With all the media attention surrounding coconut oil recently, we’ve had plenty of letters regarding its potential health benefits – so we’ve asked Asia-Pacific’s most prominent oil experts to answer your most commonly asked questions.
Does coconut oil have health benefits?
It’s not likely, says Dr Laurence Eyres, an advisor to government body Food Standards Australia New Zealand and co-author of Handbook of Australasian Edible Oils – no literature of a peer-reviewed clinical trial on the beneficial effects of coconut oil has taken place that he is aware of. While a high proportion of the saturated fat in coconut oil is medium chain fatty acids (which are thought to have the benefits explained by Professor Sinclair), Dr Eyres says the medium chain fatty acids in coconut oil are not the same ones thought to have beneficial health effects. “Believers say coconut oil is a ‘healthy’ fat, but it’s 90% saturated and raises serum cholesterol levels, so it’s unhealthy.”
Why is there so much information on the internet saying coconut oil is healthy?
While there’s a lot of coconut oil-related information available on the web, there is little information of quality, from credible sources. In fact, of the first 10 results on Google for ‘coconut oil benefits’, nine of the sites were selling coconut oil, books on coconut oil or coconut oil diets! “Coconut oil is an important cash crop for India, the Philippines and Indonesia,” explains Nicole Senior, accredited practicing dietitian. “Naturally, they would like us to buy more.”
Does coconut oil lower cholesterol?
“No,” says Professor Murray Skeaff, head of Human Nutrition at New Zealand’s University of Otago, “coconut oil is high in saturated fat. It’s therefore not recommended as an oil that should be used regularly.” To reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, says Professor Skeaff, “scientific evidence indicates that replacing fats and oils high in saturated fat – including tropical oils such as palm and coconut – with oils high in polyunsaturated fat will produce the greatest reduction in high cholesterol risk.” Adds Senior, “reducing saturated fat in the diet to less than 7% of total kilojoules has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels by 5–10% – an effect similar to losing 5kg.”
Is coconut oil healthier than natural butter?
Promoters of coconut oil’s health benefits will often point to the fact that coconut oil is better for you than butter. “This is technically true, but the difference is fairly small,” Senior explains. “Considering the specific saturated fatty acids that make up butter and coconut oil – butter is mostly palmitic acid, while coconut oil is mostly lauric acid – you might expect a worse cholesterol result from butter, however they both increase bad (LDL) cholesterol in the blood.” As its name suggests, bad cholesterol is bad for us.
Can a high-intake of coconut oil prevent heart disease?
“No. There’s no evidence to suggest this at all,” says Professor Sinclair. “If it could lower your cholesterol levels, then that would be a reason why it might reduce your risk of heart disease, but there’s no evidence to even suggest that.” Moreover, he adds, studies have shown that many populations with a high intake of coconut oil have very high rates of type 2 diabetes and obesity. “For that reason alone, I would only recommend eating it about once a month – and as part of a balanced diet.”
Can coconut oil help you lose weight?
“This idea probably stems from the fact that the composition of coconut oil is quite different to other fats and oils that we eat, as the uncommon fatty acids it contains are used by the body for energy purposes, rather than being stored as fat – but there’s no evidence to support the idea it will help you lose weight,” explains Professor Andrew Sinclair, chair of Melbourne’s Deakin University and senior associate editor of medical journal Lipids. Moreover, he points out, coconut oil is 100% pure fat, “and nobody is going to recommend eating large amounts of fat to people who want to lose weight.”
There are plenty of healthy oils you can use for cooking and as salad dressings – for a start, try olive, flaxseed, canola, rice bran or walnut.