Coconut petroleum: are the health benefits a big fat lie?


    Its the most recent superfood, endorsed by wellness bloggers and celebrities, yet it contains more saturated fat than lard

    It wasnt that long ago that the closest most Britons got to a coconut was at the fairground or on the inside of a Bounty bar. Yet in the past three years, this hard, hairy drupe( thats the official word) of the coconut palm tree has emerged as the latest superfood extolled by celebrities and health food shops for its nutritional, healing and mind-enhancing powers.

    Aisles of health food shops are packed with bags of flour, snacks, milk, sugar and beverages made from its meat and milk. And leading the way is coconut petroleum, a sweet smelling, greasy fat used for sauteing, baking, spreading on toast, adding to coffee or simply scratching into your skin.

    Its hard to exaggerate how much hype surrounds coconut oil on health food websites, blogs and YouTube channels. Wellness Mama lists 101 utilizes including as a mental stimulant, hair conditioner and therapy for insomnia, heartburn, cuts, acne, haemorrhoids, mosquito bites and sunburn. Everdine recommends using coconut oil to cook with at every snack due, while Holland& Barrett claims coconut petroleum is very healthy, adding: Coconut oil is the little black dress of wellbeing everyone should have some!

    Sites like these, along with celebrity endorsements from the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Kourtney Kardashian , have helped UK sales of coconut oil rise over the past four years from around 1m to 16.4 m last year, according to consumer research group Kantar.

    When it comes to superfoods, coconut oil presses all the buttons: its natural, its enticingly exotic, its surrounded by health claims and at up to 8 for a 500 ml pot at Tesco, its appropriately pricey. But where this latest superfood distinguished from benign competitors such as blueberries, goji berries, kale and avocado is that a diet rich in coconut petroleum may actually be bad for us.

    Earlier this month, the American Heart Association( AHA) warned that coconut oil contains the same level of saturated fat as beef dripping. In fact, its so oozing with artery-clogging saturated fat that lard is a healthier option.

    The AHA alert, which has followed similar observations from scientists over the years, has triggered an online combat between those who claim the science of coconut oil is more complex and more sophisticated than food scientists acknowledge and the individuals who say food faddists have been deceived by clever marketing.

    So who is right? Even if coconut oil really is full of saturated fats, are all saturated fats bad? And why do we get such conflicting messages about the fat in our diet?

    Coconut oil is pressed from the meat of a coconut. It has been used in Africa, Asia and South America for centuries and was routinely used in American processed food in the middle part of the 20 th century. In the 1940 s, it was the main source of non-dairy fat in the US diet until it was replaced by vegetable oils, particularly soya bean petroleum. Fears about its high saturated fat content emerged in the middle of the last century and are rife today, even as the petroleum makes a revival among health food lovers.

    Priya Tew, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, says: Coconut oil is a high saturated fat. Its about 92% saturated fat so more than lard or butter. If a woman has two tablespoons, she is feeing 20 g of saturated fat, her recommended daily amount.

    In the long-established pecking order of fats laid down over many years by public health officials, trans fats are classed as the least healthy. The chemical transformation attains them hard for our bodies to process. They raise high levels of bad( LDL) cholesterol and lower good( HDL) cholesterol, increasing the risk of developing heart disease and strokes; they are also linked to type 2 diabetes. In contrast, unsaturated fats are pretty universally accepted as beneficial because they create levels of good HDL cholesterol. That leaves saturated fats somewhere in the middle.

    Since the 1970 s, the message from public health bodies has been that they raise bad cholesterol, fur up arteries and increase health risks of strokes, heart disease and heart attack. Thats the view of the UK government, the World Health Organisation and virtually every other public health body in the world. So where does the idea of coconut oil, one of the richest sources of saturated fat available, being a health food come from?

    One branch of evidence often cited by the pro-coconut petroleum hall is work done by Dr Marie-Pierre St-Onge, associate prof of nutritional medicine at Cornell University Medical School, in the early 2000 s. Her team was looking at the impact on health of medium-chain triglycerides( MCTs ), a sort of fat molecule that has shorter chains of fatty acid than most and which is found in coconut petroleum in higher concentrations than any other natural food.

    In 2003, her team published research comparing the effects of diets rich in MCTs or long-chain triglycerides( LCTs) on 24 overweight humen. She found that eating more MCTs over the month-long analyze led to losing an extra pound in weight compared with those eating a similar sum of LCTs. Further surveys had similar findings. In 2008, she showed that a diet containing MCTs led to more weight loss than a similar diet containing olive oil.

    It was a fascinating outcome and a reminder that not all saturated fats are the same. And it was leapt upon by coconut oil advocates. Holland& Barretts website, for example, claims that the majority of fat in coconut oil is made up of MCTs. But the link from these studies to coconut oil was arguably a leap too far. Recent analyses indicate that coconut petroleum actually comprises merely 13 -1 5% MCTs. The remainder are traditional LCTs.

    From what I can tell, my research is being used to say that coconut petroleum is healthy, but this is a very liberal extrapolation of what weve actually analyzed, says Dr St-Onge.

    In her exams, volunteers were given a concoction made from 100% MCTs.

    We dont know if the amount in coconut oil is sufficient to have similar effects as pure MCT oil in releasing energy expenditure and improving satiety and weight management. From recent studies, it seems that it is not.

    Coconut flesh, to be made into oil, drying in Papeete, French Polynesia. Photograph: Gregory Boissy/ AFP/ Getty Images

    If theres little evidence that coconut petroleum is less fattening than other saturated fats, what about another often attained claim that it lowers levels of harmful cholesterol? Some analyzes appear to show that people who eat more coconut in their diets have higher levels of HDL cholesterol the healthy version linked to lower rates of strokes and heart disease. One reason for this cholesterol boost is likely to be the high level of a substance called lauric acid in coconut oil. A meta-analysis of 60 trials in 2003 saw lauric acid increased good HDL cholesterol.

    But before you are tempted to celebrate by smearing some coconut oil on toast, theres a caveat. The same analysis received the committee is also created harmful LDL cholesterol. And theres little evidence that the rise in good cholesterol from feeing coconut petroleum outweighs the rise in the bad stuff.

    There is nothing unusual about coconut petroleum in this respect all saturated fats create both good HDL and bad LDL cholesterol levels. What seems to matter is the ratio of these two types of cholesterol in our blood. So while Lauric acid may raise good cholesterol, the projected increase could be offset by a rise in the bad stuff.

    Theres an added intricacy. Tew points out that not all HDL cholesterol is inevitably good. As the social sciences of cholesterol is explored in more detail, researchers are discovering that some types of HDL are protective, while others are non-functional and do nothing for the heart. She suspects that some of the rise in good HDL associated with lauric acid may be an increase in the non-functional type of cholesterol, which, while looking good on paper, wont protect us from heart attack or stroke.

    The presence of this non-functioning HDL cholesterol and the rise in bad cholesterol when we consume lauric acid could help to explain other studies that indicate lauric acid in our diets as being associated with an increased danger of heart disease.

    Its not just the claims about weight loss and cholesterol that dont stack up. A newspaper in the British Nutrition Foundations Nutrition Bulletin last year concluded that there is simply not enough proof for any health claim based on coconut oil.

    Dr Stacey Lockyer and Dr Sara Stanner of the BNF wrote: Asserts relating to potential health benefits of coconut petroleum are often based solely on animal or in vitro surveys or human analyzes feeding one component of coconut petroleum rather than the whole food.

    There is, for instance , no good evidence that it helps boost mental performance or avoid Alzheimers disease, they say.

    The theory is that the fat in coconut petroleum metabolises more quickly than other fats because of the high MCT content. The argument goes that the brain cells of the persons with Alzheimers disease are unable to use glucose properly and so starve. Coconut oil is an easier to use source of energy and so holds brain cells running. Its an interesting idea, but not one based on proof, in agreement with the Alzheimers Society. A clinical trial into the potential impact was discontinued because there were not enough people taking part.

    Coconut oil is also said to be a good source of antioxidants. Although this is true, its nowhere near as good as fruit and vegetables. Tom Sanders, emeritus prof of nutrition and dietetics at Kings College London, says: It is a poor source of vitamin E compared with other vegetable oils. Coconut oil is also deficient in the essential fatty acids, which attains it much worse than lard or palm oil.

    As for its much touted antimicrobial qualities that help restore gut bacteria, theres virtually no proof either way. For Tew, the coconut petroleum issue is another example of the perils of categorizing some foods as superfoods. She, like most dietitians, believes its an unhelpful conception, used by marketers. Labelling products as superfoods can fool people into thinking they are eating well when they are not. Munching a handful of goji berries after fried steak and chips wont construct the meal healthy.

    The obsession with expensive, exotic superfoods also means we forget the easy, inexpensive foods that are more likely to keep us healthy apples, oranges, broccoli and milk. But if canonising foods is unhelpful, then perhaps so is demonising them. And here, public health officers may have been guilty of oversimplification and an unfair assessment of fats. In the past few years, the discussion about whether fats have been wrongly turned into rogues has become intense and polarised.

    At one extreme are cardiologists such as Dr Aseem Malhotra, who last year told the media, during the launch of a controversial National Obesity Forum report into fat: Eat fat to get slim. Dont fear fat. Fat is your friend.

    But even more moderate voices acknowledge that the low-fat diet health message is too petroleum and not always supported by the evidence. One of the best analyses into saturated fats and heart disease was a Cochrane review of 15 clinical trials encompassing 59,000 people, which found that cutting out saturated fat and replacing it with carbs and proteins attained no change to cardiovascular disease. Yet when the saturated fats were replaced with unsaturated fats, there was a 27% drop in heart disease.

    It seemed to be showing that saturated fats are no worse for us than carbs but that the real benefits come when we swap them for olive oils, nut oils and the fats in avocado.

    Sanders believes not all saturated fats are the same. It is nuanced and it depends where they come from, he says. A high intake of processed and red meat is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, but dairy seems to be quite neutral. Dairy offer other things magnesium, calcium and nutrients that may counteract the effects of saturated fat.

    But while not all fats are equal, Sanders, like most food scientists, remains unconvinced by the health claims for coconut oil or the suggestion that the saturated fat in coconut petroleum is less harmful than other saturated fats. There is, he says, insufficient evidence for such claims.

    There is an incredible amount of hype around the coconut that is driven by marketing , not science, he adds.

    Christine Williams, prof of human nutrition at the University of Reading, agrees.

    There is very limited evidence of beneficial health effects of this oil and marketing has won out over science again, she says.

    Coconut oil is a possibility no superfood, but equally, it is no villain. What it is is a reasonable tasty if overpriced occasional alternative to other equally unhealthy saturated fats and one that, unusually, you can rub into your face without smelling like a butchers store or cheese counter. But if youre after a miracle cure for obesity, insomnia or pilings youll probably have just as much success with a Bounty bar.

    David Derbyshire is a former Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph science correspondent. He has written for the Observer on acupuncture, mindfulness and the science of wine-tasting

    Coconut claims debunked

    According to health food websites, coconut petroleum can be used to treat everything from thyroid ailments to thrush, via brittle bones and dementia. But in a recent report, the British Nutrition Foundation said: There is no strong scientific evidence to supporting health benefits from feeing coconut petroleum. So where has this idea come from? Coconut oil advocates believe that it has powerful antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties because it contains lauric acid, a fatty acid also found in breast milk. It is true that lauric acid derived from coconut petroleum acts as an antibiotic, but this has only been seen in vitro and at super-concentrated dosages. So while lauric acid can kill bacteria, it seems coconut oil cant. In analyzes where the two have been immediately compared, coconut oil was shown to be as useful as water at killing bacteria. Here are three more of the most commonly cited, scientifically dubious health employs for coconut petroleum to be wary of. Agnes Donnelly

    Photograph: Alamy

    While it is true that coconut petroleum is found in many sunblocks, coconut oil on its own has an SPF of around 1. The NHS recommends that when you are in the sun you should be using a sunblock with SPF 15 at the very least. Hence coconut oil alone is not going to be enough to protect your skin from the suns UV rays, a major cause of skin cancer.

    Photograph: Alamy

    Coconut oil is believed to moisturise, provide nutrients, kill bacteria and be enhanced circulation of blood in the scalp. Some websites even promote it as a style to slow hair loss. In truth, coconut petroleum contains tiny quantities of nutrients and its antibacterial properties are unproved. Any effect it has on your hair is strictly cosmetic.

    Photograph: Alamy

    Pulling is a practice where people swill liquid petroleum around their mouths for up to 30 minutes because they believe it draws harmful bacteria and toxins out of their mouth. There is no evidence that this works. However, there have been cases of lipoid pneumonia, when the petroleum is accidentally inhaled into the lungs and causes disease.

    Know your fats

    Dietary fat can be divided into two camps the solid, largely animal-derived saturated fats such as lard, dripping and butter and the liquid, unsaturated fats such as olive oil and nut petroleum, largely derived from plants.

    We are so used to bandying around terms such as saturated and trans fat that many of us( or at least those of us without a chemistry -Alevel) rarely hold what the words mean.

    Whether a fat is saturated or unsaturated depends on the style that carbon atoms in the long chains of fatty acids found in fat molecules are connected to one another.

    In an unsaturated fat molecule, one or more carbon atoms are linked by doubled bonds. If the circumstances are right, one of these bonds can loosen and connect to a passing hydrogen atom, adding another hydrogen atom to the molecule. However, in a saturated fat such as lard, all the carbon atoms are held together with single bonds. There is no spare capacity for the fat molecule to take on any more hydrogen atoms and so the fatty acid is said to be saturated with hydrogen.

    The ability of unsaturated fats to take on hydrogen atoms is exploited when vegetable oils are hydrogenated converted into solid trans fats by uncovering them to hydrogen gas and a catalyst. Trans fats are cheaper than normal saturated fats, more suitable for industrial scale baking and have a longer shelf life.

    A fat is monounsaturated if it contains only one doubled bond among its carbon atoms. If it has many double bonds, it is polyunsaturated.

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