Coconut oil has had a rough year. Announced as “pure poison” by a public health expert in a lecture posted on YouTube, coconut oil suddenly became one of the worst foods you can eat. Coconut oil is a saturated fat and unfotuantely for our health, saturated fats have been completely misunderstood.
Earlier this year, Harvard professor Karin Michels picked up where the 1970’s left off, in a diatribe that parallels the American Heart Association’s stance against fats. Last year, the AHA sent an advisory to cardiologists, warning them that saturated fats are killers, coconut oil and butter among them. Their suggestion is to use margarine and the supermarket-staple, polyunsaturated vegetable oils, neither of which is fresh, wholesome or particularly healthful. Professor Michels also agrees that the human papilloma virus vaccine is suitable for all, including senior citizens. Levity aside, Dr. Michels’ espousal carries some weight because she works at Harvard University. But hers is only part of the story.
Myth: Fat is Evil
The “fat is evil” myth is deeply entrenched in our society. Counter arguments are on the horizon, especially one from a noted British cardiologist, Dr. Aseem Malhotra, who respectfully demands a public apology and a retraction on behalf of coconut oil from Dr. Michels. As a proponent of saturated fats and a foe of refined sugar, Dr. Malhotra censured the professor’s commentary as “unscientific nonsense,” warning that she is bringing Harvard into disrepute.
Arguably, not all coconut oil is not the same. Certified organic is preferred by some, but a few studies that looked for pesticide residues in coconut products have gone home empty handed (Brito, 2002). If organic designation is of no practical importance, what is? Even the refined vs. unrefined debate has lasted for a while. In the health world, unrefined anything is deemed better than refined everything. Although unrefined wins the debate, with coconut oil it might not make much difference.
MCT Oil — What is it exactly?
The answer lies all in the fat, namely in caprylic (C8:0) and lauric (C12:0) acids. The former, also known as octanoic acid, is an 8-carbon saturated fatty acid with anti-microbial properties that help to maintain gut integrity. As a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT), caprylic acid is not processed by the liver and requires no energy for absorption, use or storage. Lauric acid accounts for half the fatty acids in coconut oil. Known also as dodecanoic acid, this 12-carbon fat may be found in human breast milk. Lauric acid has been touted as having a positive effect on high-density lipoprotein levels, despite increasing total cholesterol (Mensink, 2003). Unlike other MCT’s, lauric acid metabolizes in the liver instead of getting immediately converted into energy.
The long-chain fatty acids in coconut oil include myristic (C14:0), palmitic (C16:0), stearic (C18:0), oleic (C18:1), and linoleic (C18:2) acids. The melting points of the saturated fats in coconut oil, from caprylic acid to stearic acid, range from 61° F to 158° F, quite a disparity, one that explains the most significant physical property of the oil — unlike most fats, both natural and hydrogenated, coconut oil does not exhibit a gradual softening with increasing temperatures, but passes abruptly from a somewhat brittle solid to a liquid.
Refined coconut oil is made from dried coconut meat, or copra. It is steamed and pressed, removing some of the flavor and aroma, but allowing a higher smoke point, which is good for cooking. The number of polyphenols and MCTs may be reduced by this method, also reducing the anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Where raw coconut is used instead of copra, a wet process emerges that presents an emulsion of water and oil, which may be separated by centrifuge, effecting a fifteen percent lower yield that incurs a greater expense. In cases where high melting point is desirable, as in warm climates, the oil is hydrogenated to bring the melting temperature to more than 100° F. Of course, trans fatty acids result (Foster, 2009). Raw, virgin, cold-pressed oil is preferred for its flavor and nutrient profile.
In their advisory, the AHA carefully picked and chose the studies to include, painstakingly omitting the Minnesota Coronary Survey, which found no difference between treatment and control groups and saturated fat intake (Frantz, 1989); exactingly skipping the Sydney Heart Study, which found no benefit in substituting linoleic acid for saturated fats (Ramsden, 2013); and assiduously ignoring the stellar Women’s Health Initiative, which concluded that, after 8 years’ attention, a dietary intervention that reduced total fat intake and increased intakes of vegetables, fruits and grains did not reduce the risk of CVD or stroke (Howard, 2006).
The AHA and its allies would replace saturated fats with rancid, oxidized,, supermarket vegetable oils that have been denatured in processing, storage and exposure to the high heat of the sauté pan. The resultant production of toxic aldehydes far exceeds what could be made from coconut oil (or butter or lard), which lacks the profusion of double bonds that are damaged in PUFAs.
But where is the negativity coming from?
Tom Brenna is a professor of nutrition at Cornell. His study of the reports on coconut oil have concluded that the oil’s bad reputation stems from a single factor…hydrogenation. Most of the negative findings were based on the use of partially-hydrogenated coconut oil, which was purposely used to raise the cholesterol of the study subjects and promote the preordained conclusions. Virgin coconut oil would not render the same data. Remember, lauric acid raises HDL.
A piece in the November 2014 edition of the journal, Postgraduate Medicine, allowed that virgin coconut oil (VCO) may have a place in cardioprotection (Babu, 2014). Norwegian researchers learned that VCO has a favorable effect upon the fibrinolytic system and Lp(a) concentrations when contrasted to a diet high in unsaturated fats (Muller, 2003). This position is bolstered by a Brazilian team that observed a reduction in waist circumference, HbA1C, and body mass index, and an increase in HDL (Cardoso, 2015).
The MCTs in coconut oil appear to be the most beneficial fractions, but lauric acid is not to be discounted. As a substitute for trans fats in some foods, it’s healthier. And that it can raise HDL is a plus. Yes, coconut oil is a saturated fat. And, yes, water can dilute electrolytes to the point of coma. And, yes, too much vitamin A can make your sclera yellow. Yet, moderate amounts of these commodities do no harm.
This analogy is used to help medical students better visualize the cellular membrane. Picture a circus tent. The masts that support the ceiling represent cholesterol, without which the tent (and the membrane) would collapse. The fabric of the tent is phosphatidylcholine, the absence of which would effect nihility. The poles that hold up the sides of the tent are saturated fats, lacking which there would be no stable structure. The flaps that allow ingress and egress are essential fatty acids, hence the free passage of energy into the cell and detritus out.
The suggested dietary limit for saturated fats is 20 grams a day. Coconut oil carries about 11.7 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. Most people will use it sparingly and wisely. But oils are more than just fats. They carry anti-oxidants and other substances that disallow the prediction of overall health effects merely by changes in LDL and HDL. Even Harvard’s famed Walter C. Willett, M.D., agrees that “coconut oil’s special HDL-boosting effect may make it ‘less bad’ than the high saturated fat content would indicate…”
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