There have been a few years already since the coconut oil was announced the best of all oils. From then on you see it everywhere. People add it to cooking, frying, backing, some even drink their morning coffee with it (hello the ‘bulletproof coffee’). Many food producers proudly claim on their labels that their product contains coconut oil. The craze is huge within vegan and vegetarian communities. Coconut oil is also widely used in the cosmetics industry. Many people cannot imagine life without it.
There have been many claims as to the health benefits of coconut oil. Apparently, it can help with weight loss, protect your heart, prevent Alzheimer’s, lower your cholesterol and so on. Are some of those claims proven by science, or does it just live as an urban legend passed over from person to person, without any scientific proof whatsoever? What’s the truth about this mighty superfood?
What is coconut oil?
Coconut oil is just a blob of fat (don’t roll your eyes on me, you know it’s true!). It is squeezed from the white part inside of a coconut. As a result, you get the oil, which is mostly saturated fat, with a very good shelve life.
Fun Fact: One coconut tree can yield anything from 30 up to 75 fruits per year.
Coconuts from which coconut oil is produced is typically grown in either India, the Philippines, or Indonesia. Depending on where you are in the world, the carbon footprint of that oil might be quite high, so if you trying to be environmentally-friendly, you might want to skip it and swap for more local substitutes.
Coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat. Just to compare butter contains about 64%, and beef fat is about 40% saturated fat. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 121 calories and it amounts to 60% of your daily recommended dose of saturated fat. If you fry bacon and sausages as well as scramble some eggs on it for breakfast, you might quickly reach your saturated fat limit.
Just a reminder that too much saturated fat in your diet is unhealthy. Eating unsaturated fats like olive oil is proven to be much healthier.
Health benefits of coconut oil – is any of it true?
When you type the term ‘coconut oil health benefits’ into google, you will find many miraculous claims. Is any of it true? Let’s debunk some myths:
- Coconut oil can lower your cholesterol. – There have been claims suggesting that consumption of coconut oil can lower ”bad” LDL cholesterol and raise “good” HDL levels. Since then there were other studies getting opposite results. For every ‘pro’ vote for coconut oil benefits on cholesterol, there is another showing exact opposite. The truth is still to be found. All of these research aside, does it seem reasonable, that purely by consumption of coconut oil you will have better cholesterol and a healthier heart? Think about it…
- Coconut oil can reduce stress – There was one interesting study showing the antistress and antioxidant effects of virgin coconut oil. Then everyone got excited claiming coconut oil as a superfood that could combat depression. Whereas the antioxidant effects might be true, the reality is, that many plant-based foods contain antioxidants. You can eat a spoon of coconut oil, or just bite an apple or eat broccoli. Why do we overcomplicate it, trying to find shortcuts on things that are so simple?
- Coconut oil is good for your teeth – oil pulling might be good oral treatment in some cultures, and while it could be good for your teeth, it might not necessarily for your gums. Besides, don’t complicate it. Just brush your teeth and use mouthwash if needed.
- Coconut oil can help with weight loss – this is a great one! Why do people think that the food you eat could help with weight loss? Isn’t it that the food you don’t eat, help you to do that more? To lose weight you simply need to consume fewer calories than you use. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 121 calories. You do the math…
Marketing or science?
It seems, that glorifying coconut oil and putting it amongst other superfoods, might come more from the marketing side rather than from the science. Every now and again the new food trend comes up, which revolutionizes the food industry. You hear about chia seeds, olive oil, goji fruits, pomegranate and so on. The sound of it is so exotic that you quickly buy into the story about how healthy it is. You buy it, demand is created and food companies start adding it to pretty much everything.
The truth is, that coconut oil was known for centuries in places where coconuts naturally are grown like India, the Philippines, or Indonesia. Locals ate plenty of it, it complemented their diet, but they didn’t go calling it a superfood. It was just part of the healthy balanced diet.
Just then, people from other continents discovered it. Scientists started to study it. Journalists overinterpreted early, often poorly designed studies announcing coconut oil yet another food of the year. It doesn’t matter that the proof was not exactly there yet. The marketing story was ready and it was sticking. The ball was on the roll. People wanted it! Almost like Gollum from ‘Lord of the Rings’ whispering ‘my precious…’ Can you see where I’m going with this?
While there is limited evidence for coconut oil to be healthy above average, we don’t need to demonize it either. It’s just another food amongst thousands of other foods. It won’t kill you if you have it occasionally, but eating an entire jar for breakfast might not be a good idea. Before you buy another jar think if maybe there is some better, local equivalent of oil in your country. Don’t buy into the hype. Just because everyone is talking about it, doesn’t make is healthy.