Coconut oil has gone from niche speciality and health food stores to the shelves of chain supermarkets. Fast becoming mainstream, and retailers like it also because it has a good shelf-like, is coconut oil really good for you?
KNOW THE FACTS
Coconut oil is extracted from the white flesh of mature coconuts. It is 100 per cent fat, of which around 85 to 90 per cent is saturated. Depending on temperature and processing, it may be solid, semi-solid or liquid.
It takes about 100 coconuts to make seven litres of coconut oil. The vast majority comes from countries such as Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, India, the Philippines and Malaysia.
Coconut oil can be processed, refined and rendered tasteless for a wide range of uses in everything from biscuits and cosmetics to industry, or extracted as pure “virgin” oil, which is what you’re more likely to see in trendy juice bars or shops.
As with many food fads, the biggest problem about coconut oil is the extreme health claims that can sometimes come with it. Kate Browne, of Australian independent watchdog, Choice, decided to investigate it after hearing claims it could help with everything from autism and Alzheimer’s to cancer, digestion and weight loss.
“I heard a lot of chatter on social media about coconut oil,” she says. “People were making desserts with bucketfuls of it… so we really wanted to get to the bottom of whether it lived up to the hype.”
Some research suggests the saturated fat in coconut oil may not be as harmful as that from other sources. Many of the health claims in favour of coconut oil centre on the fact it is mostly made up of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which advocates argue are broken down quickly and used as fuel by the body.
COCONUT OIL VS EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
Until now extra virgin olive oil – a staple of the Mediterranean diet – has routinely taken the number one position on the health charts. So is there a risk its coconut cousin will steal its halo?
No, say scientists. While it might not be as trendy as its tropical rival, extra virgin olive oil is still the clear winner in terms of nutrition. And here are a few reasons why: It has higher level of beneficial monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, as well as lower levels of saturated fat. It’s linked to improved cholesterol, a lower risk of heart disease and reduced inflammation.
Furthermore, our gut microbes thrive on olive oil – research suggests it gets broken down into by-products which produce compounds that issue important signals to the body – such as lowering high cholesterol and aiding the immune system.
There are, of course, pros and cons of various fats and oils in terms of health, cooking and taste. Coconut oil works well in a Sri Lankan curry, for example.
So if it’s really not as great as the wellness hype suggests, does coconut oil have a place in our diets at all? Health experts say if you like it, have some in moderation, but if you don’t like it, don’t bother trying to force it down in smoothies. You’ll do just fine (and have more cash to splash on a nice bottle of extra virgin olive oil) without it.
Text: Bauer/Clair Weaver