Article: Coconut Oil

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    The Truth About Coconut Oil
    By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
    WebMD Expert Column

    Coconut oil, according to recent reports, is the latest food cure-all. Claims abound that coconut oil is a health food that can cure everything from poor immune function, thyroid disease, and heart disease, to obesity, cancer, and HIV.

    So should you stock up on coconut oil? Not so fast.

    The evidence that coconut oil is super-healthful is not convincing and these claims appear to be more testimonials than clinical evidence.

    There is very limited evidence on disease outcomes, says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, of Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health. "All that has been studied well is the impact of coconut oil on cholesterol levels and the findings are intriguing but we still don't know if it is harmful or beneficial," Mozaffarian says.

    Neither the American Heart Association (AHA) nor the U.S. government's 2010 Dietary Guidelines suggest that coconut oil is any better or preferable over other saturated fats. Coconut oil, like all saturated fats, should be limited to 7%-10% of calories because it can increase risk for heart disease, according to the AHA and 2010 Dietary Guidelines.
    What Is Coconut Oil?

    Pure virgin coconut oil, containing no hydrogenation (the process of adding hydrogen to make a liquid fat hard), contains 92% saturated fat -- the highest amount of saturated fat of any fat.

    Most saturated fats are solid at room temperature and found in animal products (such as meat, dairy, poultry with skin, and beef fat) and contain cholesterol. Unlike animal fats, tropical oils -- palm, palm kernel, and coconut oils -- are saturated fats that are liquid at room temperature and do not contain cholesterol.

    Like all fats, coconut oil is a blend of fatty acids. Coconut oil contains an unusual blend of short and medium chain fatty acids, primarily lauric (44%) and myristic (16.8%) acids. It is this unusual composition that may offer some health benefits.

    Additionally, "because they come from coconuts, they may contain beneficial plant chemicals that have yet to be discovered," says Mozaffarian, researcher and co-director of the cardiovascular epidemiology program at Harvard.

    As for calories, all fats have the same number of calories per gram. One tablespoon of coconut oils contains 117 calories, 14 grams fat, 12 g saturated fat, and no vitamins or minerals.

    A pint of extra virgin coconut oils costs from $12-$18.
    Is Coconut Oil Better Than Other Fats and Oils?

    "Coconut oil is better than butter and trans fats but not as good as liquid vegetable oils," says Penn State University cardiovascular nutrition researcher Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD.

    Mozaffarian agrees that coconut oil is better than partially hydrogenated trans fats and possibly animal fats.

    "But even though coconut oil is cholesterol-free, it is still a saturated fat that needs to be limited in the diet and if you are looking for real health benefits, switch from saturated fats to unsaturated fats by using vegetable oils like soybean, canola, corn, or olive oil," says Kris-Etherton, a member of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines advisory committee and Institute of Medicine's panel on dietary reference intakes for macronutrients (which include fats).
    Is Coconut Oil Better Than Other Fats and Oils? continued...

    Fats are an important part of a healthy diet, but the trick is to eat enough fat, not too much, and choose the best fats as often as possible. The Dietary Guidelines recommend that fats make up 20% to 35% of total calories and saturated fats less than 10%. And even though coconut oil is liquid, the Dietary Guidelines consider it a solid fat that they recommend Americans reduce, along with added sugars.

    As long as you keep the amount of saturated fat to less than 10% of calories, the choice is up to you.

    "Foods that contain coconut oil are not usually nutrient powerhouses so it is better to choose your saturated fats from foods that are nutrient-rich, like cheese and lean protein," says Connie Diekman, Med, RD, author of The Everything Mediterranean Diet.
    Where Is The Evidence?

    Coconut oil has some heart-friendly fatty acids (myristic) but more heart-unfriendly fatty acids (lauric), says Roger Clemens, DrPH, spokesman and incoming president of Institute of Food Technologists and member of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines committee.

    A meta-analysis of 60 studies evaluated the effects of individual fats on risk of coronary artery disease. A few studies looked at coconut oil and found the combination of fatty acids improved the ratio of total cholesterol: HDL (good) cholesterol but they also raised LDL (bad) cholesterol.

    "Saturated fats can increase LDL (bad) cholesterol and even though a few studies showed it may improve the ratio of cholesterol to HDL cholesterol, they also showed an increase in LDL cholesterol and bottom line, any food that increases LDL cholesterol should be limited because LDL cholesterol is the main treatment target for heart disease," Kris Etherton says.

    However, there is debate over the role of saturated fat and the role of LDL cholesterol.

    Mozaffarian says LDL cholesterol is just one of many biomarkers for heart disease risk. "LDL is important but so is HDL and which is more important and relevant to good health is speculative so we should look beyond LDL in isolation to determine a food's health impact."

    Most experts agree that to reduce the risk of heart disease, replacing saturated fats with healthier unsaturated fats is preferred. There is further agreement that more research is needed in the area of fatty acids and its relationship to health.

    Sorting Out Fat Confusion

    There are two basic categories of fats. Healthy fats are unsaturated and include vegetable oils, fish oils, and plant fats in nuts, avocados, and seeds. These fats should be the primary fats in your diet because they are either neutral or raise HDL cholesterol but don't raise LDL cholesterol.

    The less healthy saturated fats found in animal fats and tropical oils, including coconut oil, are allowed, but in lesser amounts because they raise LDL cholesterol.

    Trans fats in processed foods are the worst fats, capable of lowering HDL and increasing LDL, and should be kept as low as possible.
    Food Is More Important Than Nutrients

    Eating a nutritious diet that includes mostly whole foods and is balanced in calories is more important that worrying about specific nutrients and foods, Diekman says.

    For instance, asparagus cooked in coconut oil is a better choice than partially hydrogenated coconut oil in baked goods but not necessarily better than asparagus cooked in olive oil.

    What is most important is your overall dietary pattern. "We can't say coconut oil is healthy or not healthy, it depends on the rest of the diet," Mozaffarian says.

    We eat foods, not nutrients, and if consumers paid more attention to choosing healthier foods, reading nutrition labels, and following the advice of the Dietary Guidelines, the issue of fats would be resolved.

    Using Coconut Oil in Foods and Cooking

    Coconut oil is being used in processed foods because it is relatively inexpensive and can provide crisp texture to foods, Clemens says.

    Coconut oil also has a high smoke point that makes it resistant to oxidation and shelf stable. Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated coconut oil is found in cereals, baked goods, biscuits, salty snacks, soaps, cosmetics, and moisturizers.

    Coconut oil is gaining favor with vegans, who prefer getting their saturated fat from plant foods. Chefs are discovering the unique properties of coconut oil in food because it has a high smoke point and hardening ability.

    Enjoy coconut oil if it is your preference but do so in moderation until further research indicates it is better than other saturated fats.

    View Article Sources Sources
    Mesnick, R. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2003; vol 77: pp 1146-55.
    American Heart Association web site.
    2010 Dietary Guidelines.
    Connie Diekman, M.Ed., RD, director of university nutrition, Washington University in St Louis; past president, American Dietetic Association; author, The Everything Mediterranean Diet Book.
    Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD, distinguished professor of nutritional sciences, Penn State University; member, 2005 Dietary Guidelines advisory committee; member, Institute of Medicine panel on dietary reference intakes for macronutrients; member, American Heart Association nutrition committee.
    Dariush Mozaffarian, MD DrPH, co-director, program in cardiovascular epidemiology; associate professor of medicine and epidemiology, division of cardiovascular medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School; department of epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health.
    Roger Clemens, Dr PH, spokesman and incoming president, Institute of Food Technologists; member, 2010 Dietary Guidelines advisory committee; professor, University of Southern California; associate director, regulatory science, and adjunct professor, pharmacology and pharmaceutical science, the University of Southern California, spokesman, American Society for Nutrition.
    Edited on March 10, 2011