem_Soc_2009_86_991999.pdf
Eyres,L., Eyres, M.F., Chisholm, A., et al. (2016). Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans. Nutrition Reviews, 74, 267-280. https://academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article/74/4/267/1807413
McCarty, M. F., & DiNicolantonio, J. J. (2016). Lauric acid-rich medium-chain triglycerides can substitute for other oils in cooking applications and may have limited pathogenicity. Open Heart, 3(2), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4975867/
Schönfeld, P., & Wojtczak, L. (2016). Short- and medium-chain fatty acids in energy metabolism: the cellular perspective. Journal of Lipid Research, 57 (6), 943-954. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4878196/