It’s the ‘in’ food of the moment driven by celebrity endorsement and outlandish health claims ranging from promotion of fat burning to better skin, better gut health and alleviating all sorts of medical conditions. There’s even one clever guy who came up with the idea of putting a spoonful in coffee and marketing it to fitness and health advocates – and they have lapped it up in droves believing the hype while he made a fortune!
Extra virgin olive oil on the other hand is a rising star in the nutrition science world and for good reason. It’s been used for thousands of years across the Mediterranean region and is becoming increasingly popular around the world including in China, other parts of Asia, the USA and northern Europe. Recent research has shown it is the clear winner when it comes to health and weight control. It is time for this fabulous oil to take the spotlight!
Note that olive oil is not the same thing as this is a refined oil. Refining equipment used in making cooking oils has only been around in the last 50 or so years and so these are not the traditional foods. Refined olive oils have the same fats present, but lack the diversity and quantity of beneficial phytochemicals found in extra virgin olive oil.
So, how do these two oils stack up when compared side by side? Let’s take a closer look.
There is no difference in energy between the two types of oil – 100g of either oil will deliver 3700kJ. Where they differ enormously is in the type of fat present. From the chart above you can see that coconut oil is almost entirely saturated fat, while extra virgin olive oil is predominantly monounsaturated fat.
What does this mean? Well firstly it affects how the oil behaves in the bottle or jar. You’ll notice that coconut oil is solid at room temperature, although does melt into a liquid oil on a hot day or when heated in the pan. Extra virgin olive oil on the other hand is liquid at room temperature. This is due to the chemical structure of the fats.
There is a new liquid coconut oil currently being marketed, but given knowledge of the natural fats present and how they behave, this means that this product is not a virgin coconut oil and must have been processed.
Without boring you with the chemistry, the chemical structure of saturated fats mean they pack tightly together giving a solid fat. It is this feature that has made coconut oil so effective in bars, bliss balls and raw cakes, helping them to hold their form.
Monounsaturated fats have a different shape and do not pack so tightly together. As a result, extra virgin olive oil is fluid.
These characteristics of the fats also affect how they behave in our bodies. More saturated fats make body cells more rigid, while more monounsaturated (and especially more polyunsaturated) fats make the cell more fluid. This affects the way a cell functions and communicates and may explain some of the different effects that fats have on our health.
There has been enormous media attention in recent years over the association of saturated fat and heart disease and this has contributed to the rise in popularity of coconut oil. I have written about this previously so I won’t harp on here, but will summarise what we know to date:
- It is true that recent studies have not found an association between saturated fat intake and heart disease, but neither have they been shown to be beneficial! In other words, while they may have been unfairly maligned, there is no evidence that saturated fats are good for us.
- True paleolithic diets were lower in saturated fat than modern Western style diets and none of the healthiest diets around the world are high in saturated fat.
- One of the big problems of the last few decades has been the emphasis on reducing saturated and total fat without consideration of what to replace it with. This led to a rise in the consumption of refined carbohydrates like starch and added sugar. These are certainly not good for health.
- Studies have shown that if saturated fats are instead replaced with unsaturated fats, risks of chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes are reduced.
- Too much saturated fat is not good for the brain, increasing the risk of a decline in cognitive function as we get older.
- A high saturated fat intake alters the gut microbiota in a potentially damaging way, particularly when not enough fermentable carbohydrates (fibres) are consumed.
Effects on weight control
Saturated fat has been found to be more fattening than unsaturated fats, while monounsaturated fats in contrast may help with both weight loss, especially around the middle. That’s important as it is the fat around the internal organs (called visceral fat) that is most harmful to health.
The reason behind this seems to lie in how the fats are metabolised. A meal high in monounsaturated fats requires more energy to metabolise than a meal high in saturated fats. (This is what is called DIT or dietary induced thermogenesis).
Monounsaturated fats also seem to be readily burned as energy by the body compared to saturated fats that are more readily stored in body fat cells.
In support of this, recent studies in Spain which added 4 tablespoons of olive oil daily into participants’ diets reported no gain in weight or body fat percentage over a year.
"Recent studies in Spain which added 4 tablespoons of olive oil daily into participants’ diets reported no gain in weight or body fat percentage over a year."
So, why is that coconut oil advocates claim a fat burning effect?
This is based on a misunderstanding about the types of saturated fat found in the oil. Within each fat ‘family’are fatty acids with varying chain lengths from short to medium to long. These are dealt with quite differently within the body. Short and medium chain fats (MCTs) are burned much more readily by the body.
Where the confusion lies is that the major fatty acid in coconut oil is lauric acid. This is a 12 carbon chain saturated fat and is right on the border of where the definition between medium and long chain fats lies with some calling it an MCT and others a long chain fat. However, lauric acid behaves most like a long chain fat during digestion and metabolism. Plus, the studies on MCTs are on the 8 and 10 carbon chain fats (present in very small amounts in coconut oil), not lauric acid.
You cannot therefore state that coconut oil is fat burning and remember if you add a spoonful to your green smoothie you have the fat it delivers to burn first before you get burning any of your own fat!
"You cannot therefore state that coconut oil is fat burning and remember if you add a spoonful to your green smoothie you have the fat it delivers to burn first before you get burning any of your own fat!"
When it comes to weight control extra virgin olive oil is the hands down winner.
Nutrients and phytochemicals
Here we see enormous differences between the two oils. Extra virgin olive oil is a good source of vitamin E, the major fat soluble antioxidant in the body, with a tablespoon providing 4mg. For reference the recommended intake for adult women is 7mg and for men 10mg a day. In contrast, coconut oil provides no vitamin E.
When it comes to phytochemicals extra virgin olive oil is again the clear winner, particularly those produced here in Australia. These have exceptionally high levels of polyphenols associated with all sorts of health benefits in the body. You just don’t find these in coconut oil and only in much smaller quantities in refined olive oil. This is the major reason I recommend using extra virgin olive oil over all others.
"Extra virgin olive oil has exceptionally high levels of polyphenols associated with all sorts of health benefits in the body."
Recent research is showing that polyphenols are also important for the good bacteria in your gut and may be exerting some of their benefits via this route.
Extra virgin olive oil is also the highest dietary source of squalene, shown to be protective against both colon and skin cancers. You won’t find squalene in coconut oil.
But what about cooking – isn’t coconut oil safer?
I covered this in a recent post, so suffice to say here that both oils are safe to cook with.
The vitamin E and the phytochemicals present in Australian extra virgin olive oil protects the oil as it heats, stops it from degrading and producing toxic compounds. It has been shown in recent studies to be remarkably safe for cooking. Indeed, we should cook with it as it boosts the absorption of the phytochemicals present in the other plant foods consumed in the meal.
"The vitamin E and the phytochemicals present in Australian extra virgin olive oil protects the oil as it heats"
While coconut oil is also safe for cooking, it lacks the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil.
Coconut oil is probably fine to use occasionally, but it is far from being a health food. Traditionally tropical communities were much more likely to be using whole coconut products rather than too much of the extracted oil and this is far better nutritionally. Used in this way there is no evidence of harm, but we just don’t know about the effects of coconut oil added to a Western style diet.
"Extra virgin olive oil is the stand out of all oils when it comes to effects on health and weight control."
Extra virgin olive oil is the stand out of all oils when it comes to effects on health and weight control. There is a large body of evidence behind it, we produce some of the best oils in the world here in Australia and perhaps just as importantly it tastes fabulous adding flavour to your meals. Make this one your pantry staple and put science above the hype.
Disclaimer: Dr Joanna is a nutrition advisor and ambassador for Australian olive oil company Cobram Estate
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