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Food of the Week: Coconut oil

Posted May 02 2009 12:00am

I was recently asked about the benefits of coconut oil, or if there were any. A few years back, coconut oil was all the rage in the fitness industry. So what's the deal?

At first glance, coconut oil certainly doesn't seem very healthy. It is about 90% saturated fat (!), and of those, most are medium-chain triglycerides (MCT's). While it does contain some good monounsaturated fat (6% oleic acid), the 2% polyunsaturated fatty acids are made up of linoleic (omega-6). Read more about what that means here.

Coconut oil has some cooking benefits, mainly that it is more stable than most oils. Due to its high saturated fat content, it is slow to oxidize and resistant to rancidity.

The downside: many coconut oils are hydrogenated in order to make them more stable at higher temperatures. This increases the saturated fat content even further, and can also produce nasty trans fats.

MCT oil: MCT oil is made when the long chain triglycerides are removed from coconut oil, leaving only Medium-chain triglycerides. This process is called "fractionization" and makes the product entirely saturated, and more heat and shelf stable. MCT oil is sometimes preferred by bodybuilders and athletes, because MCT's are believed to be broken down quicker for use as energy in the body, and less likely to be stored as fat.

Health effects

There has been some evidence to show that coconut oil may reduce the risk for heart disease in rats. However, Polynesian populations who had high intakes of coconut meat had higher cholesterol levels, although there was no higher incidence of heart disease. Coconut oil has also been shown to reduce the risk of blood clots, although replacement of some coconut oil with polyunsaturated fats resulted in improved cholesterol levels, and a reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

According to some, coconut oil has positive benefits on everything from aging (due to its antioxident properites) to immunity, kidney and liver problems, and digestion. I don't think research on these topics is conclusive yet, so don't take those claims at face value.

Interesting facts:

  • The largest producer of coconut oil is the Phillipines and has been used as a commercial product since the 1860's.

  • Coconut oil is used for making margarine, soap and cosmetics.

  • Hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated coconut oil is often used in non-dairy creamers, and snack foods.

  • Coconut oil is currently used as a fuel for transport in the Philippines.

  • In February 2008, a mixture of coconut oil and babassu oil was used to partially power one engine of a Boeing 747, in a biofuel trial sponsored by Virgin Atlantic.

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