COCONUT OIL » filtering through the health claims

We're no strangers to coconut - you'll find it in many of our sweet and savoury recipes. We recently wrote an article all about fats and oils (read the article here) and realized coconut oil deserved a dedicated article of its own. Even though the majority of this article will hone in on this controversial oil, we'll also take this opportunity to give a brief overview of other coconut products and uses. So let's begin!

Nutrition Profile

Coconut Oil:

a. Unrefined Taste/aroma: like coconut

Smoke point: 177 C (350 F)

Contaminants removed: no

Use when: you want the most coconut flavour (ex: coconut macaroons)

Main benefits:

  1. the oh-so-glorious taste and aroma it can give your food

  2. more polyphenols (beneficial antioxidants) than the refined oil

b. Refined

Taste/aroma: tasteless and scentless

Smoke point: 204 - 232 C (400-450 F)

Contaminants removed: yes

Use when: requiring tasteless oil in a recipe (ex: making popcorn)

Main benefit:

  1. more versatile in cooking due to the higher smoke point (i.e. more suitable to cooking at high temperatures)

  2. more versatile due to it's lack of coconut taste/aroma

So Which is Better..?

We are told to choose unrefined products as often as possible. We agree with this most of the time, but there is little added benefit shown in choosing unrefined coconut oil over refined coconut oil. The main nutrient benefit of coconut oils is the beneficial fatty acids. This is not altered by the refining process, which acts only to remove impurities in the oil. In short: both offer the same amount of beneficial fatty acids.

So to answer the question: it depends on what you're using it for.

I often have both types on hand and use each for their own purpose (i.e. whether or not I want a coconut taste/aroma in my food). With that being said, given the versatility of the refined coconut oil, I do tend to use this oil more often.

Try our Vegan Nutella or Roasted Cashew & Coconut Cocoa Granola using coconut oil!

Raw Coconut Meat: a. Young coconut: these are green on the outside, and contain more water. They also have soft meat that you can easily scoop out with a spoon. b. Mature coconut: these are the brown, round coconuts. They have less water, more meat, and a firmer texture.

Try our Decadent 5-layer Raw Black Forest Cake using raw coconut meat!

Coconut milk: this is made by grating the meat from the mature coconut and blending it with water. It's thicker, milkier and has a higher fat content than coconut water. You can find full-fat or light coconut milk at the store.

Try our Coconut Matcha Latte or Rickshaw Brown Rice Nourish Bowl with Peanut Sauce using coconut milk!

Shredded/Dried Coconut: these are commonly used for desserts and other baked goods. They add a wonderful coconut flavour and chewy texture. Aim for unsweetened shredded coconut for baking and desserts.

Try our Toasted Coconut and Almond Granola or Candied Coconut and Cinnamon Pecans using shredded coconut!

Coconut Flour: this is an alternative for those who have allergies or are otherwise searching for gluten-free flours. Because it doesn't have the same composition as traditional flour, the resulting texture may not be quite the same. Coconut flour tends to be more expensive than regular flour as well. It's not advised to substitute coconut flour in for AP flour at 1:1 - so it's best to find a recipe designed to use coconut flour!

Coconut Sugar: this is derived from the coconut palm tree and is praised for its lower glycemic index compared to regular sugar because it contains a type of fibre called inulin that has been shown to slow the absorption of glucose. But remember, sugar is ultimately sugar so we recommend to still use it moderately.

Try our Roasted Cashew & Coconut Cocoa Granola made with coconut sugar!

The Claims of Coconut Oil

When it comes to nutrition, coconut oil is undoubtedly controversial. The verdict seems to be split on its effects on the body. Let's filter through some of these claims to see what holds up.

The Appraisal

  1. Antioxidant-rich: we found two articles here and here that support the claim that coconut oil improves antioxidant status. However, many other foods are higher in antioxidants such as berries, grapes, bell peppers... basically any and all brightly coloured fruits and vegetables. It's easy to throw the term 'antioxidant' around for added effect, but in reality it's quite easy to obtain enough from eating a varied diet rich in fruits and veggies. Plus compared to coconut oil, they are much lower in overall fat, higher in fibre and include other vitamins and minerals. So if it's between the two: aim to get your antioxidants from whole fruits and vegetables.

  2. Anti-microbial & anti-fungal properties: yes coconut oil has been shown - to an extent - to have antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties towards specific bacterial and fungal strains. This may mean that if you have a cut or a small wound, you may consider using it topically to help. However, some of these studies hone in one specific compound derived from coconut oil as opposed to studying the whole oil itself. In addition, some studies are conducted in vitro - meaning in a petri dish - and not on animals or humans. So while promising, it's best to use it in addition to - rather than instead of - conventional medications for diagnosed infections.

  3. Fat absorption disorders: coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat, but it turns out that the saturated fat in coconut oil differs from the saturated fat from animal products and is absorbed differently. Some background information: long chain fats differ from medium chain fats in that they take longer to digest and result in a slow release of energy. On the other hand, medium chain fats are rapidly absorbed and are basically immediately used for energy (similar to carbohydrates). Because of this difference in absorption, a subcategory of medium chain fats (called medium chain triglycerides, MCTs) are commonly given to those with fat absorption disorders such as cystic fibrosis, inflammatory bowel disease and malabsorption in newborns. This benefit, however, is strictly for those with these medical disorders, and does not apply to the general population.

  4. Weight loss: it may seem counterintuitive to claim that coconut oil - a fat - will help with weight loss. This concept rises from the medium chain fats we discussed above. The fact that it's digested differently than long chain fats and used for energy means that it's less likely to be stored in the adipose tissue (body fat). It's also been claimed that coconut oil contributes to faster satiety (feeling full) and decreased waist circumference. However, many of these studies use pure medium chain fats as opposed to whole coconut oil (which is actually about 50% medium chain fats) and there may be a difference in outcome between the two, as this study points out. As we mentioned above, this doesn't necessarily mean the more the merrier. Moderation is still recommended, as with any oil.

  5. Alzheimer's Disease: there is a notion that coconut oil can be used as a treatment - and even possibly a cure - for people living with Alzheimer's Disease. Glucose is the primary source of energy for the brain and in Alzheimer's Disease, the brain cell's ability to metabolize glucose may be compromised. Therefore the theory is that feeding the patient high levels of fat - such as coconut oil - will push them into "ketosis" wherein ketones become the alternative fuel source instead. Makes sense in theory, however there is very little robust evidence to support or refute this since there's very little evidence on the topic as a whole. There was one study that showed that patients with memory impairment showed significant improvement with MCT supplements. Though this observation was only seen in a certain subset of patients with a specific gene. This area of research is one we will be following closely, since it's too soon and scarce to make any firm claims. Check out this TED Talk by an MD if you're curious to learn more. Take home message: it's super interesting stuff, but more of a medical application than a benefit for the general public.

The Criticism

  1. Saturated fat: coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat and so naturally many nutrition professionals are advocating against it. As we mentioned in our previous article, the topic of saturated fats is controversial. To add to the confusion even more, there are claims that coconut oil actually raises HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol). Phew! All this is to say: we really don't know when it comes to how coconut oil affects our heart health. What we do know is replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats reduces the risk for cardiovascular health. Therefore many experts agree that saturated fats should be limited, with a focus on adding more unsaturated fats into the diet. For more information about unsaturated fat sources, read our previous article.

  2. Lack of research: many claims are based off of one or two individual studies, not conducted on humans, using isolated compounds derived from coconut oil instead of the oil itself. This means the results may not be the same when applied in real life, to a real person. So be cautious about what you read online and do your own research when possible. There is still much to be studied with coconut oil and we look forward to the outcomes, but for now we will maintain our somewhat conservative outlook on coconut oil (and other oils) and recommend its intake in moderation.

Other Uses

Do a quick Google search and you'll discover another world of uses for coconut oil - some wilder than others. Here are a couple common uses aside from consumption:

1. Skin Moisturizer: coconut oil can be used as a body moisturizer and is gentle enough for children and babies. Some (including myself) use it as a facial moisturizer, as a makeup remover or an ingredient in homemade body or facial scrubs. Because it's oil based, it's difficult to predict how each person will react. Test it out for a few weeks, and if you find it's not moisturizing enough or is leading to breakouts, discontinue usage - no need to force it!

2. Hair Hair treatment: coconut oil has been used to prevent damage to hair and reduce the amount of protein loss from hair. This can be done weekly or monthly and remember that a little can go a long way when using coconut oil as it can leave hair quite greasy if used in excess.

Bottom Line

Whole foods & moderation: we outlined many health benefits of coconut oil, but remember that it is an oil after all. Whole foods are always preferred over extracted oils, whenever possible. If using coconut oil, enjoy it in moderation.

Versatility: coconut oil can be used in recipes, as a cooking oil, a moisturizer, makeup remover, hair treatment and so on. It really is quite versatile and it's up to you to choose virgin or refined based on what you're using it for.

More research: because of its popularity, there is growing research on coconut's health effects. Let's keep an eye out for emerging research!

Additional References (1) Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina. "Becoming Vegan: the Complete Reference on Plant-Based Nutrition." Becoming Vegan: the Complete Reference on Plant-Based Nutrition, Book Publishing Company, 2014, pp. 107-116.

Psst: » Find this book in our shop! Choose between the comprehensive edition or the express edition.

Want To Learn More?

Read our previous nutrition article called OILS & FATS » our philosophy and recommendations

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❤ Written by: Mitra (PUL Assistant and Dietetics Student) & Sadia