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Coconut Oil: Friend or Foe?

Do you use coconut oil, coconut flour, or shredded coconut in the dishes you prepare at home? Is the consumption of coconut healthy as long as it is in moderation? There are many claims on social media and from health professionals that there are health benefits, but how true are their statements?

raw coconut oil

In fact, it is becoming increasingly popular in the United States and other western civilizations.  You can find this product anywhere from your local grocery store to the corner drug store.  What is all the craze about? Is there enough facts to support the claims that it is healthy?

What is Coconut?

A coconut is the large, oval, brown seed of a tropical palm, consisting of a hard shell lined with edible white flesh and containing a clear liquid.  It grows inside a woody husk, surrounded by fiber.  The coconut has many uses.  For example, it is frequently used for its edible flesh and cool, refreshing coconut water.  The fresh and dried forms of the coconut flesh or “coconut meat” can be eaten as is or cooked.  The fat present in coconut meat can be extracted to produce coconut oil, which can be used in cooking and in the production of shampoos, soaps, lotions, cosmetics and fragrances.

Coconut Oil

The majority of production occurs in Indonesia, the Philippines, and India.  It is extracted using heat, pressure, and/or chemical solvents.  Depending on the extraction method(s), the final product may be labeled as virgin, refined, or hydrogenated.

  • cooking with raw coconut oilVirgin : made using fresh, mature coconuts that are mechanically pressed in order to separate the oil from the meat.  It is the least refined form.  This oil is made with or without the use of heat and is free from chemical solvents and bleaching or deodorizing agents.  This process allows the oil to retain high levels of antioxidants and polyphenols.  Virgin coconut oil retains the scent and taste of coconut. This form is best for recipes to add a mild coconut flavor.
  • RefinedStarts with a process similar to that used to make virgin coconut oil, but is followed by additional processing methods including, refining, bleaching, and deodorizing.  Bleaching usually does not involve chemicals; rather it uses bleaching clay to remove impurities, after which the oil is deodorized by steam.  Deodorizing removes most of the coconut aroma and flavor from the coconut oil.  Refined oil has a higher smoke point, making it a good option for cooking at higher temperatures. This form should only be used for single use shallow frying.
  • Hydrogenated: Sometimes used as an ingredient for shelf stable sweets and baked goods, but is rarely sold in supermarkets in the United States.  Partial hydrogenation of the oil results in the formation of some saturated and trans fats.  It is best to avoid this form of oil because of the adverse health effects associated with trans and saturated fats.
What Type of Fat is in Coconut Oil and How Much?

One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 14 grams of total fat, 12 grams of which are saturated fats.  This means that about 86 percent of the total fat content of coconut oil comes from saturated fat.  Olive oil and butter contain 14 and 64 percent.

Healthy or Not Healthy, That is the Question

several different forms of raw coconut oilWith coconut oil becoming more and more popular, there is a concern about the increased saturated fat intake that comes with consumption of this product.  The American Heart Association recommends that saturated fat be 5 to 6 percent of your daily caloric intake.  This amounts to about 13 grams of saturated fat per day, or just over the amount found in one tablespoon of coconut oil.

Coconut oil is considered a medium chain triglyceride (MCT).  MCTs are digested, absorbed, and handled by the body than long chain triglycerides (LCTs).  The proposed benefits of coconut oil are often attributed to the amount of MCTs, which is about 64% of the total fat in coconut oil.  Studies suggest favorable outcomes when using MCT oil to treat certain conditions and promote weight loss, despite its high content of saturated fat.

Most of the studies used to claim the beneficial effects of coconut oil have been conducted in populations consuming diets different from the Western diet and have been based on the consumption of coconut products other than coconut oil.  If you consume coconut oil, make sure it is consumed in moderation and keep the current American Heart Association guidelines for saturated fat intake in mind.  Furthermore, foods high in saturated fat, like coconut oil, should be consumed in combination with an overall healthy eating pattern that mirrors the US Healthy Eating Pattern as recommended by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  Otherwise, the combination of saturated fat from coconut oil along with an unhealthy diet may have an adverse effect on heart health.

For more information about coconut oil visit edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

 

 

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