It was on Dr. Oz so it must be true. Coconut oil can help you lose weight, treat skin conditions and ulcers.
Well, maybe it isn’t all completely true.
What is true is that today you can find coconut oil right there on the shelf in your local health food store next to the extra-virgin olive oil and cold-pressed canola oil. Just a few years ago there was an out and out panic at the concession stands because of the claim that a large movie theater popcorn delivered as much saturated fat as six Big Macs because the popcorn was being popped in highly saturated coconut oil.
Today, the annual sales growth of coconut oil at Whole Foods has been in the high double digits for the past five years. What has happened to change coconut oil from the artery-clogging, cholesterol-raising saturated fat more poisonous than butter, lard or beef tallow to a product that appears on the health food store shelf? Where did the stigma about coconut oil come from in the first place?
Coconut oil is a tropical vegetable oil that is made from the dried fruit of the coconut palm tree. Coconut oil consists largely of a certain type of saturated fat, the medium chain fatty acid, lauric acid. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 117 calories and 13.6 grams of fat. Lauric acid increases levels of good HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, and bad LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, in the blood, but it is not believed to affect the overall ratio of the two.
Most of the studies involving coconut oil were done with partially hydrogenated coconut oil, which was used by researchers because they needed to raise the cholesterol levels of the rabbits they were using as research subjects. Virgin coconut oil, which has not been chemically treated, is a different product from a health perspective. It may not be so bad for us after all according to Thomas Brenna, a professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University.
Partial hydrogenation creates trans fats. It can also destroy many of the good essential fatty acids, antioxidants and other beneficial components in virgin coconut oil. It is true that most of the fats in virgin coconut oil are saturated, opinions are changing on whether saturated fats are really the arterial villains once thought to be.
Two groups have helped coconut oil rise from the bottom of the barrel.
First, there are scientists that are reconsidering the accusations against coconut oil. Second there are a growing number of vegans who rely on coconut oil as a sweet vegetable fat in creating flaky pie crusts, crumbly scones and fluffy cupcake icings, all without the saturated fat of butter.
Coconut oil can be whipped into a butter cream-like fluffiness while retaining its flavor.
Virgin coconut oil is milder and richer tasting than butter, sweeter and lighter textured than lard and doesn’t have any of the bitterness that sometimes is found in olive oil. The deep coconut flavor of virgin coconut persists even after cooking. Refined coconut oil does not produce the same flavor.
The jury is still out on whether coconut oil is actively beneficial the way olive oil is, but small amounts probably are not harmful. There have been numerous claims made as to the benefits of lauric acid — varying from its possible antibacterial and antimicrobial properties to its ability to clear up acne and speed up your metabolism. However, researches are skeptical.
There are a lot of claims about the health benefits of coconut oil, but there is no concrete scientific evidence yet to support this, according to Dr. Daniel Hwang, a research molecular biologist specializing in lauric acid at the Western Human Nutrition Research Center at the University of California, Davis. He added that coconut is good food, in moderation.
Proponents of coconut oil and weight loss say the high fat content of coconut oil can paradoxically help you lose weight. The few research studies that have specifically examined coconut oil however, have shown mixed results for weight loss.
Supporters of coconut oil and weight loss say that despite its high calorie and fat content, coconut oil boosts your metabolism, gives you energy, makes you feel more full and improves your thyroid function. They say that the type of fatty acid in coconut oil is a healthy one, and that your body quickly burns it for energy.
Typically a coconut oil diet suggests eating as much as 3 tablespoons of pure coconut oil a day or substituting it for other oils and fats normally used in cooking or baking. Some coconut oil diets also suggest that you eat a diet that is low in carbohydrates, while other coconut oil diets require you to work your way through several stages, including carbohydrate restriction and colon cleansing. Neither of which has any research to support its benefit.
Although eating coconut oil in moderation for a short-term diet probably won’t harm your health, it probably won’t help you lose weight, keep in mind that coconut oil actually has more saturated fat than butter or lard. For successful, long-term weight loss, stick to the basics — a health eating plan and lots of exercise.
Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.