“Superfood” is not a term that should be used lightly.
A superfood is a particular food that offers multiple benefits to the body. This may mean that it improves the health of one system while protecting others, or it may have a high concentration of vital nutrients not found in such quantities elsewhere. Goji berries, quinoa, and salmon are examples of these foods. Recently, coconut oil has been added to this illustrious list, but does it truly qualify as a superfood?
With all of the concern surrounding fatty diets and obesity, is coconut oil truly different from other oils, and if so, how?
Coconut oil makes up 2.5% of the world’s edible oil production. Commercially, coconut oil is extracted from the meat of the coconut, generally in a process that uses the solvent hexane, an alkane that is also a significant portion of gasoline. The oil is then pasteurized and hydrogenized to extend its shelf life, which is approximately two years, and to raise the smoke point for cooking.
Virgin coconut oil is extracted in a wet or dry process that uses a combination of wet-milling or residue drying, utilizing a screw press to extract the oil. Oil can also be extracted from coconut milk by squeezing, and the last option is to use a centrifuge. Whatever the method, it takes approximately 3,200 pounds of mature coconuts to create 15 gallons of coconut oil.
When discussing the potential health benefits of coconut oil, it is important to distinguish between virgin coconut oil and partially hydrogenated coconut oil.
Partially hydrogenated coconut oil goes through multiple processes that change the chemical composition of the oil itself, which then changes the way it works in the body. For the purposes of the discussion of coconut oil’s superfood status, we are referring to unrefined, virgin coconut oil. This type of coconut oil has medium-chain triglycerides, which may not carry the same risks as other saturated fats. When health organizations express concern over the saturated fat content of coconut oil, they are generally referring to partially hydrogenated coconut oil.
It should be noted that both partially hydrogenated and virgin coconut oil have high concentrations of lauric acids, which raise the cholesterol profile in the blood. This is not as bad as it sounds; lauric acid raises the high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good” cholesterol) while lowering the low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol). So while the overall cholesterol number may go up, the proportions of each type may change favorably.
Even given that, many traditional health organizations caution against consuming too much coconut oil. The American Heart Association, the Food and Drug Administration, and the World Health Organization all remain wary of claims that coconut oil is a superfood that should be consumed more widely.
So just what are the touted benefits of coconut oil?
1. Changes cholesterol levels
The first benefit of coconut oil has already been mentioned, and it’s a big one.
For people battling high cholesterol, some studies have shown that this type of fat actually changes the ratios of good to bad cholesterol, resulting in a better cardiac profile. Coconut oil’s proponents argue against the very idea that saturated fat is even associated with cardiovascular disease.
2. Helps burn calories
Instead of increasing the waistline, coconut oil is said to help increase energy and thus help burn more fat. One study found that when added to the diet at 15-30 grams per day, medium-chain trigycerides (MCTs) in coconut oil burned a total of approximately 120 extra calories a day simply by the way it was metabolized in the body.
3. Fights infection and kills bacteria
When the lauric acid in coconut oil is digested, it forms monolaurin, a monoglyceride. Both of these compounds have been proven to kill bacteria and viruses as well as killing both Staphylococcus Aureus and Candida Albicans.
4. Reduces appetite
The fatty acids in coconut oil metabolize to create ketones which can have an appetite-reducing affect. One small-scale study found that men who included the most MCTs in their diets ate 256 calories less per day.
5. Aids weight loss
Recent years have seen backlash for the low-fat, low-carb diets that have seemed to only result in growing obesity levels. Research seems to show that it is not the amount of fat in the diet that matters so much as the type of fat. A study in 2009 found that women who consumed MCTs in the form of coconut oil lost weight over time when compared to women who consumed soy bean oil.
6. Reduces seizures in epileptic children
A diet that is low carb and very high fat (also known as a ketogenic diet) with coconut oil has been proven to increase the ketone levels in the blood, which reduced the numbers of seizures in drug-resistant epileptic children. Similarly, ketone bodies in the blood seem to help reduce the symptoms and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
7. Offers cosmetic benefits
Coconut oil is a natural sunscreen, blocking approximately 20% of the sun’s ultraviolet rays. In people with severely dry skin, regular topical application of coconut oil has also been shown to dramatically increase skin’s moisture content. The final cosmetic benefit goes beyond cosmetic. Oil pulling with coconut oil reduces plaque-induced gingivitis, which has been linked to a host of other health problems.
Even with these research-proven benefits, not everyone is on board with coconut oil as a superfood.
One benefit of eating coconut oil is improved cardiovascular health, and it is true that those who consume the most coconut oil (the nation of Tokelau) have the healthiest hearts, but they also have the highest incidence of diabetes in the world (37% of the population, nearly one in four Tokelauans). Some studies also indicate that a prolonged high use of coconut oil increases the risk of thrombogenic conditions (including deep vein thrombosis and ischemic stroke). It is important to talk to your doctor about your specific health concerns before making any changes.
If you do decide to include coconut oil in your life, check out these ten ways to add coconut oil to your diet and daily life!
Image by Veganbaking.net via Flickr