Did you know coconut oil does NOT have a high smoke point? Did you know that there is little scientific evidence to support its weight loss claims?
If there is one food product that has exploded onto the health food scene over the last 12 months, it’s coconut oil. Added to chocolate bars, pour it on your cereal, eat it with a spoon, or pour it on your salads. I’ve seen claims by health food companies that it will burn fat and help you to drop weight fast, reduce inflammation, make you happier, and cure arthritis. A big part of the coconut oil explosion can be put down to the point in time when super gorgeous, super healthy supermodel (I won’t mention names) announced that she had been eating it since she was a teenager, and has teaspoons of it every day to keep her healthy. Now, who wouldn’t have a desire to look like a supermodel? Coconut oil also exploded as a health food when a study proved weight loss in a group of overweight women who began to consume coconut oil on a regular basis. Health food companies jumped on this study reporting coconut oil as the answer to losing weight, though when you look deeper at the study you will find that the study was performed on a very small sample size of only 30 women in South America who had been eating a very unhealthy diet to start with. At the same time as introducing coconut oil, the women were also required to exercise every day which they had not been doing before and even the author of the study notes that the weight loss may not in fact be a result of the consumption of coconut oil but could be due to a number of factors such as exercise or eating healthier in general.
Let’s clear up some misconceptions
You probably know that there are two types of fats – saturated and unsaturated. Recent evidence has now shown that saturated fat may not be as harmful to our heart as once thought, but this does not change the fact that coconut oil is still a fat. There is a large amount of very strong evidence to show that diets high in fat do contribute to weight gain and heart disease.
Some exciting information emerged that the fat in coconut oil is in fact a form of GOOD saturated fat called Medium Chain Tryglycerides (let’s call them MCT’s) and this is in fact true. MCT’s are fat molecules joined together in a chain, shorter in length than the other saturated fat called Long Chain Triglycerides (LCT’s)
MCT’s are more readily absorbed by our body, easier to break down, and more quickly used for energy.
The wellness industry jumped on this, claiming that this makes coconut oil a ‘wonder food’. But despite the clever marketing, there is there is not a lot of evidence to show that either the MCT’s in coconut oil can prevent heart disease or are in fact good for us. Many of the studies are on rats, in which case the results of the studies can’t be applied to humans. Other studies haven’t studied coconut oil as such, but a MCT manufactured in the laboratory. There is however, a strong amount of evidence from human studies, to show that a diet containing monounsaturated oils (such as those found in nuts and olive oil for example) and polyunsaturated oils from oily fish, carry many health benefits such as protecting against heart disease, assisting brain function and promoting healthy skin and nails.
Coconut oil is comprised of 96% saturated fat, providing extremely little of the heart healthy mono and polyunsaturated oils. On the other hand oils such as olive oil, fish oil, avocado oil and macadamia oil to name a few, contain high amounts of these healthful compounds and much lower levels of saturated fats.
Mono and polyunsaturated oils also contain high levels of antioxidants, of which are not found in coconut oil.
But saturated fat is now good for us right?
Well, no. The main stream media jumped on the large meta analysis which showed that saturated fats may not contribute as directly to heart disease as we had once thought, but this by no means that it is good for us. It just means it isn’t as bad for us as once thought and that’s very different. Fat contains the highest number of calories of any macro nutrient, and if you eat above the number of calories above that which your body requires, this will lead to weight gain. Weight gain is definitively a cause of chronic disease such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance and some cancers. So if you are making desserts with coconut oil, or lathering it on your baked potatoes and this tips you over your calorie requirements for the day, it will be stored as fat.
Coconut oil advocates also claim that it holds anti-microbial, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory powers, but so does garlic, onion, honey and ginger. Going back to the supermodel, she follows a mostly vegetarian diet, containing little fat, sugar or processed foods and as such her diet is also low in kilojoules. On top of this, she does a load of exercise so for her, a few tablespoons of coconut oil a day will not be putting her above her daily intake of kilojoules that she requires. Remember, that fats contain the most kilojoules of all macronutrients, more than carbohydrates and proteins. If you eat above what your body requires in kilojoules, this will be stored as fat. So if you are already eating your fair share of food, the addition of coconut oil will only put you above your kilojoule requirements and lead to weight gain, which negates any of the proposed benefits of the good fats in the coconut oil anyway!
The most important thing – coconut oil does NOT contain less kilojoules or total fat than any other fat or oil out there.
Smoke Point Myth
Coconut oil advocated claim that the oil is the best to use when cooking at high temperatures as it has a high smoke point (meaning you can heat it to a higher temperature before the chemical structure of the oil will become damaged and potentially produce carcinogens). To clear this point for all, it is only the refined coconut oil with added stabilisers (the least popular product on the market) which has a high smoke point. The popular virgin cold pressed coconut oil in fact has a low smoke point when compared with many other oils (even lower than virgin olive oil) and shouldn’t be heated to high temperatures. If wanting to choose an oil with a high smoke point, look for avocado, macadamia or a lighter olive oil.
The Nutrition Guru’s Verdict
- Coconut oil is high in fat and calories and like anything, should be eaten in moderation.
- When I consume oils, I prefer them to be mostly mono and polyunsaturated oils which have wide-spread proven health benefits.
- We use coconut oil! But we are not under the illusion that it’s a superfood with superpowers. It’s an oil.
- When using oil, I prefer to use one with proven positive health benefits such as those listed above which are also much cheaper than coconut oil
- If you wish to use coconut oil for it’s delicious flavour, like anything, use in moderation and look for recipes that contain small amounts. Many of the recipes online using coconut oil in raw desserts contain more calories than a Big Mac hamburger
- It makes a great hair and skin moisturiser free from nasties. I use it to tame my curly hair
- The various health claims about coconut oil are largely not supported by peer-reviewed, credible scientific evidence. More research is needed before we call it a superfood or cure-all. It is not all that it is MARKETED to be. What I can’t agree with is the marketing and hype that coconut oil has suddenly recieved and the false advertising as a ‘weight loss’ product
- The high smoke point used to market coconut oil only refers to the version that has been refined and has had stabilisers added, not the popular ‘cold pressed’ coconut oil which has a low smoke point.
- Look for the virgin cold pressed oil which is less refined. .
- As part of a balanced diet a little coconut oil is ok. Just don’t go nuts on it. Everything in moderation is the key!
The Nutrition Guru is a university qualified Nutritionist, keen cook and new mum. She cares passionately about advocating for holistic health and providing credible, up to date nutrition information to help people live a happy and healthy life.