Advocates say raw extra virgin coconut oil reduces cholesterol, boosts immunity and speeds up metabolism and is good for the skin. Others say it is still a saturated fat and we shouldn’t be going overboard about it. Some class it as a superfood and even say it can yield better results than pharmaceutical drugs for some health conditions. We look at which of the myths around coconut oil are true and which are false.
FALSE Coconut oil is a saturated fat, which helps to speed up metabolism, burn fat, and may assist with weight loss. It contains short-term medium-chain saturated fatty acids (MCFAs), which is a ‘healthy’ form of saturated fat, rather than trans fat (the type linked with heart problems and increased cholesterol levels). The human body metabolises these ‘good’ fats and converts them into energy, rather than storing them as ‘fat’.
A significant proportion of the fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, which is known to increase ‘good cholesterol’ in the bloodstream, and a medium chain triglyceride, more likely to be burnt as energy than other fats. Lauric acid is also one of the main components of breast milk (see this study on coconut oil and cholesterol).
TRUE Coconut oil is high in lauric acid (the main component of breast milk) and has the highest concentration of MCFA fatty acids. The body turns this fat into monolaurin, which can help to heal viruses. It’s also made up of caprylic acid, a fatty fat, which contains antifungal and antibacterial properties to boost the immune system. Its antimicrobial properties can have a soothing effect on candida or similar parasites that can cause poor digestion or bloating.
TRUE Our skin is the largest organ and it absorbs what we apply to it. Coconut oil may seem tricky to apply, as in cold weather it solidifies, but once applied it absorbs easily, isn’t greasy and is beneficial for all skin types. It can help to heal wounds, act as an after-sun soother and reduce the appearance of stretch marks and wrinkles.
TRUE/FALSE Some studies suggest that the ketogenic effects of coconut oil can have a dramatic effect on people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, but there is no conclusive evidence of this. (The original study was on epilepsy at the Mayo clinic in 1920 but was later discounted.) Today’s pioneer of using coconut oil to assist with memory loss and Alzheimer’s is Dr Bruce Fife. Watch this video of him talking about the research.
FALSE Coconut oil is a stable oil and doesn’t degrade at high temperatures. That is why it’s ideal for cooking. Vegetable oils, including olive oil, can oxidise at high temperatures and create free radicals. (Olive oil should be used raw, as a dressing only.) If it’s stored in a glass jar, coconut oil will keep for years.
FALSE Unless you have a latex allergy (which is uncommon) it’s highly unlikely you would be allergic to coconut oil. Food allergies and intolerances are usually a result of the digestions of proteins such as wheat, gluten and dairy. The coconut is technically a tree nut, and the protein is in the meat of the coconut not the oil, so allergic reactions are rare. (If you can’t digest fats, of course, a reaction could occur.)
FALSE Not all coconut oils are the same, and it is imperative to know how it is processed. I recommend raw extra virgin coconut oil that is cold pressed, such as that from Tiana Fair Trade Organics. Fresh coconut oil has virtually no aroma and a gentle taste. If your coconut oil smells or tastes bad, don’t use it. If you think you don’t like the smell of coconut, you’re may be remembering the smell of synthetic coconuts in suntan lotion. Pure coconut oil smells of, well, fresh coconut.
TRUE Studies have shown that people who consumed two tablespoons of coconut oil a day burned more calories than a group who didn’t. It can help us to beat sweet cravings, as eating the correct amounts of fats (such as coconut oil) and protein fuels our energy reserves so that we don’t crave sugar to the same extent, and may protect the body from insulin resistance.
TRUE According to Dr Linda Kennedy, coconut oil is a great addition to an athlete’s nutrition programme because of the high concentration of medium-chain fatty acids, which are metabolised and converted into energy. Coconut oil is also believed to stimulate production of thyroid hormones, which are ultimately converted to hormones that can boost strength, endurance and aid fast reaction times.
FALSE A recent study by a team at Cambridge University found no evidence that saturated fats cause heart disease. They analysed data from 72 studies of more than 600,000 participants in 18 countries and found that there is no link between saturated fat consumption and heart disease. It’s usually unsaturated fats that are involved in heart disease and the polyunsaturated fats in vegetable and seed oils and processed foods.