Coconut gets a lot of attention – it’s good for you, it’s bad for you, it cures everything, no one knows anything about what it really does… pretty much the full spectrum of opinion.
I thought it would be useful to try and pull as much of the information together in one place as I could find, for anyone who’s interested in understanding what coconut oil really does, and doesn’t do – and what we know, and don’t know, about it.
From drinking coconut milk or water, to baking with coconut flour, to eating, drinking and “pulling” coconut oil, there are a lot of stories about the benefits, drawbacks, and unknowns about coconut products.
For the skeptical among you, it’s reasonable to assume that I have a reason to want to believe that coconut oil is some sort of miracle substance. So let’s start off with a simple truth, one which I’ll repeat throughout this site: there are no panaceas. No single food, activity, lifestyle or medicine is going to solve every single problem with our modern diet.
But there are 63 million tonnes of coconut harvested (as of 2013) every year – and someone is consuming all of it. And if you look at where coconut is traditionally consumed as a dietary staple ingredient, you see rather low levels of cardiovascular disease (until those cultures switch from ghee and coconut oil as their primary sources of fat, to corn, sunflower and safflower oils. That’s typically when obesity and heart disease start to appear in significant numbers.) So something is afoot, even if it’s as simple as “coconut isn’t the big, bad, saturated-fat monster it’s been made out to be.”
That’s a mighty big nut
First, let’s start with what a coconut isn’t: it is not, botanically, a nut. Coconut is a drupe, or stone fruit, the defining characteristic of which is an outer, fleshy portion (b) surrounding the actual seed of the fruit (c). In the case of coconuts, this fleshy layer (the white stuff) is usually surrounded with an outer, fibrous husk (a). When younger, the flesh is tender, and almost the consistency of a very thick gelatin. As the coconut matures, the outer husk and flesh harden, the amount of water inside decreases, and the hard, white flesh can be used to produce oil, flour, and milk.
Coconut is basically an entirely self-contained bread-baking unit. Use coconut water, oil, milk and flour, and some charcoal from the husk; find yourself an egg (optionally) and make an entirely self-baking coconut-based meal. If MacGyver were a plant, he’d be a coconut.
Versatile, for sure. What about it’s utility as a source of nutrition? In other words:
What about me?
Particularly in tropical regions from the Philippines to Mexico, Malaysia, Polynesia and Indonesia, coconut is a major food stock sometimes accounting for up to 80% of fat intake. What does the scientific community think of it as a food source?
Coconut Oil’s Effects on Alzheimer’s and Brain Function
Bruce Fife, certified nutritionist and naturopathic physician, author of more than 20 books including The Coconut Oil Miracle, and the Director of the Coconut Research Centre says, “Coconut oil is the healthiest oil on earth.” He goes on to state a plethora of health benefits of it. While there is some research to support each of his claims, the evidence is far from certain. While the Alzheimer’s Association acknowledges anecdotal support for the effectiveness of coconut oil, they note that there has “never been any clinical testing of coconut oil for Alzheimer’s.”
Which is not to say that no one is trying to figure it out:
- Coconut oil appears to help protect neurons against degeneration, when tested in vitro (in a petri dish, basically.) To vastly oversimplify their findings: coconut oil might, by being converted into ketones, provide an alternative energy source for the brain. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, the brain begins to lose the ability to use glucose as an energy source, but maintains its ability to use ketone bodies to function. So intuitively, this makes some sense: starved for one kind of fuel, the brain makes use of another source that it is in increased supply.
- Researchers in Florida and Canada are looking into how coconut oil might help to alleviate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and they are conducting their studies in actual patients, rather than using cell cultures in a dish. This is important, because we want to know what the demonstrable effects of a treatment are, not just the biochemical reactions that are occurring (though those are important, too.)
Antibacterial Properties of Coconut Oil
There are a number of studies looking at the ability of various individual components of coconut oil, specifically lauric acid, to interfere with bacterial activity.
- Lauric acid appears to have anti-microbial effects. Again, this is an in vitro study: researchers put bacteria in a dish, and applied different concentrations of virgin coconut oil as well as its individual components, and looked at what happened to the bacterium. Spoiler alert: most of the bacteria died.
- The same effect has been confirmed when researchers tested monolaurin (which is made from lauric acid, which is highly concentrated in coconut oil), in some cases by interfering with bacterium’s signaling abilities.
- In might also have anti-fungal properties, and appears in this study to be as effective as flucanazole (a widely used anti-fungal medication) in combating various species of Candida.
Coconut Oil and Blood Glucose
It appears that medium-chain saturated fatty acids (SFAs, of which coconut has a high concentration) are helpful in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels. One study found an increased insulin response following a meal high in medium chain SFAs produced “a tendency toward higher insulin response” in patients with Type-2 Diabetes and their relatives (of Type-2 diabetes, not the people who had it.)
Cardiovascular Health and Coconut Oil
What about cardiovascular health in particular? Most of the arguments against using coconut oil focus on it’s saturated fat content, and are based on the now-discredited fat myth. If you’re accustomed to or exploring a Primal/Paleo/Ketogenic diet, you’re comfortable with the idea of consuming a fairly large amount of fat (and protein, and veggies, ‘natch.) But it’s not necessarily well-known (yet) that the now-well-trodden idea that “fat makes you fat” has been, more or less thoroughly, discredited.
Alternatively, some commentators have focused on the negative effects of trans-fats in coconut oil. The problem there is that the proportion of naturally-occurring trans fats in coconut oil is minuscule, if detectable at all; only when coconut oil is hydrogenated do trans fats appear in significant proportions.
- Coconut milk seems to have a positive effect on blood lipid profiles, raising HDL and lower LDL.
- MCT Oil (which is usually derived from coconut oil, but is comprised entirely of the Medium Chain Triglycerides, hence it’s name) seems to have beneficial effects on arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) due to aging – at least in rats.
- “Intake of saturated fat was not associated with an increased risk of CHD (coronary heart disease), stroke, or CVD (cardiovascular disease).”
Coconut oil could have antistress and antioxidant properties as well, at least in mice. (For reasons of biology and evolutionary similarity, mice are good proxies for many human biological responses. Plus, humans generally don’t like it when you intentionally injure them in order to see if coconut oil makes them feel better. Neither do the mice, I imagine.) From that study:
“Virgin coconut oil (VCO) has been consumed worldwide for various health-related reasons and some of its benefits have been scientifically evaluated… Furthermore, mice treated with VCO were found to exhibit higher levels of brain antioxidants, lower levels of brain 5-hydroxytryptamine [serotonin] and reduced weight of the adrenal glands.”
Weight Loss and Metabolic Profile of Coconut Oil
Weight management, and the relationship of dietary fat to those efforts, is obviously a complex subject. MCT oil, which is derived from coconut oil (and sometimes palm kernel oil) is generally understood to be thermogenic: as a result, when added to a diet where other factors are kept constant, the result is generally some degree of weight loss. An outstanding summation of what is known about coconut oil, including the effects on weight as a result of incorporating it into your diet, is covered on Dr. Weil’s website.
Generally, the ability of any food to aid in weight loss or maintenance is going to come down to two things: how does it get digested, and does it satisfy you for a significant period of time. Coconut oil is rich in medium chain triglycerides, and “Some studies have shown that MCTs can help in the process of excess calorie burning, thus weight loss.”
Now We’re Cooking with Gas
Much has been made of the fact that oils consumed in their “natural” state may or may not behave the same once they are heated, and there’s certainly plenty of evidence that oils break down and start turning rancid at high temperatures. So, two things worth considering:
- Manufacturing process: “Virgin” coconut oil is generally made in one of two ways: a “dry” method involves drying the coconut meat in a kiln, oven or in the sun and then pressing the meat until the oil is extracted. Alternatively, the “wet” method involves pressing coconuts before they are dried, then using a centrifuge to mechanically separate coconut oil from the water. But there’s no industry-standard definition for “virgin” or “extra virgin” coconut oil (as there is for olive oil), so methods and labels vary. But generally, a “virgin” coconut oil is one where the coconut has not been chemically refined.
- Heating during cooking: Once you’ve got coconut oil in hand, what you do with it in the kitchen will have a significant effect on how much of its original nutritive value remains. Coconut oil has a high smoke point (about 350˚F). Up until that point, the oil retains most of its original Omega-3-to-omega-6 ratios, and doesn’t break down.
If you’re going to go through the expense and trouble of obtaining a high quality, wet-milled coconut oil, you’ll probably want to enjoy the full benefits of that by not heating it past its smoking point.