The Low Down on Coconut Oil!

Food Fad or a Healthy Addition to your Diet?

There is some confusion in the general public about whether coconut oil is good or bad for health.  The confusion lies in the fact that coconut oil is a saturated fat.  Saturated fats have had a bad rap from the media for years now and this has distorted public perception. Saturated fat is actually an umbrella term for a group of fatty acids that consist of a chain of carbon atoms completely ‘saturated’ with hydrogen atoms – this is where the name ‘saturated’ fat comes from.  Not all saturated fatty acids are the same, the difference in how saturated fats work in the body is primarily determined by the length of the carbon chain.

Examples of saturated fatty acids include Butyric acid with 4 carbon atoms which is found in butter. Lauric acid which has 12 carbon atoms is found in coconut oil and breast milk.  Palmitic and Stearic acid with 16 and 18 carbon atoms respectively is found in meat.  The chain length determines whether they are categorised as short chain fatty acids (SCFA), medium chain fatty acids (MCFA) or long chain fatty acids (LCFA). The most commonly consumed saturated fatty acids in the diet are LCFA from animal products and most vegetable oils.  Another term used when discussing fats is triglyceride.  A triglyceride is three fatty acids joined together, again you can have short-chain triglycerides (SCT), medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), or long-chain triglycerides (LCT).

Coconut oil is a very rich source of medium chain fatty acids, which means fatty acids with between 6 – 12 carbon atoms. MCFAs as found in coconut oil are metabolised VERY differently in the body to almost all other fats in the human diet. Coconut oil is called a saturated fat, but due to it being composed primarily of medium chain fatty acids it acts VERY differently to most saturated fats.

MCFAs are absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract and are shuttled directly to the liver where they are burned for energy. This contrasts to the longer fatty acids which are absorbed into the lymphatic system. MCFAs do not require bile salts for digestion unlike the LCFAs found in animal products and vegetable oils.  Due to their ease of use for energy by the body MCFAs are used extensively in treating patients with malabsorption syndromes, in hospital settings in formulas for critically ill patients including children and in infant formulas.  MCFAs are also now used by athletes as they provide a good source of energy and help control weight. There are continuing studies looking at how MCFA’s affect performance for high intensity and endurance athletes.

Research has also shown that due to their different route of metabolism MCFAs also are successful in promoting weight loss when they replace fats coming from LCFAs as they can be burnt as fuel. They have also been shown to promote satiety.  For over 30 years researchers have used human and animal studies to examine how MCFAs affect weight and fat deposition. A study done on some unfortunate rats compared rats tube fed MCFAs or LCFAs.   Both groups received the same number of calories, but those fed MCFAs had 20% less weight gain and 23% less fat deposits, compared to the rats fed LCFAs. The researchers concluded “The decreased deposition of fat in the MCT-fed rats may have resulted from obligatory oxidation of MCT-derived fatty acids in the liver after being transported there via the portal vein, leaving almost no MCT derivatives for incorporation into body fat. MCT may have potential for dietary prevention of human obesity.”1983 The American Society for Clinical Nutrition Overfeeding with medium-chain triglyceride diet results in diminished deposition of fat. A GeliebterN Torbay et al.

Similarly a study done twenty five years later in 2008 delivers a similar conclusion, this time in humans. This study compared people consuming either a fat containing MCFAs or olive oil (which contains predominantly LCFAs) as part of a 16 week weight loss diet.  The results showed that:

MCFA oil consumption resulted in lower endpoint body weight than did olive oil. Endpoint trunk fat mass, total fat mass, and intraabdominal adipose tissue were all lower with MCT consumption than with olive oil consumption. The researchers concluded that. Small changes in the quality of fat intake can therefore be useful to enhance weight loss.2008 American Society for Clinical Nutrition Weight-loss diet that includes consumption of medium-chain triacylglycerol oil leads to a greater rate of weight and fat mass loss than does olive oil. Marie-Pierre St-Onge and Aubrey Bosarge

Olive oil has many health benefits as a monounsaturated fat which we can discuss in another blog but promoting weight loss is not one of them.

Other benefits of coconut oil lie in a particular MCFA it is rich in called lauric acid.  Lauric acid has been shown to be beneficial for the immune system as it displays anti fungal and antiviral properties.  Lauric acid is actually present in breast milk where infants convert it to a substance called monolaurin that protects them from infections.  More research is currently being done to look at the immune benefits of Lauric acid.

Incorporating Coconut oil into the Diet

It is important that if coconut oil is added to a diet to look at what it may be replacing. Coconut oil will definitely raise total cholesterol levels higher than an oil derived from fish or some vegetable oils. Lauric acid has been shown to raise total cholesterol, but it does this predominantly by raising HDL cholesterol (the so called ‘good’ cholesterol) and so can improve the ratio of good to bad cholesterol. However some of the other MCFAs in coconut oil will raise both HDL and LDL cholesterol. So it is not a fat to try and lower cholesterol with without professional guidance as other factors such as genetics, current diet, current health and dosage, as well as what type of fat you may be replacing comes into play.

Coconut oil is quite a good oil to cook with as it has a smoking point of about 177 degrees Celsius. The smoke point is the heat at which we see damaged fats and nutritional degradation of an oil.  Avocado oil and macadamia oil are even better cooking oils with a smoke point of approximately 271 and 210 degrees respectively.

The bottom line is this: Coconut oil is a delicious fat that is super easy to cook with and very easy to incorporate moderately into your diet. It has many health benefits, providing a great source of ready energy, a boost to your immune system and if replacing other fats will be beneficial in preventing weight gain.  If used in a sensible way it will not be problematic for cholesterol, the only time I have seen problems with coconut oil is if people get carried away and start eating large quantities – generally due to misinformation from some celebrity endorsement!  It should not be used in some faddish way but rather enjoyed for it’s delicious flavour as a part of a healthy diet.