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Tuesday 9 January 2018

Is coconut oil a superfood?

Sales of coconut oil are rocketing, propelled by celebrity endorsements and claims that drinking the stuff will cure everything from bad breath to digestive disorders.

Actress Angelina Jolie-Pitt is said to have a tablespoon or so with her breakfast most mornings, while model Miranda Kerr says she not only adds it to salads and smoothies, but she cooks with it and splashes it on her skin as well.

The health claims that swirl around coconut oil are treated with a great deal of scepticism by scientists.

If anything coconut oil is seen, in the scientific community, as an unhealthy fat. It is very high in saturated fat (86%), even more so than butter (51%) or lard (39%).

The reason that foods rich in saturated fats are frowned on is because eating them causes a rise in blood levels of LDL (low density lipoprotein).

LDL is known as "bad cholesterol" because high levels are linked with increased risk of heart disease.

On the other hand, saturated fats - which are particularly bad for you - also tend to raise HDL, "good" cholesterol, which has the opposite effect. It is possible that a particular food can raise overall cholesterol levels, yet still be heart-friendly.

Cholesterol check

So is coconut oil a cholesterol-busting wonder food, as some claim, or is this all dangerous hype?

Despite all the sound and fury that surrounds coconut oil there have been surprisingly few human studies carried out to test specific health claims.

So for the current BBC2 series of Trust Me I'm a Doctor, we thought we should help organise a trial.

The Trust Me team started by contacting Prof Kay-Tee Khaw and Prof Nita Forouhi, both eminent Cambridge academics.

With their help we recruited 94 volunteers, aged 50-75 and with no history of diabetes or heart disease, and designed a study to assess what effect eating different types of fat would have on their cholesterol levels.

We began by randomly allocating our volunteers to one of three groups. Every day for four weeks, the first was asked to eat 50g of extra virgin coconut oil - that's about three tablespoons full.

The second group was asked to consume the same amount of extra virgin olive oil.

Olive oil is a key element of the Mediterranean diet, which is widely seen as being extremely healthy.

And the third was asked to eat 50g of unsalted butter a day. Again, that adds up to just over three tablespoons.

The volunteers were told that they could consume these fats in whatever way they pleased, as long as they did so every day for the whole four weeks.

They were also warned that, because they were consuming an extra 450 calories a day, they might well put on some weight.

Before our volunteers started on their new high-fat regime we took blood samples to get baseline measurements, focusing mainly on their levels of LDL (the "bad" cholesterol) and HDL (the "good" cholesterol)

The importance of these two measures is that your heart attack risk is best calculated, not by looking at your total cholesterol score, but your total cholesterol divided by your HDL score. NHS Choices suggests that this figure should be below four.

So what happened? As expected the butter eaters saw an average rise in their LDL levels of about 10%, which was almost matched by a 5% rise in their HDL levels

Those consuming olive oil saw a small reduction, albeit a non-significant drop, in LDL cholesterol, and a 5% rise in HDL. So olive oil lived up to its heart-friendly reputation.


But the big surprise was the coconut oil. Not only was there no rise in LDL levels, which was what we were expecting, but there was a particularly large rise in HDL, the "good" cholesterol, up by 15%

On the face of it that would suggest that the people consuming the coconut oil had actually reduced their risk of developing heart disease or stroke.

I asked Prof Khaw, who was clearly surprised by these results, why she thought it had happened

"I have no real idea," she candidly replied. "Perhaps it is because the main saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid and lauric acid may have different biological impacts on blood lipids to other fatty acids. The evidence for that comes mainly from animals, so it was fascinating to see this effect in free-living humans."

So should we be hailing coconut oil as a health food?

"I think decisions to eat particular oils depend on more than just the health effects", she said. "This is just one study and it would be irresponsible to suggest changing dietary advice based on one study, however well conducted."

This was a very short-term study and compared to olive oil, research on coconut oil is at an early stage.

So the claims about coconut oil being a superfood are premature.

But if, like me, you enjoy putting coconut in your curries, there seems no very good reason to stop.



Valerie-Jael said...

Thanks for a very informative article. Hugs, Valerie

only slightly confused said...

I'll stick with the olive oil.

Christine said...

Thanks for this information, I've always wondered about coconut oil's benefits or otherwise.

Pom Pom said...

Interesting. I like olive oil better anyway. Butter is so good but so FATTY. I think I've had my fair share of butter in my lifetime, so I'll leave it for others now. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

very interesting I enjoy coconut oil and i use it as a moisturizer but I don't eat it everyday and never three tablespoons,

Practical Parsimony said...

I decided to jump on the bandwagon and bought coconut oil. Then, I never tried it as I chickened out. So, now I rub it on my legs. It does feel very nice and my legs are not dry. I will stick to olive oil.

riitta k said...

This was very interesting reading. I have always been very sceptical about coconut oil and don't have any desire for it :) I use olive oil and rapeseed oil, and think they are enough for me.

eileeninmd said...

Hello, thanks for the info. We usually stick with the olive oil.

Happy Wednesday, enjoy your day!

Iris Flavia said...

That was very interesting indeed, thank you!
Sadly I didn´t like the sweetness, at least not for frying.

Conniecrafter said...

I have been hearing such conflicting stories on the good side and bad side, sometimes so hard to know but this is encouraging, I had already made up my mind to keep using it because I don't use much of it anyway, but it is good to hear these results

baili said...

oh this is shocking for me

did not know this ,thank you sooo much for this wonderful post , my mom and grandma used this oil much in daily life

but i use it very less

Carol Blackburn said...

Love coconut oil. Tastes great in my black coffee and is a nice change from grass-fed butter.

Magic Love Crow said...

Thank you Graham! Excellent post!