Thursday, September 25, 2008

Debunking the Bunk - Coconut

Coconut was one of the Big Evils when I was growing up. High in sat fat, bad for cholesterol, one of those foods that just wasn't worth it. It helped that I've never liked coconut, so it was one of those "bad" foods that I never missed. Something about the texture of it just doesn't sit right with me.

The Bad Stuff
And this post isn't to totally debunk coconut as bad, because it's never going to be one of those antioxidant superfoods we keep hearing about. It is high in saturated fat (one two-ounce piece contains more than 13g, two thirds the recommended daily limit) and delivers a higher sat-fat punch than butter, lard or margarine. Coconut oil also substantially elevates LDL (bad) cholesterol.

Given all this, you're probably asking right about now how coconut made it into my Debunking the Bunk series, right?

The Not-So-Bad Stuff
Well, it turns out that coconut isn't as bad as we thought it was. Sure, it's got sat fat, and it will raise your LDL if you eat too much of it. However, companies are now researching using coconut oil in place of the all nasty partially hydrogenated (trans fat) oils (shout out to my mother for being thoroughly ahead of the curve and teaching me at a very early age that partially hydrogenated was bad, before any of us had even heard the words "trans fat"). And the reason they're looking to use coconut oil is that while it does raise LDL, it also significantly raises HDL (good) cholesterol, whereas trans fats raise LDL and lower HDL. (Source)

The Good Stuff
So I read up on the good side of coconut at this obviously biased very helpful site. They claim that coconut is used by those with thyroid issues to increase body metabolism and for others to lose weight (wait, saturated fat helps us lose weight? Yippee!!). It's also used for soaps and they claim it's one of the healthiest products you can put on your skin (unless, of course, you're going to go out and fry in the sun in it). The claim is that the past studies done on coconut were done on hydrogenated coconut oil, which is altered from its original form (the source listed in the not-so-bad section makes no mention of what kind of oil was studied).

In studies, the medical community seems to be on board with the fact that coconut can be a powerful tool to use again immune diseases. Published studies in medical journals (mentioned at a site which conveniently doesn't link to them) list the following as some healthy applications of coconut:

- Kills a variety of fungi, bacteria, and parasites
- Improves absorption of vitamins and minerals
- Reduces certain problems associated with pancreatitis, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, osteoporosis, gallbladder disease, Crohn's disease, ulcers, cancer, periodontal disease, epileptic seizures, kidney disease (and disolves kidney stones), liver disease, psoriasis, and eczema
- Reduces inflammation and aids in tissue repair
- Helps prevent obesity and is lower in fat than other oils
- Softens skin and prevents dryness and cracking, prevents wrinkles and age spots, promotes healthy hair and complexion
- Helps control dandruff
- Does your laundry and pays all your bills

Ok, so that last one was just to see if you were paying attention.

Do I detect a note of cynicism?
Now, thing is, what with this litany of benefits from coconut, you'd think that that's all we'd be hearing about, right? Coconut this, coconut that. It would be the new blueberry, the new pomegranate, the new acai berry. Pardon me if I'm a little skeptical, but seriously, if coconut were all that, wouldn't doctors be prescribing it by the boatload? Our supermarkets would have a whole aisle devoted to coconut. And while it may have the effect as listed above on people, I tend to be skeptical about one kind of food that seems to be able to do absolutely anything. Cancer? Diabetes? Beautiful skin? Hmm.

So I'm debunking the fact that coconut is the evil is was always thought to be (at least, when I was growing up). But I'm not entirely swayed in the other direction. I'll wait it out and see whether all the happy happy coconut joy holds out (hope it does) or whether we should just put the lime in the coconut on special occasions.


Charlotte said...

As a food actually found in nature, I come down firmly on the side of the ol' coconut. I think it is good for you. They've done several studies that show that the saturated fat in coconuts actually isn't the kind that raises cholesterol. Although cholesterol (even LDL) isn't the bad guy most people make it out to be either. Plus coconuts are the only natural source of lineolic acid - a compound essential to breast milk. Not to mention that coconut water can be used in blood transfusions as it so closely mirrors our bodies natural ratios. I love coconuts. I cook with virgin oil and coconut milk. I drink coconut water on ocasion. Love the stuff!

Romny said...

I agree, I like coconut milk in Thai food and the occasional Pina Colada but as for the fruit (or is it a vegetable?) I don't care for it. But if it really does pay my bills like you say, I'm stocking up !

The Lethological Gourmet said...

Actually, eating it fresh it about the only way I can eat it (well, coconut milk is ok), it's the dried flaky stuff I can't stand.

Charlotte, I didn't realize coconut milk could be used in blood transfusions! That's really cool!

Healthy Oil Guy said...

Virgin coconut oil is an excellent source of lauric acid. Studies show lauric acid converts into monolaurin, a very powerful antimicrobial. This is where a lot of websites made the connection that ingesting coconut oil can help your body fight bacteria and viruses. However, there is not enough published studies to support this claim. Studies on coconut oi and lauric acid found the conversion process is very ineffecient. In other words, you would have to eat a lot of coconut oil in order to get any sort of anti-microbial effect - and you would probably get an upset stomach or diarrhea from eating all that coconut oil. Coconut oil is an excellent natural skin moisturizer and hair conditioner. It is also a source of medium chain triglycerides. Studies have shown that medium chain triglycerides can boost your metabolism, thus the claim that coconut oil may help you lose weight.

Frederick said...


I believe the key to understanding coconut oil's remarkable health benefits is to understand Fats. Too many times, when people talk about coconut oil - it's saturated fat this and saturated fat that... What they almost always forget to say or maybe simply don't know is that coconut oil is mostly medium chain fatty acids (MCFA).

Almost all other dietary fats and oils are mostly, if not entirely, long chain fatty acids (LCFA). MCFAs behave so so differently from LCFAs. To cut a long story short, MCFA-rich coconut oil is PRO-Energy, NOT PRO-Fat. MCFAs go straight to your liver to be used as fuel to power metabolism. Unlike LCFAs, MCFAs don't have to travel great distances in your body to be of any use, if any at all.

This is getting too long so I'll have to conclude. If we'll just mention the fact that coconut oil is a saturated fat BUT two-thirds MCFA, I believe people will see clearly why coconut oil is unique and in reality, The Healthiest Oil on the Planet. The evidence is in the MCFAs. There are countless studies on MCFAs that will show how healthy coconut oil truly is.

Your Drugstore in a Bottle

WeightingGame said...

i remember being alittle girl and my dad would take my bro and i in the basement with a coconut and hammer a nail into it, drain the "milk" and let us drink it (yum!! we had no clue about cholesterol back then) Then he'd crack that sucker open and we'd all eat. Great memory!

The Lethological Gourmet said...

WG, it sounds like coconut milk is one of the good-for-you-coconut products...I think that it's the oil that has the most controversy surrounding it.

Frederick and Healthy Oil Guy, thanks for all the great facts! It's hard sometimes to tease out from websites what's the valid scientific information and what's just marketing. Thanks for your two cents!