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Crazy for Coconut? — an article on the Smart Living Network
March 11, 2013 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Crazy for Coconut?

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Although Dr. Oz and other famed health experts are touting the benefits of coconut oil, the lack of scientific evidence indicates otherwise. However, as this trendy ingredient has only recently hit the supermarket shelves, the research may still be in the works. In fact, the saturated fat found in chocolate was once demonized as a contributor to heart disease, yet is now believed to be safe. So, coconut lovers everywhere - remain hopeful and read on to get the scoop from our nutrition consultant as we dive into the health claims.

What is it?

Coconut oil is derived from the meat of coconuts and can be found in a variety of beauty products, lotions, and of course, food. The oil offers antimicrobial properties, making it a great fit for skincare.

Is it low fat?

Sadly, no. Similar to other oils, one tablespoon contains 14 grams of fat and is almost entirely made of the cholesterol- and inflammation-raising saturated fat.

Then why is it so healthy?

Run a search online about the nutritional benefits of this tropical oil, and you will come across a plethora of conflicting data, making the answer somewhat elusive.

While the oil is a saturated fat, there are a growing number of theories that the fat is not absorbed as well during digestion due to of the nature of the fatty acid structure. In other words, the fats found in coconut oil are shorter than those found in animal products such as beef, butter, and cheese. If this is truly the case, it may aid weight loss and potentially affect cholesterol levels, as the fats are simply not well absorbed by the body.

Another line of study is along the breakdown of these fats into ketone bodies, which may have potential benefits for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by providing better fuel for our brain. 

How is it being used?

Moisturizing dry skin, soothing sore nipples, preventing stretch marks, and conditioning hair are only a few of the ways coconut oil is being used - and that is only in the body care realm. When it comes to nutrition related aspects, many claim the oil will help with diabetes, heart disease, dementia, weight loss, and digestive diseases. Though coconut oil may sound like the ultimate cure-all, don't jump on the bandwagon just yet, most research is still preliminary.

Is it truly better than EVOO?

No. When it comes to heart healthy fats, it is hard to beat extra virgin olive oil or canola oil, and coconut oil does not even come close when comparing the fat content. Coconut oil is made up of saturated fats and does not contain the unsaturated mono- and polyunsaturated fats found in the olive-canola duo.

How does it hold up in the kitchen?

As the oil offers a uniquely tropical taste, coconut oil is often used in recipes in which this unique flavor profile is desired, such as stir-fry’s and baking. However, many people (myself included) are unable to detect any flavor distinction when used with other tasty ingredients, making the intent essentially moot.

Others choose coconut oil for its rumored smoke point advantages, which means the oil can withstand higher temperatures before ruining your families favorite stir fry with an off flavor. Yet, depending on the specific coconut oil being used, the smoke point may not be that high at all. While a refined coconut oil may work well up to 365 degrees Fahrenheit, a more virgin form will not be able to withstand such high heat.

If you prefer to stick with olive oil, go right ahead. According to research published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, olive oil has a much higher smoke point at 468F, and extra-virgin holds up well to 410F before spoiling. Both forms beat out the famed tropical oil.

The Bottom Line.

Until we have more information, continue to use coconut oil sparingly in your family meals. If you are not using it at all, there is no need to start (yet!). What we do know is that unsaturated fats (olive, canola, or walnut oil) are heart healthy – aim to include these in your diet instead of those made of saturated fats (butter, lard, coconut, or palm oil) or trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils).

When it comes to dietary fats, a little goes a long way and many of us obtain enough in the foods we eat. Coconut oil and other oils provide roughly 120 calories per tablespoon, a large amount for such a tiny portion. According to the USDA MyPlate recommendations, children up to age eight should have about one tablespoon or less, while mom and dad are limited to two tablespoons. Adding an extra tablespoon to an already sufficient diet will result in a monthly one-pound weight gain. So, if you are planning to incorporate this oil into your diet, be sure to swap it in for another fat already being used, and check to make sure it is a true coconut oil and not one that has been processed with hydrogenation.

For more information on how to incorporate healthy fats into your family’s diet, visit www.choosemyplate.gov

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