What's the Skinny on Coconut Oil?
Coconut oil made it’s “superfood fad” debut around 2012, along with salmon, kale, avocados, etc. (insert any trendy health food here) I am sure at one point or another you have bought that $11+ jar of coconut oil.
Why are we so quickly sold on “Superfoods?” Well, (1) Our cultural obsession with quick fixes and easy answers to complex questions; and (2) Marketing gimmicks that take advantage of widespread scientific illiteracy.
This also explains why superfoods are always fads that cycle in and out of style. If people don't understand the science of nutrition, they will easily be influenced by marketers looking to sell something and by activists seeking to scare them into buying it to improve their health.
These “superfoods” usually ARE nutritious and I recommend incorporating them into a balanced diet, but, there is no such thing as a magic food that will solve all of your health needs.
I am commonly asked about the benefits of coconut oil from clients, so I figured I would break it down for you!
Let’s begin by taking a look at the nutritional profile:
One tablespoon of coconut oil is 117 calories - similar to other oils. However, it's composed of 92% of saturated fat. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 11.2 g of Saturated fat. Saturated fat increases low-density lipoproteins (LDL) cholesterol levels ( "the bad cholesterol") which can increase your risk for heart disease, stroke and high cholesterol.
One reason why coconut oil has been hyped up is due to the structure of the saturated fat in coconut oil. The molecular structure of triglycerides in coconut oil differs from those found in animal products, as it consists of medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), versus the long-chain triglycerides (LCT) found in butter, bacon and other animal-based fat. The importance of this is that MCT oils, specifically lauric acid, found in coconut oil, has been associated with an increase in HDL, or high-density lipoprotein ("the good cholesterol").
Coconut oil contains 0 grams of fiber, protein, carbohydrates, sodium, sugar and only contains trace amounts of various vitamins and minerals.
It's also important to note, that not all brands of coconut oil are created equally. Those called virgin or unrefined will typically have more MCTs and lauric acid than those that have been overly processed.
Top 4 Coconut Oil Health Claims
Here are the top claims as to why coconut oil has been labeled a “Superfood” by the media. Please note there is research associated with these claims, but it is important to look at the research study as a whole, for example: the type of research study conducted, the methods, who funded the research, data analysis, criteria measures, etc. Often, one snippet of research will be taken from a study and used for a health claim.
1. Coconut oil may aid in satiety and weight loss.
One study analyzed a group of participant’s food intake throughout the day and compared their consumption of coconut oil, 100% MCT oil and vegetable oil. Participants who consumed the MCT oil were found to have an overall lower food intake, concluding that coconut oil does not have the same health effects as MCT oils. Similar to this research, a review paper concluded that studies that have shown satiating benefits used MCT oils exclusively, and in specific regards to coconut oil, more long-term clinical trials need to be conducted.
2. Coconut oil is good for your heart.
This claim may be the most controversial in my opinion. Even though there is some research to support that MCTs may increase HDL cholesterol levels, other research found a significant increase in LDL cholesterol levels with the consumption of MCT oils as well.
One scientific review, published in 2018, states "that even though coconut oil has a relatively high MCT concentration, it should still be considered a saturated fat, and its consumption should not exceed the USDA's daily recommendation (less than 10% of total calorie intake)."
For a bit of perspective: the American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 13 grams of saturated fat per day, and one tablespoon of coconut oil contains 11.2 grams of saturated fat. It’s easy to see how you might go overboard and consume too much without even realizing.
3. Coconut oil plays a role in cancer treatment.
This is an example of one snippet of research pulled to make a health claim. One study looked specifically at tumor growth and found that lauric acid (found in coconut oil) had the potential to hinder tumor growth in regards to colon cancer cells, but coincidentally not breast cancer cells. This research is limited.
4. Coconut oil may decrease the risk for Alzheimer's disease.
One small study of 44 patients with Alzheimer's found that those individuals who received 20 ml (1.3 tablespoons) of coconut oil twice a day for 21 days showed cognitive improvement compared to those who didn't.
Another pilot study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease revealed that those patients following a Mediterranean diet including coconut oil also improved cognitively.
Coconut oil’s impact on cognition potentially shows promising results! But remember, eating tablespoons of coconut oil is not going to be that quickfix or preventative measure in delaying the onset of alzheimer's or improving cognition.
How to Store Coconut Oil
You will likely buy virgin or unrefined coconut oils in their solid form and they can be safely stored at room temperature in the pantry with a shelf life of up to two years. When coconut oil begins to go bad it will form a yellow color. If coconut oil is placed in a room that's warmer than 76 degrees, it will start turning to liquid, but it's still safe to consume. You can safely store coconut oil in the fridge, but it will form a harder texture.
The smoke point of oil is important to take into consideration when cooking at high temperatures, such as when frying foods. Exceeding the smoke point (the temperature at which the oil begins to burn and smoke) will create an unpleasant odor and alter the chemical makeup of the oil. Due to the reduction in the amount of nutrients in the oil as well as potentially creating harmful free radicals, it is suggested to avoid overheating oil in general. Luckily, the saturated chemical bonds of coconut oil can withstand some heat before it begins to break down. The smoke point of unrefined/virgin coconut oil is 350 degrees Fahrenheit, while refined is around 400 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. It is still recommended to not use coconut oil for frying foods, as these high temperatures will likely exceed the smoke point.
How to Cook With Coconut Oil
Virgin coconut oil has a coconut-like taste, whereas refined varieties are neutral in flavor. Either can be enjoyed similarly to other cooking oils in baking, salad dressings, sauces and marinades. Unrefined (also known as virgin) coconut oil is a pretty tasty addition to many different foods including vegetable stir fry, eggs, smoothies, and baked granola, due to the oil’s noticeable coconut flavor.
If you're consuming coconut oil solely for the health benefits, you may find yourself disappointed in the results you were looking for, while simultaneously increasing your risk of heart disease. However, if you want to include it as one of many cooking oils you enjoy in moderation, go for it!
One of my favorite ways to cook with coconut oil is to add it when roasting sweet potatoes, beets and parsnips in the winter time. Here's the recipe:
2 Tablespoons melted coconut oil
2 Tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped
2 medium sweet potatoes, chopped into chunks
1 pound parsnips, peeled, cut into 3/4 inch thick rounds (about 4 cups)
1 medium red onion, peeled, and cut into 1/2 inch thick wedges
3 beets, peeled, cut into chunks
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
Preheat oven to 425ºF.
Stir the oil and oregano in a large bowl. Add sweet potatoes, parsnips, beets and onion. Toss to coat veggies. Sprinkle vegetables generously with sea salt and pepper and spread on a baking sheet. Make sure the veggies are in one layer so they roast instead of steam. Roast veggies until tender, about 50 minutes. Remove from the oven half-way through cooking to toss veggies.
This dish can be made up to 4 hours ahead. Let it stand at room temperature. If desired, rewarm in 350ºF oven for about 15 minutes, or serve at room temperature. ENJOY!