Proponents of coconut oil like health benefits

The Canadian Press
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But users should be aware of high levels of saturated fats

Broccoli with orange ginger-flavoured coconut oil sauce is seen in this undated handout photo. — Photo by The Canadian Press

If you believe everything you read on the Internet, coconut oil is a panacea, recommended for everything from frying your chicken to shaving your legs.

Its proponents say it relieves stress, promotes increased immunity, metabolism and weight loss, fights viruses, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney problems, heart disease, high blood pressure and much more. Topically applied, it is said to prevent wrinkling and be good for dry skin and hair.

But coconut oil is more than 90 per cent saturated fat, or about 11.8 grams per 15 millilitres (one tablespoon), compared to about 63 per cent or 7.2 grams for the same amount of butter. And saturated fat is generally considered to be a “bad” fat that increases overall cholesterol levels and specifically bad cholesterol.

The reason this doesn’t apply to coconut oil, say supporters, is that about half the saturated fat in the oil is medium-chain fatty acids, which are easier to digest than the more prevalent long-chain fatty acids in most other oils, including butter.

While the scientific community doesn’t disagree, it urges caution. Everybody from the World Health Organization to the American Heart Association and Dietitians of Canada advise limiting the consumption of significant amounts of coconut oil due to its high saturated fat content.

“I don’t think any health professional, including myself, is going to tell you to increase the level of saturated fat in your diet,” says Len Piche, a nutritional scientist, registered dietitian and professor in the Foods and Nutrition program at Brescia University College at Western University in London.

On the other hand, he says, “I’m not so sure that the nutrient profile of saturated fat in coconut oil is all that bad necessarily because some of them are shorter-chain fatty acids and aren’t implicated in some of the chronic diseases” associated with saturated fat. So if cooks “like the flavour or what it does to food,” it’s fine to use in limited amounts.

“I think people would be wise to think of using more than one kind of cooking oil,” he concludes.

Piche explains that Canada’s Food Guide used to contain a recommendation for the amount of saturated fat consumed in a diet. That was dropped after a congress of American and Canadian scientists produced a detailed series of studies called Dietary Reference Intake Reports.

Rather than make specific suggestions regarding saturated fat, trans fatty acids and cholesterol, they made a “precautionary” recommendation for all three, “to keep (consumption levels) as low as possible while maintaining a nutritionally adequate diet,” Piche says, stressing that this applies to otherwise healthy people.

But you shouldn’t “go crazy and cut all the fat out of your diet because now you’re going to start hurting the levels of fat-soluble vitamins that you’re going to get in your diet if you have too low a fat intake.”

Jackie Sarginson of Quesnel, B.C., is a firm believer in the benefits of coconut oil. She is one of the owners of T.T. Ultimate Products, the Canadian distributor of a high-end line of coconut oil called Tropical Traditions. But she also cooks with it almost exclusively, although her husband still insists on putting butter on his popcorn.

When you first start cooking with it you have to “play around with it” a bit, but generally she finds she uses a little less coconut oil than she would have to use of other oils or fats.

It gives food a faint coconut taste, it doesn’t affect colour and it’s particularly good for frying because it tolerates high temperatures without breaking down into trans fat, she says. If you don’t want the coconut flavour, you can buy “expeller pressed” coconut oil, which has the scent and flavour of the coconut removed. But this process somewhat decreases the nutritional value of the oil.

There are three kinds of coconut oil — organic (grown using organic manure), virgin (extracted from fresh coconut without using chemicals or high temperatures) and refined (made from dried coconut or “copra” that has been bleached and deodorized).

The oil sold by Sarginson’s firm is certified organic, virgin oil. And although some firms sell coconut oil labelled “extra virgin,” she says “there’s no such thing.”

All coconut oil comes in the form of a white solid and looks much like shortening. Stored at room temperature, it will last for years. In the refrigerator, it may get so hard you can’t even get a spoon into it, says Sarginson.

It can easily be melted over low heat (never in a microwave), she says. But because its melting point is so high (24 C/76 F), as soon as it comes in contact with cool foods it starts to solidify again. This does not make it good for liquid applications such as salad dressings unless they’re warm dressings served over a hot salad.

Because Tropical Traditions oils, which come from mountainous regions of the Philippines, are more expensive than some other brands, they are not sold in grocery stores but only online at or by phone order to Sarginson’s firm. She says they have customers right across the country.

Like Piche, she urges consumers to use “due diligence” when investigating coconut oil and before deciding what kind to buy.

“There are a lot of coconut oils out there that aren’t good for anybody,” she says.

Organizations: Brescia University College, World Health Organization, American Heart Association Western University T.T. Ultimate Products

Geographic location: Canada, London.On the other hand, Quesnel Philippines

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Recent comments

  • Wotan
    March 14, 2013 - 17:21

    Thor that Cochrane study is an update of an earlier lopsided study during the heyday of anti-fat bias. The updated results are emasculated in comparison since the more recent studies have been showing far less conclusiveness. I suspect publishing bias in the earlier studies. Other more recent meta-analyses also show insignificant association with saturated fats. Siri-Tirano et al. for example. The relatively recent realization that carbohydrates are probably a bigger problem really undermines older studies that did not properly account for them.

  • Jon Law
    March 12, 2013 - 05:55

    The medium chain fatty acids in coconut oil render the oil healthy. These fats are absorbed differently to long chain fatty acids, which comprise most saturated fats.. For more information on coconut oil click through.

  • Thor
    March 11, 2013 - 17:12 Good call James... Do you tin foil hat folk simply blindly follow whatever conspiracy theory you heard last? Do you do any research for yourself? Are you purposely lying hoping people won't look it up for themselves? There are tens to hundreds of studies on saturated fats. Most show an increased risk of heart disease. Some do not. There is currently some controversy about the topic, however, if you read the most current review above, the current belief is that it increases risk of heart disease. If you want to talk about evidence, there is currently none for any of the claims being made about coconut oil. How about them apples?

  • James
    March 11, 2013 - 14:41

    From everything I know about the industry, neither the american heart association, nor the dietitions of canada are reputable sources. They are almost as bad as the ADA. The best that can be said is that some of them are misguided because they were taught an unproven hypothesis and never tested it and just assumed it was correct, and using this as a premise taints all of their conclusions. A lot of them, however, know exactly what they are peddling and do it because to do otherwise would cost them their funding. Here is a statement for you: There has never been a single clinical trial, EVER, which showed that dietary sources of saturated fat or cholesterol caused heart disease. There have been plenty of clinical trials showing otherwise, however. For one of the more moderate ones take a look at the ATOZ study by professor gardner. You can youtube it and will find the conference where he presents their methodology and gives all the figures and results, if you don't want to read it... And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

  • Starr
    March 11, 2013 - 13:04

    This is a very uninformed, uneducated article and old-fashioned in its knowledge of saturated fats. To be healthy coconut oil should be virgin or extra virgin, preferably certified organic. All saturate fats are not created equal, as this writer has been brainwashed by the industry to believe. Coconut oil is a medium-chain fatty acid and as such is not stored in our fat cells but actually causes a reaction in the body known as thermogenesis, which speeds up the metabolism. Thus coconut oil is an aid in weight loss. For informed and accurate information, check out The Juice Lady, cherie calbom, who is a nutritionist with a master's degree. Also Dr. Bruce Fife and then write another more intelligent and informed article.