Coconut oil is the latest ingredient to take the health world by storm, but the New Zealand Heart Foundation is advising Kiwis to continue using unsaturated plant oils rather than switching to coconut oil as their main cooking oil.
Coconut oil has recently gained popularity as a result of heavy marketing in both the US and Australasia. There is widespread misinformation about the health benefits of coconut oil, with claims of it being a ‘superfood’.
In light of this, the NZ Heart Foundation recently commissioned Dr Laurence Eyres, New Zealand’s leading specialist in oils and fats, to prepare an academic paper called ‘Coconut Oil and the Heart’.
Heart healthy or well marketed?
Dr Eyres has summarised the existing literature on coconut oil and its impact on heart health. He found nothing which disputes the fact that coconut oil raises cholesterol.
He concludes that the claims for coconut oil’s healthiness simply don’t stack up.
‘Traditionally, coconut oil hasn’t been recommended because it is extremely high in saturated fat. This advice remains, despite the large number of marketing claims to the contrary.’
He says switching to coconut oil is likely to lead to less favourable lipid profiles and potential increased risk of coronary heart disease.
‘Consumers who are using a lot of coconut oil due to the current fad would be well advised to either limit its use, or to blend in some unsaturated cold-pressed oil such as olive, avocado or canola oil. Although it may be a better choice than butter, coconut oil cannot be recommended as a suitable alternative to non-hydrogenated vegetable oils.’
More relevant research required
Dr Eyres says the wide range of research often quoted to support the use of coconut oil is largely based on animal studies or interpreted from research on medium-chain triglyceride (MCTs) oils.
But the triglycerides in coconut oil cannot actually be classed as MCTs, which means this research is not relevant, he says.
Delvina Gorton, the NZ Heart Foundation’s National Nutrition Advisor, says occasional use of coconut oil is not a problem but it is not recommended as the main oil of choice.
‘The Heart Foundation wants to let people know that, based on current evidence, it is still preferable to use unsaturated plant oils over coconut oil as their main oil,’ she says.
To switch oils or not to switch?
‘People are paying a lot of money to switch to coconut oil thinking it’s better for their heart, but it looks like they’d really be better off sticking with their usual oil.’
Gorton says there is only a small body of research currently available on coconut oil and its risk factors for heart disease in humans.
‘In general, the evidence for the impact of coconut oil on risk factors for heart disease is poor. The limited evidence is not sufficient to change advice, and suggests that in relation to risk factors for heart disease, plant oils higher in unsaturated fatty acids remain preferable.’
She says a dietary pattern based largely on minimally processed foods and which includes plenty of vegetables and fruit, some nuts, legumes, intact whole grains, seafood and lean meats, reduced fat dairy, and healthy oils is recommended for heart health.
NZ HEART FOUNDATION COCONUT OIL Q&A
Q: Is coconut oil good for me?
Traditionally, coconut oil hasn’t been recommended because it is extremely high in saturated fat. This advice remains, despite the large number of marketing claims to the contrary. The evidence for claims about coconut oil’s heart healthiness just doesn’t stack up.
The small amount of research that has been conducted on coconut oil in humans suggests it is better than butter for cholesterol levels, but not as good as other non-hydrogenated plant oils that are lower in saturated fat.
Q: The websites on coconut oil list a lot of research to support their claims?
They do. But much of that research was conducted in animals or with MCT oils. There is very little good quality research on the effect of coconut oil consumption in humans.
Q: But isn’t coconut an MCT?
The evidence on MCT oils (medium-chain triglycerides) can’t be applied to coconut oil as they are quite different substances.
The types of fat in them differ – coconut oil contains mainly lauric fatty acid and MCT oils contain mainly caprylic and capric fatty acids. While it is frequently (and mistakenly) claimed that lauric acid in coconut is a medium-chain fatty acid, it acts like a long-chain fatty acid in every aspect of digestion and metabolism.
Furthermore, the triglycerides in MCT oils are a much smaller size than the triglycerides in coconut oil, and thus are handled quite differently by the body.
Q: What about traditional diets in Pacific countries where they ate a lot of coconut?
Pacific countries traditionally used very little coconut oil, but instead used coconut flesh and coconut milk/cream. This was consumed in the context of a simple diet with healthy foods like vegetables, fruit, and seafood alongside an active lifestyle. In some Pacific countries there were low rates of heart disease despite high coconut intake, but this wasn’t the case in Sri Lanka where coconut intake was high, as was heart disease.
The type of fat consumed is only one part of a healthy dietary pattern – the remainder of the diet is very important in determining its combined effect on health.
Q: So what is recommended?
Occasional use of coconut oil is not a problem. However, it is not recommended as the main oil of choice. It is a better choice than butter, but based on current evidence it is not advisable to switch from unsaturated plant oils to coconut oil.
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