Crazy for Coconuts!

Monday, March 27, 2017

Image via Coco & Co.
One of my best friends is a coconut oil savant.  She is studying to become a Registered Dietician and is currently a candidate for a Masters in Clinical Nutrition at NYU.  In addition to being a Dietetic intern, Tory Stroker moonlights as my go-to health consultant...which means whenever I want to debunk a food trend or think I might have a food allergy...or just want her attention, I head to her.  Coconut oil is a favorite of mine, and Tory wrote an article analyzing its benefits (and the marketing overhype behind it).  Her wisdom is featured below.

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Between coconut water, coconut oil, coconut ice cream, coconut sugar, coconut butter, etc. coconut’s popularity has skyrocketed in the past few years. Before my time at college, my only interaction with coconut was with my grandmother’s infamous (but not so tasty) bunny cake for Easter Sunday. Mimi (my grandmother) would douse her boxed white cake cooked in a bunny mold with sticky white frosting and artificially flavored shredded coconut, which flooded your mouth with a coconut oasis. That was it; one day a year, coconut and I interacted. Today, you can’t walk down an aisle at the grocery store without seeing coconut this, or coconut that—coconut is everywhere! Coconut oil has been marketed as “healthy” butter, shaving cream, the greatest addition to your coffee, hair conditioner, and even as eye make up remover?! Coconut oil literally is believed to solve almost every issue a human may have, resulting in health food trend seekers racing to the closest grocery store to get in on the action. But does it really? (We’re sticking to coconut oil with a nutrition lens here—make up remover and hair conditioner, you’re getting the rain check.)

In the early 90’s, coconut oil was seen as the devil, filled with saturated fat and viewed as incredibly unhealthy for you. Now coconut oil has been converted onto the health “superfood” list. Since 2011, coconut oil demand has been on the rise. But still, the question remains for many, “should I switch to only using coconut oil?” One of the reasons behind coconut oil’s gained popularity is its lack of animal fats, therefore making it a delicious vegan-cooking substitute. In addition, it has the ability to stay solid giving a vegan pie crust its flakiness or melt into a liquid form to sauté warm apples. In a culinary setting, coconut oil is terrific—filled with subtle tropical notes, a creamy mouth feel and real richness. But what about for our health?

The most up to date meta-analysis (summary of research) in the Nutrition Review states this: coconut oil does have saturated fat, a whopping 92% at that. Saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol or bad cholesterol. Although coconut oil has less saturated fat than butter, it still has more than unsaturated plant oils such as extra virgin olive oil.  Increased LDL cholesterol increases the risk for atherosclerosis (plaque formation in arteries) and puts one at risk for cardiovascular disease. As the lead researcher Laurence Eyres states in the above research, “It would be dangerous, and rather silly, to replace your extra-virgin olive oil with coconut oil.”

Coconut oil’s health hype was connected to its potential high content of lauric acid, a medium chain triglyceride (MCT). Unlike long chain triglycerides, medium chain triglycerides are broken down and metabolized much easier in our body as they are absorbed in the lymphatic system (rather than digestive system—aka we burn them much faster). Eyres confirms that in research, coconut oil has been found (unfortunately for coconut oil aficionados) to “chemically be defined as either medium- or long-chain, [lauric acid] but behave like a normal long-chain fatty acid in the body.” He says that “coconut oil has less than 3 percent MCT. MCTs are as different to coconut oil as chalk is to cheese.” So, damn…seems as if coconut oil is down a point on that note. Thanks a lot, Eyres.

That being said, as coconut oil’s popularity increases consumers do need to be careful, of the brand and type of coconut oil being consumed if they are to purchase any. Refined vs. unrefined? Virgin vs. hydrogenated? Those small differences change coconut oil’s health properties. Virgin, unrefined is the way to go for as little processing as possible.

In conclusion, it seems as if there is growing evidence that coconut oil is not the wonder fat marketing has suggested, although it does burn at a higher temperature than other oils which means less carcinogenic properties are released. Like with anything, it has its pros and cons. Although coconut oil does have its culinary perks, health wise it is not the bee’s knees that we have been led to believe. It will not drag you to the ER with a heart attack or shred pounds after piled high on your sweet potato. In moderation it is okay (of course amongst a mostly healthy diet with physical activity)—as is mostly everything. So, coconut oil melted over your homemade popcorn on a raging Friday night or in your roasted sweet potato Tuesday supper, that’s okay. Added to an occasional cup of coffee in replace of milk?  Totally fine.  But for your everyday oil, it seems as if sticking to the unsaturated plant oils is the safest bet. Sigh, I have 2 jars of opened coconut oil in my pantry I can still put to use sporadically. EVOO (Rachel Ray, anyone??), for now, you’re still my go to girl.

For more information check out Ellie Krieger’s (Registered Dietitian) write up in the Washington Post.

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