Coconut oil seems to be the cure-all food product. It's the natural tooth whitener, the ultimate facial moisturizer, and the new healthy fat. I'm not a dentist or a dermatologist so I can't speak to the first two claims. However, I am a dietitian, so when people start making claims about the “new healthy fat” I feel obliged to get involved.
Now we've already discussed the misconception behind the saturated fat revival and the subsequent rebirth of butter. But what about coconut oil? Is this saturated fat really worthy of replacing all those unsaturated fats, like olive oil and sunflower oil, in kitchens nationwide? Because that seems to be the trend I’m seeing…
To come to a conclusion we first need to establish this one concept:
Each different fat (in this case, coconut oil) is made up of many different kinds of fats – a profile of fats, if you will. So let’s take a look at the fat profile of coconut oil…
Coconut oil is 92% saturated fat, which is a lot – even more than butter. But some of these saturated fats are Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs), which is a good thing. MCTs are saturated fats that are so small they bypass normal digestion and are immediately used for energy by the body.
You see, we like MCTs because most of the bad stuff (read: raising bad cholesterol and artery clogging) happens during the part of digestion that these fats skip.
The problem is that there is one particular fat in coconut oil's profile, called lauric acid, which is what we'll call a "borderline" MCT. It's got 12 carbons and the cutoff for the MCT shortcut is either 12 or 14 carbons…a hotly debated topic.
So why is it such a big deal if lauric acid is or isn’t an MCT? Does it really make that much of a difference? The issue is, 47% of coconut oil's fat profile is composed of lauric acid. So if in fact the cut off for this digestion short cut is 12 carbons, that's a difference of coconut oil being composed of 15% MCT instead of 63% MCT. A pretty big difference if you ask me...and your arteries.
Now here's the deal:
Sadly, there isn’t enough research done just yet to put this debate to rest. But when it comes to your health, and my own, I don’t feel like being the guinea pig if I don’t have to be. And I don’t think you should either.
There are some additional nutritional benefits of coconut oil that don’t involve MCTs. One is the fact that it has polyphenols, which are antioxidants that can help prevent disease and counter stress on our bodies. The other is the fact that it has linoleic acid, which is an essential fat that our bodies cannot make, and therefore need to get from food.
But neither of these are enough to warrant this coconut oil craze. You can get those polyphenol benefits elsewhere in your diet (read: fruits and vegetables). And when they say that coconut oil has linoleic acid, they fail to mention that linoleic acid only comprises a mere 2% of it’s fat profile. Sunflower oil is 71% linoleic acid. Need I say more?
Don’t go throwing out your olive and sunflower oils just yet. Why not wait till we have ample research so that we can make a more educated decision about our health?
One last note before I go:
This is not to say that coconut oil has no place in your kitchen. I for one have it sitting in my fridge right now. In fact, I just used it last week to make vegan chocolate peanut butter balls.
The trick is to use coconut oil sparingly and with purpose. The flavor of coconut oil is unique and can really enhance a dish – particularly when it comes to Indian and Thai cooking. It can also be great in desserts, especially when catering to a vegan audience, which seems to be growing more and more as time goes on.
Bottom line? Absolutes aren’t really my thing…and neither is jumping on a bandwagon without doing the right due diligence. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll have tons of evidence to prove that coconut oil far outshines any other fat in the nutrition game, or maybe we won’t. Only time will tell…