By Judith Johnson, Registered Dietician and Nutrigenetic Specialist
Coconut oil is back in the spotlight. Do we cook with it, add it to our coffee, or simply use it as an occasional addition to a good Thai curry?
The media has shifted its focus to the influence of coconut oil on heart health. There are many studies pointing to the fact that coconut oil raises our LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels, but there are just as many telling us how good it is for our health. What to do?
There is growing evidence that the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to food is no longer viable, and this should be applied to coconut oil too.
Coconut oil has a high saturated fat content. It’s made up of predominantly medium chain fatty acids (C6 – caproic acid, C8 – caprylic acid, C10 – capric acid, C12 – lauric acid), with MCT oils adding an even higher saturated fat content.
We know that saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. In some people this effect is significant, while in others it can be negligible. There are a few gene variants involved in fatty acid metabolism that are associated with higher LDL levels. Carriers of these gene variations will be more affected, and should be cautious when eating coconut oil. (2) If there are any underlying inflammatory processes, cardiovascular risk is also increased.
Despite this, coconut oil has a host of other great health benefits:
- Anti-microbial, especially from the lauric acid. Swirling coconut oil in the mouth is great for maintaining good oral hygiene.
- An easily available energy source. Coconut oil provides a rich source of MCTs, which are easier to absorb than other fats and often used as part of a ketogenic diet.
- Neuroprotective. There is growing evidence that diets lower in carbohydrates and higher in fat allow fats rather than carbs to be used for energy in the form of ketones. This appears to be protective in neurodegenerative conditions. (3)
- High smoke point. Coconut oil is safe when cooking at high temperatures. When oil starts to smoke, it breaks down into free fatty acids, which can contribute to inflammatory processes.
It’s important to note that not all coconut oil has these benefits. When coconut oil is deodorised, refined and bleached (and often hydrogenated as well), the proteins and minerals are removed to increase its shelf life, thus removing all the anti-microbial health properties. It’s important to choose the unprocessed organic coconut oils available.
The bottom line is that coconut oil is not a miracle superfood. Know your lipid profiles (cholesterol and triglyceride levels) and your genetics, and then make the right decision for you. If in doubt, use extra virgin olive oils instead, as these contain polyphenol compounds that actually change genetic expression to turn off inflammatory genes, and are thus cardio-protective, unlike coconut oil. (4) Use small amounts of coconut oil when cooking at high temperatures, and use olive oils for quick cooking or over vegetables and salads.
J Am Coll Nutr. 2008 Oct; 27(5): 547–552 Medium Chain Triglyceride Oil Consumption as Part of a Weight Loss Diet Does Not Lead to an Adverse Metabolic Profile When Compared to Olive Oil
Marie-Pierre St-Onge, PhD
Epilepsia. 2007 Jan;48(1):31-42
Priscilla Azambuja Lopes de Souza, Effects of Olive Oil Phenolic Compounds on Inflammation in the Prevention and Treatment of Coronary Artery Disease