We are a society consumed by trends. Every month, there seems to be a new “superfood” that is heavily inculcated into the trendy Whole-Foods-I-just-did-my-Bikram Yoga Culture. This seems to be especially true with diets and food. Sit back and think of quinoa, almond milk, organic everything, gluten-free everything, and your head will begin to spin. One such heavily-touted superfood of the past few years has been coconut.
No doubt, many people reading this article have been enticed to try coconut oil, coconut water, or other coconut products. But, really, what is the big deal with coconut products?
Coconut oil is extracted from the “meat” inside the hard-shelled fruit of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). Like lard, it is solid at room temperature and has a long shelf life, which makes it attractive for many kinds of food processing and baking.
As such, coconut oil has now earned shelf space at health food stores and supermarkets, as well as in restaurants and home kitchens, where many cooks now use it for frying and baking, instead of butter or lard. Its fans rave about the rich, nutty, almost sweet flavor of the oil, especially if it has been minimally processed (“virgin” oil). The tide has turned so much that its proponents now claim that coconut oil is actually healthful—downright medicinal.
Coconut oil’s main saturated fatty acid is lauric acid, which is in few other foods. Some research has found that lauric acid raises HDL (“good”) cholesterol and probably LDL as well. But, in fact, the reputable and peer-reviewed literature opines that it’s unclear how the lauric acid in coconut oil affects LDL cholesterol, since this depends on what the oil replaces in the diet. There’s no convincing evidence to support the claim that coconut oil can promote significant weight loss. The claim is based on the fact that the oil contains medium-chain triglycerides (triglycerides are the main component of dietary fats and are usually long-chain).
However, the few human studies on the effect of coconut oil itself on body weight have had inconsistent results. Like all edible oils, coconut oil is high in calories (about 120 per tablespoon) so it would be counterproductive to consume large quantities in hopes of losing weight.
While coconut oil didn’t deserve its initial bad reputation, it also doesn’t deserve its new stardom as a health food. It’s fine to cook with it if you like it, especially as a replacement for butter or lard, though the reputable experts recommend olive, canola, and other non-tropical oils for regular use. It’s also okay to buy foods that contain coconut oil, but don’t think that makes them healthy choices. What is absolutely certain is that coconut oil is extremely calorie dense. That being said, be careful with it and don’t have expectations that if you eat it, six-pack abs are on their way to your midsection.