Coconut Oil: Fab or Fad?
Coconut Oil: Fab or Fad?
Coconut products are everywhere right now. I’ve just opened yet another package from a company sending me a sample of their coconut oil. People tell me they are taking a spoonful a day as a supplement, or adding it to their green smoothies. So is there something in the coconut frenzy, or is it just another passing fad?  

Coconut oil is literally extracted from coconut flesh so that you get only the fat component, without any of the fibre or the small amounts of protein and carbs present in the whole coconut. It has been used as a cooking oil in parts of India, South Asia and in many tropical parts of the world for many years.  

The fatty acids present are quite different to tree nuts - where tree nuts are high in unsaturated fatty acids, in coconut 93% of the fatty acids are saturated. This has put coconut on the 'eat sparingly' list of heart health recommendations around the world. However this is now being revisited as the association between saturated fat and heart disease is questioned.  

The other thing we now understand is that not all saturated fats are the same. Coconut fat is extremely rich in a particular saturated fat called lauric acid. This is a 12-carbon chain fatty acid, putting it at the low end of what are called the long chain fatty acids. Unlike the longer chain saturated fats lauric acid has a beneficial effect on blood cholesterol profiles, and in fact, if it is replaced by refined carbohydrates in the diet this makes matters worse. In other words, cutting out coconut and eating lots of low fat snacks made from white flour would have a detrimental effect on your blood lipid profiles.  

Coconut also has small levels of medium chain (8 and 10 carbon chain) saturated fats and these are burned more readily as fuel in the body than other fats. But this doesn't make coconut fat burning, as I've seen it promoted. Adding coconut oil to a meal will not magically make you burn more fat - you still have to burn off that extra energy it brings you! But certainly having coconut oil in place of other less healthy fats may be beneficial, but there is much we have to learn in this area. 

There is some interest and evidence to show that coconut oil may have anti-microbial and anti-viral effects. However whether this has any practical relevance as part of your diet is as yet unknown.  

From a nutritional perspective coconut oil, like any other pure fat, is very energy-dense. A tablespoon of coconut oil gives you 505kJ and, unlike some other oils, it provides no vitamins or minerals. Neither does it contain the wonderful array of polyphenol antioxidant compounds found in extra virgin olive oil.

If coconut oil helps to fill you up and reduces your intake of other foods then perhaps it is useful, but I can't for the life of me see why you would want to add it to your smoothies or take it as a supplement as some claim to do.

The bottom line for me is that coconut oil just does not have the wealth of evidence to support its use, unlike that for extra virgin olive oil. 

I much prefer to eat coconut as the wholefood - the whole coconut has so much more to offer you nutritionally, and by all means enjoy using a little of the oil in cooking. It does smell divine and works beautifully for curries, stir-fries and in some baking recipes.