Coconut Oil: is it really the next superfood?

In recent times, the world seems to have gone nutty for coconut oil. Everywhere you turn there it is; in supermarkets, health shops, cafes, magazines, TV and social media! It is marketed as the latest sensational superfood which will help you lose weight, improve heart health and brain function. Sounds to good to be true right?!

Earlier this year the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) reviewed the evidence behind the health claims for coconut oil and we wanted to share some of this with you.

Did you know that there are 2 main types, the standard type and virgin coconut oil. Both are processed in different ways, but both are equally high in saturated fat. In fact coconut oil contains over 90% saturated fats. This is the type of fat which is know to be bad news for our heart health. A 2015 review found that cutting down on saturated fats, reduces your risk of heart disease by 17%!

“Hummm”, you may be asking yourself. “If that is the case, then where have all of the superfood messages come from?”

When we look at the evidence for coconut oil, there are a mixture of results from various studies out there, which is probably why there are a lot of mixed messages about it too!

They key is being able to identify the good scientific evidence from the bad!

Many of the studies which advocate the use of coconut oil have significant flaws, from a small sample size, to not taking into account other lifestyle factors, to gathering data based on self reported dietary intakes. All of which can lead to misreported and biased results. Another problem is that much of the research done on coconut oil is animal based rather than human based.

coconut oil

When we look at the better quality studies called randomized control trials (RCTs), there seems to be a pattern in the evidence:

Heart health

When provided as part of a controlled, scientific study, the effect of coconut oil in most RCTs show that it causes an increase in total cholesterol, good cholesterol (HDL) and bad cholesterol (LDL).

Some studies found that the rise in cholesterol is less than the rise caused by butter. But certainly more than the rise seen when taking unsaturated fats such as olive or canola oils.

Equally, the studies found that when coconut oil is removed from the diet, this reduces total cholesterol and bad cholesterol. The results show varying effects on the good cholesterol levels.

Weight

You may have come across the term MCT before, this stands for medium chain triglycerides and put very simply, refers to the length of fat chains. Coconut oil is often considered to be an MCT.

MCTs, have been shown in animal and some human studies to promote weight loss and increase fullness because of the way they are quickly absorbed and used as energy in the body.

But wait! This does not mean that coconut oil will have these effects!

Most of these studies were carried out using MCTs called Caprlic and capric acids. These fats only make up around 14% of coconut oil. The majority of coconut oil is made up from Lauric acid, which is a different MCT. With that in mind, we cannot assume that the results of the MCT studies will automatically translate to coconut oil.

There needs to be more good quality research done on coconut oil itself before we can conclude that coconut oil leads to reduced body fat and weight loss.

The same is true with brain health. There have been some studies to show that capric acids may improve brain function in alzheimers disease, but again we cannot assume this is true of coconut oil without more good quality research.

 Polyphenols

Some of the other benefits of coconut oil are often associated with the polyphenols it contains. Polyphenols are thought to protect against heart disease, some cancers and prevent Alzheimers.

The evidence for how many and what types of polyphenols are in coconut oil is sketchy, but from the research so far, all of its polyphenols can be found in other plant sources, in much greater amounts (according to the British Nutrition Foundation report.) Meaning you don’t have to use coconut oil to gain the polyphenol benefits!

Polyphenols Other Virgin coconut oil
Ferulic acid Wholemeal bread 72mg/100g 0.3mg/100g
catechin Cocoa 108mg/100g 0.3mg/100g
p-coumaric acid Dried dates-5.8mg/100g 0.2mg/100g

(Lockyer. SStanner. S, 2016)

Summary of coconut oil

In summary, the better quality research reviewed in the BNF paper demonstrates that:

  • Coconut oil is likely to raise your cholesterol levels, including both your good and bad cholesterol. The bad cholesterol increases your risk of heart disease.
  • Currently there is not enough good quality evidence to demonstrate that coconut oil can help with weight loss. There needs to be more research on this.
  • Also, it’s important to know that some of the perceived benefits from polyphenols in coconut oil can be obtained in other foods too.

The evidence so far does not lead us to believe that coconut oil is a superfood, in fact, we wouldn’t even count it as an everyday food at this stage. That does not mean you have to cut it out of your diet completely, instead, just use it in small amounts for taste. And keep once in a while, as part of a well balanced diet.

Living a healthy life and staying well is not about having one super food in your diet. Evidence truly shows that to be healthy, you need to have a good mixture of nutrients in your diet, including whole grains, fruit and vegetables, unsaturated fats and good quality plant proteins. This is the eating pattern we should be nuts about 😉