While I agree that "everything in moderation" works for most people, I almost fell off my seat when an acquaintance of mine informed me that upon returning from seeing her family over the holidays, she was thrilled to learn that they were making healthy dietary changes by giving up olive oil for coconut oil.
I quickly recomposed myself as I gently broke the news that the decision to give up olive oil for coconut oil was not a good one. She was surprised at my reaction as I went on to explain that replacing monounsaturated fat (olive oil) with saturated fat (coconut oil) could be detrimental to one’s health!
Coconut oil is being touted as a miracle food by the marketing gurus in the food industry and the fad hasn't sizzled out. Health claims stating that coconut oil prevents dementia, aids in weight loss and cures ailments are scientifically unproven. Conversely, extensive research has concluded that ingesting a diet rich in saturated fats - like those found in coconut oil - clogs up your arteries! While generous amounts of saturated fats like coconut applied to the skin may be useful as a moisturizer, err on the side of caution when it comes to ingesting the stuff.
What exactly is coconut oil? Coconut oil is extracted from the "meat" of mature coconuts-the hard-shelled fruit of the coconut palm. Coconut and palm kernel oil are tropical fruit oils that were commonly used in processed foods up until the 1980s. They are solid at room temperature and have a long shelf life. These types of fats are preferable for processed and packaged foods because they are more stable than unsaturated fats. Coconut oil is the most concentrated form of saturated fat-even more so than animal fats like butter and beef.
In the early 1900s trans fats, the first man-made saturated fats, were invented by adding hydrogen gas to liquid vegetable oils. The German scientist who made this discovery presented it to Procter & Gamble for use as a soap product, although it was more like lard. In 1911 P&G started selling this product as Crisco. Thus the introduction of hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils into our food supply. Hydrogenated oils increased the shelf life of baked goods and improved the texture of processed foods. It was an inexpensive substitute for butter and was also used in fast food restaurants for frying. From the 1950s to the 1980s, government and health organizations funded extensive research on the relationship between diet and heart disease. The research concluded that a diet high in saturated fats was linked to heart disease. Food companies removed coconut and other tropical oils from products and replaced them largely with partially hydrogenated oils.
By the early 1990s, clinical and epidemiological studies found clear-cut evidence that industrially-produced trans fats caused heart disease. In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration stated that partially hydrogenated oils - the source of trans fatty acids, were no longer recognized as safe for use in food. These oils were removed from the GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) list. Can you guess what came back into our food supply to replace these partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats)? Tropical oils. The food industry came full circle!
Today, coconut oil, in particular, can be found everywhere! It's sold in packets, cooking sprays, tubs, jars and bottles and is available as extra-virgin, cold-pressed, organic, raw and so on. There are health claims being made from doctors, nutritionists and other so-called health advocates - without disclosure as to whether they are getting paid by pro-coconut oil lobbyists - touting this saturated fat-rich oil as a miracle cure to almost every ailment.
Saturated fats raise LDL (bad) cholesterol. Limited research shows that lauric acid, the main saturated fatty acid in coconut oil, raises both LDL and HDL cholesterol. Although research shows that a high HDL level in the blood is protective, when both LDL and HDL go up, the body is increasing its total cholesterol level. When total cholesterol increases, the risk of heart disease increases. Coconut oil contains the same level of artery-clogging saturated fat as beef drippings and contains more saturated fat than butter and lard at 10 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon.
Claims saying coconut oil is a treatment for Alzheimer's disease is based on a theory that MCT (medium-chain triglycerides) containing oil boosts the liver’s production of ketones (byproducts of fat breakdown), providing an alternative energy source for brain cells that have lost their ability to use glucose as a result of Alzheimer’s. There are no published human studies to back this theory. MCT oil is manufactured in a laboratory, by processing coconut or palm kernel oils. It is easily absorbed and used as a fat source in intravenous feeding and for treatment of fat absorption disorders. In any event, recent studies conclude that coconut oil actually comprises only 13 to 15 percent MCTs.
Coconut oil is pure fat and like all edible fats, it's a concentrated source of calories. At 117 calories per tablespoon, it's ridiculous to say that consuming large quantities of coconut oil will shrink your waistline.
Getting back to my "everything in moderation" philosophy, coconut oil may be fine to use occasionally when making traditional recipes from tropical island countries. It can be safely smeared on your skin as a moisturizer. However for everyday use in cooking, stick to the unsaturated fats, especially monounsaturated fats like cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. Fresh cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil is rich in polyphenols, antioxidants known to fight oxidative stress. Fresh olive oil has been a part of the healthiest diet in the world - the Mediterranean diet.
To learn more about the diet and lifestyles of the healthiest countries in Europe, pick up a copy of my award winning book: Beyond The Mediterranean Diet: European Secrets Of The Super-Healthy. Consider joining a culinary and cultural journey in southern Italy this fall and learn about the olive oil harvest and the importance of the quality and freshness of the olives in determining the health benefits of the oil.
Layne Lieberman has no financial ties to the food industry.