Coconut Oil, yum that sounds like a dessert in the tropics. This tropical themed oil has recently surfaced as one of the most trending food items since the start of the decade. I get asked the question a lot, is coconut oil good for me .. and why?
Thank you to those of you asking, “Why?” I always get a little buzz from this word, it makes me itch with a burning passion to find out the answer and educate minds alike.
To answer this simple but rather complicated question, let’s dive into the world of chemistry to try and figure out what structure this oil has and WHY it might be different from say olive oil or canola oil.
Coconut oil is composed of roughly 92% saturated fat, which is much MUCH higher than most oils. Although coconut oil does not contain any cholesterol naturally (because it is plant based, not animal based), it still causes the liver to produce more LDL cholesterol (bad) and total cholesterol than unsaturated fats. To put this in perspective, the chart below shows the difference in saturated fats among canola oil, olive oil, lard, and coconut oil. The blue color symbolizes the percentage of saturated fat content.
In general, it is recommended to limit any dietary consumption of saturated fats because of the increased risk of heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and other dysfunctions of the heart and liver.
So why in the world are people saying coconut oil is actually healthy?
Medium Chain Triglycerides
Welcome to Food Chemistry 101.
The medium chain triglyceride found in coconut oil is called Lauric Acid, and this my friends, is where the magic happens.
Pure Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT) are found in coconut oil when the oil has gone through the rigorous process of hydrolization, fractionation, esterification and deodorization. Wow, that sounds like a big unnatural process!
Yes, that’s exactly right..
Unlike short and long chain triglycerides, pure MCT’s do not occur naturally and must be produced. Pure MCT’s can be sold separately from coconut oil, in the form of a colorless, odorless and semi-synthetic oil product. This also means that consuming coconut oil is NOT the same thing as consuming pure MCT’s. So why do we want MCT’s to begin with? Research shows that MCT’s have health benefits, which include reducing intestinal irritation with people who have irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, dumping syndrome, or have had a gastrectomy. It can also help improve fat oxidation (break down of fat) in the body and balance sugar levels, which can lead to improved body composition and weight. Type II diabetics might also be interested in this product because it helps preserve insulin sensitivity and glucose levels.
Because MCT’s are metabolized differently than long chain and short chain triglycerides, it can help with weight loss.
Other benefits reported with MCT’s include
- Strengthened immune system
- Healthy and youthful skin
- Proper function of the thyroid gland
Before You Butter Your Toast
So before you smear that oasis-like coconut oil on your breakfast toast, hear me out on this. Coconut oil has some health benefits yes, but then again don’t all foods in some shape or form? In the end, it all comes down to moderation.
Ah yes, that word that we love so dearly, MODERATION.
While some research says coconut oil is good, other research out there mainly focuses on opinions and testimonies of success stories. I am not saying coconut oil is off the table, try it if you must. But think twice about throwing out your olive and canola oils for this tropical butter. I will admit, when I first bought this product I thought it smelled so delicious. I wanted to scoop it out and take the plunge right there. However, there are many other ways to receive health benefits that coconut oil offers without the heftiness of saturated fat content.
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- “MCT Oil- Miracle Supplement or Just Another Fad?” by Ginger Hultin. Page 16. Food and Nutrition Magazine January/ February 2016. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- American Dietetic Association: “Complete Food and Nutrition Guide”. 4th edition, 2012
All photos used in this article were taken by Stephanie Rackley for and by The Healthy Chew
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