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Coconut Oil Sinner or Saint

Coconut Oil Sinner or

FOOD FACT FILE Christian Billinghurst finds out that the devil’s in the detail when it comes to health benefits If one food group has left us confused, it’s fat; and possibly none more so than coconut oil. Hailed as a panacea for a range of health problems, coconut oil has recently been the new wonder-kid on the so-called superfood block, finding its way into processed foods such as vegan cheeses, and into our own kitchen pans. But if anything could have thrown its health halo into doubt, it was a statement this June from the American Heart Association (AHA) that saturated fat was detrimental to cardiovascular health. 1 The statement followed a review of studies into saturated fat in general, but coconut oil was singled out for attention: bad news for the coconut oil industry, and confusing for those of us who just want to know if we should eat it or not. Health claims Not only has coconut oil been claimed to be good for skincare or dental health (the latter when used for ‘pulling’ which means swooshing it for several minutes around the mouth — said to remove harmful bacteria), but it has even been claimed to help with weight-loss. This is down to it containing medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), types of fatty acids, which are transported directly to the liver during the digestion process, where they are quickly metabolised, and so avoid getting deposited in fatty tissue. Overstated? However, Linda Main, a dietetic advisor for Heart UK, says that coconut oil’s many perceived health benefits have been overstated. “Some of the suggested health effects of coconut oil have been attributed to medium-chain triglycerides [MCTs],” she says. “MCTs are a kind of fat that is metabolised differently in the body. MCTs have been shown to be better at satisfying appetite, are lower in energy and are thought to help facilitate weight control when substituted for more traditional fats in the diet.” Some studies have stated that coconut oil can be as much as 60 per cent medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs).² , ³ However, there is some disagreement as to what should be referred to as an MCFA. Main cites an article which states: “If both of these fatty acids [caproic and lauric acid] are included in the definition, coconut oil could be described as containing around 65 per cent MCFAs. However, it seems unlikely that lauric acid is oxidised immediately in the liver, a characteristic of C8–C10 fatty acids, because of its potent cholesterol-raising potential”. 4 Main says that only 14 per cent of coconut oil’s fat “can truly be described [as] MCT”. And until there is consensus on coconut oil’s MCT content, the case for weight-loss benefits is yet to be closed. But coconut oil is said to have other qualities. It has a slow spoil-time and is resistant to the rancidity process. Despite this, however, the World Health Organization (WHO) has promoted the use of vegetable oils in its place. According to Heart UK, “studies have shown that the greatest cholesterol lowering occurs when saturated fats are replaced with unsaturated fats” and so is “concerned” about recent discussion and promotion of coconut oil in the press. It states: “Coconut oil, unlike most vegetable oils, is predominately a saturated fat (85 per cent saturated fat) and has been shown to have a negative effect on circulating cholesterol levels — a known independent risk factor for AUTUMN 2017 | OPTIMUM NUTRITION 29