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Coconut oil: the totally tropical fat

October 22nd 2012 / Hilly Janes

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A buzz is building about the miraculous benefits of cooking with coconut oil which could even help with weight loss. Hilly Janes gives the fat a taste and health check

I’ve just had an egg for breakfast, fried in about the most saturated fat on the planet. All in the interests of research; why else would I deliberately choose fat connected with raised blood cholesterol levels, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), such as heart attacks and stroke? My egg was nice and crispy and tasted a little disconcertingly of coconut. And according to the latest buzz among nutritionistas, it was healthier than cooking it in my usual smidgen of mild olive or sunflower oil.

If you are unaware of health advice to stick to olive and seed oils, such as sunflower or rape, which are low in saturated fat and can even lower our risk of CVD, you must have had your head encased in a bucket of lard.

Then along comes coconut oil. Extracted from the white flesh of the giant seed, and a staple food in tropical countries, it’s now on the lips of some nutritionists, personal trainers and celebrities. Beguiled by it’s “natural” and “traditional” virtues, they believe it has miraculous health benefits, and can even help you lose weight.

Let’s get some fat facts straight. We need it in our diets to give us energy and promote cell growth, hormone production absorption of some vitamins. Saturated fat gives red meat and dairy products their lovely flavour and creamy texture. It is filling, so it keeps you going. Without blood cholesterol we would die.

When we eat any fat, it raises our blood cholesterol. There are different types, some of which are thought to be harmful, but “good” cholesterol HDL is believed to promote health, and coconut oil seems to be better at promoting HDL than other oils. And as leading sports nutritionist Martin MacDonald points out: “It has a healthier proportion of omega 6 fatty acids than a lot of other oils, the type associated with inflammation of our cells, an underlying factor in many diseases.”

Coconut oil’s claim to be highly nutritious and promote weight loss could be because our bodies absorb it faster than other fats, and convert it into energy more quickly. Only a tablespoon a day, apparently, and hey presto! you’ll lose weight.

So far so good, but maybe too good to be true? All fats and oils have the same calorie count nine per gram, or about 45 per teaspoon more than protein and carbohydrate, which is why we are advised to cut back on them when slimming. So coconut oil isn’t “less fattening” than any other members of the fat family, it might just be “less bad”. Its ability to speed up our metabolism is marginal. That may be useful for elite athletes, for whom tiny adjustments in nutritional-related performance can make all the difference between winning and losing, but perhaps not for lesser mortals.

Is it healthier for cooking? The idea here seems to be that coconut oil has a high smoke point, that is the temperature at which oils change their composition, in a process known as oxidation. This in turn creates “free radicals”, harmful molecules which in excess may damage healthy cells. So the higher the smoke point, the less oxidation. But coconut oil has a relatively low smoke point, 177C, the temperature you would roast a chicken at.

“The danger of fats breaking down and producing free radicals only happens if you do a lot of deep-fat frying at extremely high temperatures, and use the fat again and again,” says Sian Porter, a dietician and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. “It’s not really relevant to domestic cooking." To cheap, greasy takeaways, yes, but surely we don’t eat those?

Then there’s the question of trans fats, the fats that medics agree are linked to CVD. These are found mainly in highly-processed foods in which liquid oils have been turned into solid fats to extend their shelf life, the ones found in cheap cakes, biscuits and pies that sit on shop shelves forever. Because coconut oil comes naturally in the form of solid fat with a long shelf life at room temperature, perhaps it is thought to avoid this process. If you aren’t sure, maybe you could ask a celebrity...

Porter also argues that research supporting the health benefits of coconut oil is fairly recent and only looks into short-term effects. It does not, she believes, outweigh decades of studies backing the increased risk of CVD from saturated fats. And coconut oil is by no means cheap either. My tub of an organic extra-virgin brand cost £10 for 445ml. The same amount of extra-virgin organic olive oil costs about £5. It’s also double the price of a similar quality English rapeseed oil; the same amount of organic English butter would cost £3.

So is it OK to switch to coconut oil? I’d suggest yes, if you agree with all these statements:
- you are convinced that increasing your intake of saturated fat is not risky. Maybe think about having a cholesterol test first, is there a history of CVD in your family?
- you don’t mind everything you cook tasting of coconut
- you can afford it

On all three C factor counts, I’m afraid it’s a no from me.

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