Everywhere you look, there are social media posts and articles claiming coconut oil to be the magical answer for digestion, dry skin, weight loss, and everything in between. This has people going out to buy buckets of the high fat oil and using it in cooking, baking and whole body care. Unfortunately, the scientific evidence has provided some mixed reviews, which confuses not only the general public, but also some health professionals too! Today, we look at the benefits and cautions of coconut oil and provide an ultimate conclusion to sum up what we currently know about this fad ingredient.
Coconut oil comes from extracting and pressing the oil from the flesh of coconuts. There are two different versions available- unrefined and refined. Unrefined, or virgin coconut oil is a stronger tasting and flavourful option, while refined is more processed with a higher smoke point, making it better for cooking.
What are the benefits?
First and foremost, if you enjoy the flavour of coconut then this will be the oil for you. As mentioned before, unrefined coconut oil is richer in flavour and may be more pleasing to you for that reason alone.
Some brands may differ slightly in the shelf life, however; in general, coconut oil can be stored for one to two years. Since the melting point is approximately 24 degrees Celsius, the consistency of the oil will vary depending on the temperature of the storage space. In order to keep your coconut oil in solid form, it is recommended to store it in a cool and dry area.
The smoke point of oil is important to take into consideration when cooking at high temperatures, such as when frying foods. Exceeding the smoke point (the temperature at which the oil begins to burn and smoke) will create an unpleasant odour and alter the chemical make-up of the oil. Due to the reduction in the amount of nutrients in the oil as well as potentially creating harmful free radicals, it is suggested to avoid overheating oil in general. Luckily, the saturated chemical bonds of coconut oil can withstand some heat before it begins to break down. The smoke point of unrefined/virgin coconut oil is 350 degrees Fahrenheit, while refined is around 400 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. It is still recommended to not use coconut oil for frying foods, as these high temperatures will likely exceed the smoke point.
Medium Chain Triglycerides
Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) are a form of saturated fatty acids that largely make up coconut oil and have been the topic of many research studies in the recent years. Evidence has suggested MCTs provide some form of weight loss aide, improvement in insulin sensitivity in Type 2 diabetics, increased HDL (“good”) cholesterol, increased fat oxidation (fat burning), and may play a dietary therapeutic role in the treatment of epilepsy for children.
Why should I be cautious with coconut oil?
This is where the recommendations get tricky. As you can see, there are some potential benefits to including coconut oil in your diet. However, there is still a need for additional research to assess the long-term health consequences of a diet high in saturated fat/MCT.
A number of studies surrounding the benefits of coconut oil were performed on mice, and although this is a common occurrence, translating this information is not as easily done. There are many differences that need to be taken into consideration when applying mice/rat studies to human recommendations, so be aware of this.
Here is a doozy: coconut oil does not necessarily completely correlate with the MCT researched benefits. Although coconut oil does contain MCTs, the actual amount of and available “benefits” have not yet been identified. Recently, there have also been research papers delving more into the effects of a diet high in MCT, suggesting that there may be an increase in hunger/appetite, which is the opposite of what has been previously understood.
Additionally, the American Heart Association released a statement in June of 2017 that read “The advisory, an analysis of more than 100 published research studies dating as far back as the 1950s, reaffirmed that saturated fats raise LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. Tropical vegetable oils such as coconut oil contain high levels of saturated fats, and the authors reported that coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol in seven controlled trials.” Keeping heart health in mind is extremely important with the modern day high fat, highly processed and super-sized culture of North America. Be cautious with the amount of coconut oil, and saturated fat in general you are including in your diet.
In summary, there are a lot of mixed messages when it comes to coconut oil. Human research is still needed to provide more applicable and concrete recommendations for the general population to follow. That being said, consuming high amounts of calorically dense fat, WILL set you up for weight gain. If you want to switch up your options for oils, give coconut oil a try in small amounts. Opt for unsaturated fats such as extra virgin olive oil or canola oil more often, as these have been heavily researched and are known for their heart healthy properties.
Ashlen Leonard, RD, BASc, PMDip