Coconut oil, the new ‘Superfood’?



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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana


Scientists, including medics, I am sure, will readily admit they are guilty of changing their views over time. They do so, simply because they express opinions based on the data available at the time and may express a ‘reverse-view’when new data becomes available. This is best illustrated by the controversy over coconut oil, which used to be considered, not so long ago, a dangerous oil but is now being promoted in the West, now, as a superfood.


What is a ‘superfood’?


Though there is no official definition of ‘superfoods’, many claims have been made about foods that are rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. Antioxidants are chemicals like beta-carotene, flavonoids, selenium and vitamins A, C & E, which protect against the harmful effects of free radicals, which are produced naturally in all living cells. Free radicals are formed as a result of metabolism in cells and, in excess, can harm the cells, which has been postulated as one of the causes of aging of cells. Superfoods, foods rich in these chemicals and vitamins, are claimed to slow down the process of aging, boost our physical abilities, prevent depression and even increase intelligence but scientific evidence is, at best, sparse. Claims have been made about blueberries, goji berries, chocolate, oily fish, wheatgrass, pomegranate juice, green tea, broccoli, garlic and beetroot. The latest to join this acclaimed list is coconut oil, which is a dramatic reversal of fortunes.


Claimed benefits of coconut oil


We have always known that coconut oil is a good moisturiser and makes excellent soap. Of late, there have been claims that coconut oil promotes weight loss by increasing satiety and encouraging the body to burn fat. It is also claimed to reduce dandruff and help eczema because of anti-inflammatory effects but well controlled clinical trials are needed to substantiate these claims.


Dementia


There is some observational data to suggest that coconut oil may help in preventing the progression or, even, cause reversal of dementia. This is an extremely interesting avenue to be pursued for a severe debilitating disease for which, so far, there is no effective treatment. It becomes even more interesting because there is a possible mechanism to explain the benefits. It is postulated that memory loss, at least partly, is due to the inability of brain cells to utilize glucose as a source of energy and ketones, which are produced by the digestion of fatty acids in coconut oil, may be an alternate source of energy. This is one area where good clinical trials are urgently needed but, till definitive data is available, adding virgin coconut oil to salads, as a dressing, may not be a bad idea.


Coconut oil and heart disease


This has been the biggest bone of contention and since the adoption of the ‘fat hypothesis’ coconut oil had been frowned upon, for good reasons. According to this hypothesis, saturated fats increase LDL cholesterol, which is the ‘bad’ cholesterol that promotes development of fatty plaques in the walls of arteries. Further, saturated fats do not increase or may even lower the levels of HDL, which is the good cholesterol that facilitates transfer of fat out of the arterial walls. Coconut oil is very rich in saturated fat, more than 80%, which is much more than in butter or lard. Previous studies have shown that there may, indeed, be an increase of LDL cholesterol with coconut oil and, thus, most clinicians have advised against the use of coconut oil.


New Data


It was refreshing to watch the BBC TV health education programme "Trust me, I am a Doctor", broadcast recently, which revealed very interesting data, which cannot be disregarded though they need confirmation by larger trials. It is a programme hosted by Dr Michael Mosley, who has an interesting background. Having studied Philosophy,Politics, and Economics in Oxford University, he had worked as a banker in the City of London before deciding to study medicine. Initially he wanted to be a psychiatrist but being disillusioned with it, he decided to join BBC, as a trainee producer in 1985. Since then he had done many award-winning science programmes, the latest of which is this series, which explores common medical problems. It is a superb series and I have referred previously to work they did on mindfulness.


According to an article in the MailOnline website (dailymail.co.uk), Dr Mosley developed a taste for coconut oil when he spent three months in Sri Lanka, doing an elective as a medical student, 30 years ago. Though he loved the taste and continued to use coconut oil for cooking, he was aware of the potential drawbacks. In view of the promotion of coconut oil as a superfood,which has resulted ina steep increase of coconut oil sales, increasing seventy-fold over six years to 16 million British Pounds last year, he decided to set up an experiment with the help of two well known professors in Cambridge University;Kay Tee Khaw, Professor of Clinical Gerontology, and Nita Forouhi, Professor in the MRC Epidemiology unit, leading the Nutritional Epidemiology programme.


They recruited nearly 100 volunteers, over the age of 50years, who all had baseline checks of LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol, in addition to height, weight, blood pressure, waist circumference and body fat percentage. All these were repeated at the end of the trial period. They were divided into three groups; one on coconut oil, second on olive oil and the third on butter. The participants had to consume 50g of the allotted fat each day, in whatever form they wished to, for four weeks.


The findings, at the end of the trial period, surprised everyone, as it produced the most unexpected result. As far as LDL was concerned, butter, as expected, produced an increase of about 10%: there was no change with olive oil: rather than the expected increase with coconut oil, there was a slight reduction but was not of clinical significance. LDL levels not increasing with coconut oil was a great surprise.


HDL values were even more surprising; whereas butter and olive oil increased by only 5%, there was a surprising increase of 14% with coconut oil, which is very significant. They are planning to do a larger trial, to confirm these results.


Why, the discrepancy?


One of the reasons may be that the tested product, in this trial, was extra virgin coconut oil, whereas previous trials may have used ordinary coconut oil. May be, it is true to say that what is bad is not coconut oil but the copra derived variety


The second explanation, and the more important conclusion from this small trial, is that not all saturated fats are the same. Coconut oil is unique in that it has very high levels of lauric acid, just like breast milk. Lauric acid, which accounts for half the saturated fat content in coconut oil, has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. High levels of lauric acid are found only in breast milk and coconut oil, making it a very different saturated fat. After all, coconut oil may be heart friendly and we may be able enjoy it without any guilt now!


It is heartening to note that our producers are exporting virgin coconut oil. The other day, when I went to one of the discount supermarkets in UK (Lidl, a German discount chain, well established in UK now), I was pleasantly surprised to find virgin coconut oil, from Sri Lanka, on offer. It is incumbent on our government to give incentives for the production of extra virgin coconut oil for local consumption too, so that it will be available at a reasonable price.


 


 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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