You may have noticed grocery stores are carrying more and more coconut oil. You may also have heard it has many health benefits and could be better than other oils for you. But, is this information true?
Before getting into the pros and cons of coconut oil, let’s go over what it is and how it’s made.
What is Coconut Oil?
Coconut oil, also known as copra oil, is an edible oil that’s extracted from the meat or kernel of the coconut palm’s mature coconuts. It has multiple applications. However, since it has a high saturated fat content (about 82 percent), it doesn’t oxidize that fast, making it resistant to becoming rancid. It can last up to six months without spoiling at 75 °F.
These days you can’t go grocery shopping or browse social media without coming across it. Rumors say it protects against conditions like arthritis, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, helps your thyroid and heart and even helps you lose some weight.
People use coconut oil in just about everything from coffee to smoothies.
How is Coconut Oil Made?
You can extract coconut oil through either dry processing or wet processing.
Dry process: With dry processing, individuals extract the meat from its shell and dry it by sunlight, fire or kilns to make copra. They then press the copra or dissolve it with solvents to produce the oil and a high-fiber, high-protein mash. However, the mash isn’t really for human consumption due to its poor quality and you can’t extract the protein or fiber from it.
Wet Process: In this process, instead of using dried copra, individuals use raw coconut. The coconut’s protein generates an emulsion of water and oil. The challenge though is trying to break the emulsion up to get the oil. Prolonged boiling used to be the method used, but this generates discolored oil that isn’t very economical. Wet processing isn’t as viable as dry processing, despite many technologies and variations, because it has a lower yield. Wet processing also requires an energy and equipment investment which incurs operating costs and high capital.
Pros of Coconut Oil
A recent survey shows 72 percent of individuals in the U.S. believe coconut oil is a healthy food. This compares to 37 percent of nutritionists that think it is. There are some pros to coconut oil, including:
- Raises HDL cholesterol: Coconut oil actually raises your HDL or your “good” cholesterol reports CNN, particularly when you use it to replace carbohydrates in your diet. This could be due to it having high lauric acid content.
- Promotes weight loss: Some research indicates coconut oil being helpful in weight loss and reducing stomach fat. One study published in the journal Lipids found it helped reduce waist circumference when compared with soybean oil. The study participants also consumed a low-calorie diet, consumed more fiber and walked each day for around an hour.
There is also some research that seems to imply that coconut oil might be helpful for seizures.
Cons of Coconut Oil
There are also some drawbacks to coconut oil.
- Increases LDL cholesterol: But, even with all the health claims surrounding the oil, the American Heart Association (AHA) advised against its use, stating it raises bad cholesterol, or LDL, as much as beef fat or butter. The AHA states it increases LDL cholesterol which is known to cause cardiovascular disease. As mentioned, coconut oil is made up of about 82 percent saturated fat — this fat is also found in red meat and butter in large quantities. In fact, coconut oil raises LDL more and contains more saturated fat than butter (64 percent).
- Lack of nutrients: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Nutrient Database states 15 milliliters (ml) or one tablespoon of coconut oil contains 0 g of protein, 120 calories, 14 g of fat, of which 0.5 g is polyunsaturated, 1 g is monounsaturated and 12 g is saturated. Coconut oil also has essentially no vitamins, minerals or fiber.
- Limited research: There’s been a lot of research on coconut oil, but much of this research has been by the manufacturers of coconut oil. There haven’t been many peer-reviewed, independent studies that could support the sponsored studies’ findings. And, while there is a little evidence of health benefits from coconut oil, there’s also the same amount of evidence from well-respected and established independent organizations claiming it can have adverse health effects because of its saturated fats. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t evaluated any of the health benefit claims of coconut oil.
According to the Alzheimer’s Society (UK), there’s not enough evidence to support the benefits of coconut oil on Alzheimer’s Disease.
Overall, coconut oil has a great flavor and using it occasionally won’t likely cause you any problems. But, you should use it sparingly. There’s not a lot of research on its effects on heart disease. And, it’s prudent to check with your doctor before incorporating it into your diet, especially if you have cholesterol issues or heart disease.
Also, coconut oil is likely not as healthful as soybean oil, olive oil and other vegetable oils. These oils are mostly unsaturated fat thereby lowering LDL and increasing HDL. While coconut oil does seem to boost HDL making it probably not as bad as other high saturated fat content foods, it’s not the greatest choice with so many others available to reduce your risk of heart disease.