I’m quite a fan of cooking with coconut products. Particularly using extra virgin coconut oil for any frying, or using coconut milk in the occasional soup or curry. I know that coconut milk is quite high in fat content, though I’ve heard that since it is mostly medium chain triglycerides it is not ‘as bad’ as other fatty products? I’d be very interested for your qualified opinion. Thanks, Adham
Dear Adham, Thanks for a great question! This is a hotly contested topic among nutritional scientists. Not just coconut oil per se, but the involvement of saturated fats in heart disease.
To flesh out your question, I’ll first toss in some non-contentious background info to bring us all up to speed. Not all fats are bad for you, and not all fats are good for you. I spend a lot of time trying to help people sort out the difference, so they can enjoy healthy satisfying meals. In general, saturated fats and trans fats have been lumped together as bad guys because they tend to raise LDL cholesterol. Coconut oil contains a high percentage of saturated fat. In fact, coconut oil contains twice the amount of saturated fat as butter. Concerns about saturated fat and its link to heart disease have been around since the 1970′s, but have recently been subject to increased scrutiny.
The OLD thinking was: All saturated fat increases your cholesterol. High cholesterol increases your risk for a heart attack. Let’s all eat low fat, and especially less saturated fat.
Since then, evidence has chipped away at this simple tenet. First, not all saturated fats are the same, and evidence indicates that there are differences in how they affect blood lipids. It is well supported that stearic acid (one kind of saturated fat, 18:0 for the chemists in the crowd) is pretty neutral on cholesterol levels, which has made lots of chocolate lovers happy, as stearic acid provides about a third of the fat in chocolate. In fact, stearic acid is metabolized in the liver to oleic acid, a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. So really, not all saturated fats are equally detrimental.
Is this the case with coconut oils as well? Well, coconut oil is richest in 12:0 and 14:0 saturated fats (lauric acid and myristic acid respectively). There is some evidence (limited) that lauric acid may, like stearic acid, not impact cholesterol levels much, but evidence on coconut oil as a whole (mix of fats) food? There haven’t been many trials to look at it honestly. I can’t say it better than Monica Reinagle:
The truth is that the existing research on how coconut oil might interact with other dietary elements to promote or possibly threaten your health is limited, flawed, and contradictory. Anyone who claims to know with certainty that eating coconut oil will improve your health over the long term is either guessing, ignoring some of the evidence, or both.
What other dietary elements need to be considered? First, trans fat. It’s well accepted that unequivocally, trans fat decreases HDL “good” cholesterol and raises LDL “bad” cholesterol. Trans fat consumption increases cardiovascular disease risk, stroke risk, and many other maladies we all want to avoid. Studies focusing on fats also tend to ignore the carbohydrate contribution to the diet, which may result in overlooking a very salient topic! High carbohydrate, high glycemic diet patterns can be very detrimental to blood lipid profiles. When carbohydrates are digested and blood sugar rises, insulin is released by the pancreas. Insulin triggers cells throughout the body to take up the circulating glucose, but also triggers the synthesis and storage of fat from the extra glucose that isn’t needed for energy. A pattern of high-carbohydrate eating increases the amount of circulating fat in the bloodstream (triglycerides), and is associated with higher LDL and lower HDL. Lastly, total calories always come into the picture, like it or not. It’s quite possible that coconut oil consumption might not be detrimental if the total diet is not excessive in carbohydrates or total calories. In a high glycemic, high calorie diet, coconut oil might contribute to plaque formation. Truly, reducing their calorie intake would benefit most people, and as such, I wouldn’t advocate deliberately adding several tablespoons of any fat to the diet (as some coconut oil sellers advise) – because it could easily lead to calorie excess unless you really cut back on other foods.
As for “benefits” of coconut oil, a quick internet search will result in hundreds of pages touting coconut oil as the cure to every malady that ever affected humans. If you believe everything you read, coconut oil is antiviral, causes weight loss, stress relief, beautiful hair and nails, fights bacteria, cures pancreatitis, AIDS, cancer, and boosts your immune system. I will waste no time in saying there is little to no evidence to support any of these benefits.
I personally hold a relatively neutral stance on coconut oil, as well as cocoa butter in chocolate. I don’t avoid it as strictly as I do trans fat, or caution against its consumption as much as refined carbohydrates. But I wouldn’t group coconut oil with the beneficial fats, such as monounsaturated-rich olive oil or avocado, or omega-3 righ marine or flaxseed sources either. I don’t think you stand to gain anything from consuming coconut oil, from a health perspective. It might be less bad for you than other saturated fats, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s good for you.
I would point out, if weight loss is a goal for you, that frying food in any type of oil will produce a high fat, high calorie dish, so if you aim to limit your caloric intake, best to limit the frequency of fried foods. For curries, coconut milk can contribute a wonderful creaminess, but also skyrockets the calories in the dish. For this reason I make it habit to either reduce the quantity of coconut milk (you can make up the difference with broth, soymik, yogurt, or dairy milk) or switching to light coconut milk (which is still somewhat high in fat and calories). But I also note in your question that you said “the occasional soup or curry”. If you’re only eating it occasionally, I don’t think you have to be alarmed, but if you want to be on the safe side, try to limit other saturated fats like ice cream, cheese, and meat. If you’re using coconut oil on a daily basis for frying or sauteeing, why not switch to olive oil, which has supported health benefits?
The bottom line: Is coconut oil an artery-clogger or medical miracle? I say neither. I’d confidently say coconut oil is better for you than hydrogenated fats, and it may be less harmful than other high-saturated fats. However, I wouldn’t take it specifically as medicine or expect any benefits, but if you want to include coconut oil in a high-vegetable, low-glycemic diet, use it in moderation and stay within your calorie needs. If you are using it sparingly or on occasion, don’t worry, but for more frequent use, I’d recommend extra virgin olive oil for maximum benefit and to be on the safe side.
Hope this helps! Well timed question, Adham, as there’s a curry recipe coming soon