Over the last few years, coconut oil has been touted as a miracle product by hordes of bloggers, celebs and health food gurus. Sales have skyrocketed, with Whole Foods selling six tons of the stuff in one record month.
A miracle product?
Where once it was a niche skin moisturiser, coconut oil has now also gained a huge following as an edible oil and all-round miracle food. It has been claimed that, despite containing 90 per cent saturated fat, coconut oil can help you lose weight.
It’s also been reported that it can help with dementia, boost cognitive function, and that it’s good for your heart. Advocates of coconut oil claim that owing to its make-up of medium chain fats it is metabolised in a different and healthier way to other fats.
Buoyed by this revelation, health nuts began to tuck in, big time. Now, it’s not just used as a cooking oil, people are slathering coconut oil on toast, baking ‘healthy’ muffins with it, spooning it into anything from porridge to smoothies and putting it in their coffee. Some particularly zealous enthusiasts have even been feeding it to their pets.
A fierce debate has since sprang up between scientists and coconut evangelists about whether or not coconut oil is actually good for you (or Fido).
Hang on, what exactly is coconut oil?
Coconut oil is extracted from mature coconuts, and it looks like a white solid at temperatures lower than 24 degrees Celsius, and a clear, slightly brown-yellow oil above that.
Standard coconut oil - the cheap, odourless stuff that has been around for decades - is produced by drying the coconut flesh into a product called copra, and then refining, bleaching and deodorising the extracted oil. This is known as RBD coconut oil. It’s heavily processed and has no particular flavour.
The product that is known as ‘virgin coconut oil’ is made using a wet process. It’s extracted from coconut milk or from fresh coconut flesh which is not refined using chemicals. Virgin coconut oil has been found to contain higher concentrations of polyphenols than standard coconut oil, as these nutrients are destroyed during the drying process.
So what’s the problem?
Well, coconut oil is made up of 99.9 per cent fatty acids, of which 90 per cent is saturated fat. Butter, by contrast, contains a modest 64 per cent saturated fat. We know that saturated fats raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease.
Like any fat, it’s very high in calories (one tablespoon is 117 calories), so using it as a dietary supplement is going to increase calorie intake considerably.
Many doctors and scientists have rejected the claims that coconut oil offers health benefits, as these are not sufficiently backed up by hard evidence. Studies and tests on the effects of coconut oil have mostly been observational and not properly controlled (with no control group, for example, and other lifestyle factors not considered).
Doctors and health organisations are extremely worried about the consequences of people consuming so much saturated fat. The British Nutrition Foundation recently published their own official guidelines. Spoiler alert - they don’t think coconut oil is good for you.
Their comprehensive review in Nutrition Journal looked at all the randomised controlled trials relating to dietary coconut oil carried out over the years and concluded that consuming coconut oil increases overall cholesterol, and that no evidence supports any of the health benefits claimed.
Everything in moderation
In conclusion, the British Heart Foundation and UK Department of Health advise that due to its high saturated fatty acid content, coconut oil should only be consumed in small quantities, and that sources of unsaturated fatty acids are a better choice for everyday use.
You would be better off choosing olive oil, or rapeseed oil, for example, which are rich in mono-unsaturated fatty acids and their health benefits are supported by a vast amount of hard evidence.
If you love coconut oil, keep it for use as a skin or hair product, and - if you must - treat yourself to a small amount in your food every now and then.
But, until there's any hard evidence that consuming lots of it is actually good for you, don’t be duped into spooning it into everything in sight, Fido included.