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Coconut oil hype

It’s been several years that we’ve heard of coconut oil as the magic fat that is plant based and healthy and another superfood. We know from dietary recommendations that fats that come from plants are healthier than those that come from animals. The food industry is aware of that and, hence, is promoting vegetable oils as the better fat. Which is also correct. However, there have been two oils in particular that have made it into almost every product. Palm oil and coconut oil. Both come from plants. Both are pretty stable oils, solid at room temperature. And both contain mostly saturated fatty acids. This is an important difference to other vegetable oils such as olive or canola oil, walnut oil or linseed oil. Those oils are liquid at room temperature, contain mostly unsaturated oils which are said to be beneficial for humans.

 

Because coconut oil has been so abundant in the supermarket, there have been further investigations, for example by the American Heart Association (AHA), to see whether this oil is really magic. And the result is quite devastating. 92 % of coconut oil are made of saturated fats (it’s higher than in butter [68 %] and lard [45 %]!!!). That’s the fats which…you’re right…are bad for a number of metabolic diseases: heart disease, hypertension, high LDL. And this high percentage of saturated fat is not good for your fat metabolism either. At least the AHA came to the conclusion that any fat is better than coconut oil.

Although coconut oil and butter contain fatty acids, their fatty acids differ in the chemical structure and our body processes them in different ways. And be aware of the following: the calorie content 1 g fat = 9 kcal remains the same and quite high although coconut oil is from a plant (protein & carbohydrates 1 g = 4 kcal). So when you add a spoon of extra vergine coconut oil to your cereals, keep the high energy density in mind…

 

Working with athletes, I see a lot of breakfast tables, snack tables that offer also coconut oil. Sometimes it’s the staff, sometimes it’s the athletes who think that’s what they need more of. Of course, some journals and magazines also promote it often enough to make us think, that’s what we need. It’s meant to be healthy and natural (popular current key words in food labeling and advertising) and some athletes take huge quantities. Some even prepare their race food with coconut oil to make it a healthy, natural snack. We dieticians try to convince our clients and athletes that the majority of fat in the diet should come from vegetable oils (mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids). They have beneficial effects on our organism. With more unsaturated fats in the diet we limit the amount of saturated fatty acids. This applies also to coconut oil (and palm oil). If we changed all our dietary fat into coconut oil, we would consume mostly saturated fatty acids. If we followed a diet that is too high in fat, although it’s coconut oil, we would still consume too much unhealthy nutrients (fat) although the fat comes from a plant. Yet, there is a difference in palm oil and coconut oil. Palm oil contains certain fatty acids (monodic fatty acids) that seem to be beneficial for our blood lipids, so if you’ve to choose between coconut and palm oil, go for palm oil (not the hydrogenated one though!).

 

To see the high content of saturated fats, make a little experiment: take your cereal bar or cookie that is made with coconut oil and check the food label. Do you see the high amount of saturated fat in there? So maybe reconsider your fat choices.

Furthermore there’s the problem with the production of coconut oil. Using coconut oil for everything is not really a positive trend for our environment. The amount of oil you get from a coconut palm is not that high and we would need a lot if we wanted to substitute coconut oil for butter or other vegetable oils. Again, maybe reconsider your fat choices.

 

Coconut and palm oil are useful alternatives to butter when we need to fry something and cook something at high temperatures. Vegetable oils such as olive oil are not appropriate for that and the use of butter, lard or palm oil is recommended. However, in general aim at limiting fats to 30 % or your total energy intake with keeping the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats at 1:2. Everything in moderation. And quality wise make also sure omega-6’s are making up 2.5% and omega-3’s about 0.5 % of your total daily energy intake respectively (based on recommendations by the Austrian dietetic association).

 

Handout Overview vegetable oils use and properties

Handout Pflanzliche Öle Überblick

 

Further reading:

American Heart Association. Saturated fats: Why all the hubbub over coconuts

International Food Information Council. Fact Sheet: Coconut Oil and Health

Clegg (2017) They say coconut oil can aid weight loss – really?

Fattore et al (2014) Palm oil and blood lipid markers of CVD. Systematic review

Kinsella et al (2017) Coconut oil has less satiating properties than MCT oil

Marangoni et al (2017) Palm oil and human health

Schmidt (2016) Lebensmitteltrends: Kokosöl