As a food lover, nutritionist and Mum I am constantly trawling for healthy recipes, blogs and information. More and more I am noticing the increasing use and promotion of coconut oils, creams, milks, and even coconut water. It has always been my understanding that coconuts and consequently coconut oils, milks and creams, are high in saturated fats which are known to increase the risk of heart disease. Many ‘health’ experts however, are advocating the use of coconut oil and other coconut products in ‘healthy’ recipes and as a ‘healthy’ oil.
At the least, the issue surrounding the health benefits of coconuts, coconut oil, and other coconut products seems controversial, if not plain confusing. I am not one to get caught up in food ‘fads’ so I thought I would do a bit of myth busting on this coconut issue to ensure the nutrition information I endorse is based on credible research.
Firstly, let’s separate the nutrition profile of a coconut from that of coconut oil. The flesh of a fresh coconut, which is the fruit or seed of a coconut palm, is high in fibre, low in sodium (salt) and a good source of magnesium. (1) It does however also contain high levels of saturated fat. (1) Saturated fat increases total and LDL (bad) cholesterol which increases the risk of heart disease. (2) Coconut oil, on the other hand, is pressed from coconuts and while still being high in saturated fats (85 – 90%), it no longer contains the fibre or other nutrients that the coconut fruit once did. (1, 2, 3) Saturated fat is commonly found in animal products as long chain fatty acids; however the saturated fat in coconuts is uniquely made of medium chain fatty acids.
The argument has been put forward that the different saturated fat structure of coconuts behaves differently in the body to other saturated fats, which contribute to heart disease. (4, 5) There are claims that the saturated fat from coconuts are easy to digest, boost immunity and metabolism, amongst other things. (4, 5) I am not disputing these claims however I do question how accurately they represent actual research data, and question the agenda of groups publishing these ‘facts,’ as they seem to also often sell coconut products.
The other side to the argument takes the view that in fact coconuts and coconut oil, being high in saturated fats, are detrimental to heart health. (2, 6) This position is promoted by The Heart Foundation, The Dietitians Association of Australia, and The British Dietetic Association. (2, 6, 7) These organisations are highly reputable and base their recommendations on extensive scientific research. In refute of the claims of a metabolic boost from coconut oil, The Dietitians Associate of Australia reminds that eating foods high in fat contributes to poor weight management. (6) The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommends that total fat should contribute about 30% of total daily energy, with saturated fat contributing just over 10% of total energy, across all age groups. (8) It is important to keep in mind that fat is very high in energy (37kJ/g), which means smaller quantities contribute a larger amount of energy than carbohydrate (17kJ/g) or protein (16kJ/g).
My own brief review of the scientific literature (Pubmed search; Coconut oil*), found data from both sides of the argument. Of the limited human studies I found, some of the data supported a possible beneficial effect of coconut oil, however this was not consistent across all studies. Given this inconsistency and the preliminary nature of this data, the strength of evidence against the saturated fat due to the known detrimental effects on heart health, seems a stronger case.
In consideration of this and the information I have reviewed, I stand by my initial caution of the use of coconut oils, creams and milks, due to the high saturated fat content and align my recommendations with that of Australia’s leading nutrition bodies; opting for healthier unsaturated oils like olive and canola oil, and continuing to use them sparingly; using coconut flavoured evaporated milk or coconut essences in place of coconut cream or milk; and, enjoying small amounts of coconut flesh which contains fibre, vitamins and minerals.
I am yet to try coconut water, and although it nutritional benefits also seem to be overstated, enjoying it as a flavoured water, in place of a soft drink or juice, may add to its health appeal. For day to day hydration, water is always the best choice. (9)
If you enjoyed this post, or not, and want to read more of my perspectives on fats and oils have a look at:
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Nikki is a PhD qualified Nutritionist and an expert in children's eating.