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Can coconut improve our health?

Portrait of Sri Lankan young girl with coconut

Coconut oil was once associated with tanning. Something young people coated themselves with before lying out in the sun “to bake”

Although we are more “sun smart” these days, coconut oil and coconut products are being heralded by many as the new “wonder foods” that can:

  • Reduce Alzheimer’s disease
  • Assist thyroid function
  • Aid weight loss
  • Reduce dental caries
  • Lower heart disease
  • Reduce Type 2 Diabetes
  • Assist athletes with hydration

So is this true? Can this tropical plant live up to these claims?
At present there is a lack of good evidenced based research surrounding many of these claims but let’s take a look at what we know so far.

What is coconut?

A Coconut is the fruit from the coconut palm tree Cocos nucifera and is not a nut but a drupe. Unlike other fruits coconuts contains a large quantity of water when they are immature and can be harvested early for drinking. When mature, coconuts have less water and can be harvested and used as seed nuts or processed to give oil from the kernel; charcoal from the hard shell and coir from the fibrous husk, which is used for making floor mats and brushes. The edible flesh lining the coconut inner shell copra can be eaten raw or dried and the milk and oil can be used in cooking.1  The oil can also be used for the making of soap, fragrances and moisturizers.

Coconut oil

Dietary sources

Coconut oil comes in various forms:

  • Virgin’ coconut oil is extracted from coconut meat and not processed.
  • Refined coconut oil is extracted from the coconut kernel, through a processing method that involves heating, bleaching and deodorising.
  • Cold pressed coconut oil presses out all the coconut oil using an external heat source. 2.

Compared to other fats coconut contains high levels of saturated fat:

Table 1: Coconut compared to butter and olive oil

Type of fat

Energy

Fat

Saturated

Polys

Monos

100mls

kJ/kcals

g

mg

mg

mg

Coconut oil

3750/895

99

91.1

1.8

7

Butter

3100/740

81.6

73.2

25

24

Olive oil

3760/898

99.6

17.7

12.5

69.6

Ref Food works 2009

Around 75-80% of coconut is composed of the following saturated fatty acids:

  • 47.3% Lauric (C12:0)
  • 15.8% Myristic (C14:0)
  • 6.8% Capric (C10:0)
  • 6.7% Palmitic (C16:0)

The numbers in brackets represents the number of carbon atoms in the fatty acid chain.

Although coconut oil contains a large amount of saturated fats most of these fatty acids are medium- chain triglycerides (MCT), unlike most animal saturated fats which are long-chain triglycerides (LCT).2  MCT oils have a fatty acid chain length of 6-12 carbon atoms compared to LCT >12C.

Absorption of MCT’s verses LCT’s

MCT is absorbed into the portal circulation and transported to the liver for oxidation. So MCT’s do not participate in the synthesis and transport of cholesterol. 2

This is quite different to LCT’s which are transported via chylomicrons into the lymphatic system allowing the uptake of fat into adipose tissue. 2

Virgin coconut oil has a greater concentration of MCT (70-85%) than refined coconut oil. Because of its high saturated fat content coconut oil is slow to oxidize and is therefore resistant to rancidification and may last for up to two years without spoiling.

Coconut milk

Is popular for cooking in South East Asian and the amount of saturated fat it contains depends on its concentration.
Thick coconut milk is 20-22% saturated fat and is used for making desserts and sauces.
Thin coconut milk is 5-7% saturated fat and is useful for soups and general cooking and has a greater water content
Canned coconut milk tends to be a combination of thick and thin milk.

Compared to cow’s milk coconut contains more saturated fat

Table 2: Various coconut milk products compared to cow’s milk

Type   of milk

Energy

Fat

Saturated

Polys

Monos

100mls

kJ/kcals

g

mg

mg

mg

 Coconut milk- raw

91/22.8

0.2

94.6

1

4.3

Coconut   cream-lite

213/50.9

7.5

95

0

4.5

Coconut   cream-UHT

720/172

16

95

0

4.5

Whole   cows milk

266/63

3.5

68.5

3.3

2.8

Whole   cows milk-Trim

179/42.9

0.42

71

1.9

26.9

Ref Food works 2009

Coconut water

This is a popular drink in tropical countries and India, Brazilian coast, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.
Coconut waters are now being marketed as a natural energy sports drink with a high potassium and mineral content, low in fat, carbohydrate and calories.While these drinks may be a welcome change from drinking water their use as a sports drink is limited because they are lower in energy and sodium than other sports drinks, ingredients essential to athletes with high sweat losses and increased energy needs.

Table 3: Coconut waters compared to Gatorade® Sports drink

Type   of drink

Energy

Carbohydrate

Sodium

Potassium

100mls

Kj/kcals

g

mg

mg

Coconut water

97.8

5.45

19

222.7

Coconut sports water

84/20

5

19

222

Gatorade®

121.8/29

6.5

46

10.2

Powerade®

124/29.7

7.2

37

4.4

Ref Food works 2009

The additional potassium in coconut water is not as important as the sodium for sport and in fact in excess potassium can affect heart function.

The health benefits of coconut

Coconut and dental caries

Irish researchers have discovered that coconut oil has an enzyme similar to that found in the digestive tract. This enzyme is effective in blocking the development of most strains of streptococcus bacteria including streptococcus mutans which are the major cause of tooth decay. Studies are continuing. 3

Heart Health

HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) increased when a group of 1839 pre-menopausal women aged 35-69 in the Philippines were given coconut oil in a dietary trial. No associations were observed between coconut oil intake and total cholesterol (TC), LDL cholesterol (LDL-C), ratio of TC:HDL or triglyceride level. 4

Butter v’s coconut oil and safflower oil.  When these fats were fed to 28 hypercholesterolemic men and women over a period of 6 weeks and results compared the TC, LDL-C were significantly higher from butter compared to coconut oil, however the lowest cholesterol levels were found using the safflower oil. 5

Coconut oil v’s olive oil and palm olein were evaluated in a study involving 45 healthy Malaysian adults. Each fat studied contributed 20% of the energy from fat in the Malaysian diet (consisting of 30% calories from fat,20% calories from protein and 50% calories from carbohydrate). It was found that the fasting TC, LDL-C and HDL-C were all higher (5-7%) on the coconut oil diet than the olive oil, but were comparable to the effects observed on the palm olein diet.6

Obesity and diabetes

American researchers have examined the role of coconut oils (MCT ) compare to lard (LCT’s) in reducing insulin resistance (an impaired ability of cells to respond to insulin) in muscle and fat. The researchers  also looked at fat accumulation. They found that mice fed MCT fatty acid diets displayed reduced adiposity and better glucose tolerance than LCT fatty acid fed animals. 7

One of the researchers Dr Nigel Turner explains that “unlike LCT fatty acids in animal fats , MCT fatty acids are small enough to enter the mitochondria – the cells energy burning powerhouse-where they are converted into energy, The downside is however that MCT’s can lead to a build-up of fat in the liver and important consideration for anyone considering them as a weight loss therapy”.
Dr Turner suggested that “fish oil maybe a better choice because the omega 3 polyunsaturated fats it contains improve fat oxidation in the liver”. 8

There can be no doubt that research surrounding the use of coconut is advancing and with open minds we need to ‘watch this space with interest’.

Update:Oil and Fat News May/June 2017

Highly inaccurate and exaggerated positive articles on coconut oil claiming numerous health benefits continue to appear in the non-peer reviewed literature. The articles still maintain the erroneous statement that coconut oil is like MCT oil in its make-up. A recent article published by researchers at the University of Auckland (2016) used MCT oil as a placebo when studying the beneficial effects of long chain omega-3. MCT oil was in fact not neutral but had negative effects on lipid profiles.9

Their conclusions are listed below:

MCT oil was not neutral in its effect on blood lipid biomarkers. The results were surprising and unexpected and have raised serious questions for the claims made about the nutritional properties of MCT oils, and the spurious connection with high lauric oils currently being used by some marketers to promote coconut oil and its products.10

If you would like a nutritional analysis of the amount and types of fats in your diet now in order to lose weight, control diabetes or heart disease then contact us today.

Update:

2019 For more scientific background information on coconut oil warnings

References:

  1. Wikipedia Coconut en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coconut
  2. Liau KM,Lee YY, Chen CK, Rasool AH. An open-label pilot study to assess the efficacy and safety of virgin coconut oil in reducing visceral adiposity. ISRN Pharmacol.2011 (cited 2012 Jun12):2011:949686. Abstract available from http://www.ncbi.nim.nih.govt/pubmed/22164340
  3. AIT researchers show coconut oil could combat tooth decay. Posted 3 Sept 2012  www.ait.ie/research/researchnews/title-16107-en.html
  4. Feranil AB, Duazo PL, Kuzawa CW, Adair LS. Coconut oil is associated with a beneficial lipid profile in pre-menopausal women in the Philippines. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2011 (cited 2012 Jun 12);20(2):190-5. Abstract available from: http://www.ncbi.nim.nih.govt/pubmed/21669587
  5. Cox C, Mann J, Sutherland W, Chisholm A, Skeaff M. Effects of coconut oil, butter and safflower oil on lipids and lipoproteins in persons with moderately elevated cholesterol levels. J Lipid Res. 1995 Aug (cited 2012 Jun 12):36(8):1787-95. Abstract available from: http://www.ncbi.nim.nih.govt/pubmed/7595099
  6. Voon PT, Ng TK, Lee VK, Nesaretnam K. Diets high in palmitic acid (16:0), Lauric and myristic acids (12:0+14:0), or oleic acid (18:1) do not alter postprandial or fasting plasma homocysteine and inflammatory markers in healthy Malaysian adults. Am J Clin Nutr.2011 Dec(cited 2012 Jun12);94(6):1451-7 Abstract available from: http://ncbi.nih.govt/pubmed/22030224
  7. Turner N,TidAg J, Wiget L, Kraegen E. Enhancement of muscle mitochondrial oxidation capacity and alteration in insulin action are lipid specific-dependent. Potent tissue-specific effects of medium chain fatty acids. Amer. Diabetes Aug 31, 2009
  8. Coconut oil might reduce the symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes. Posted Wed 23 Sept 2009 www.defeatdiabetes.org/news/view.asp?catid=3720&id=57814
  9. Laurence Eyres FNZIFST. Coconut and MCT oil Fat News May/June 2017 
  10. Laing.B., et.al. Annals of Clinical and Laboratory Research, (2016), Vol. 4 No. 3 ,1

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »

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