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Fads in Focus: Coconut Oil – Panacea or Artery Clogger?

October 20th, 2016

There is barely a food or beverage category that has not been invaded by coconut in some shape or form. Overall, this has spurred an impressive burst of innovation, resulting in a rash of novel products and the amplification of consumer choice. But there is a shadier side to this story, which is causing a headache to public health bodies: the meteoric rise of coconut oil, which has been lauded as a body fat burner, a cure for Alzheimer’s, a treatment for arthritis, diabetes, and viral infections, as well as preventing heart disease and boosting the immune system, amongst other alleged benefits. This article is a call for prudence, since, in reality, we still know precious little about coconut oil’s impact on human health.

Celebrities fall for coconut oil

Coconut products are everywhere, and launch activity remains rampant. Besides the roaring success of coconut water, based on the concept of “natural hydration for active people”, it is the free-from trend, and in particular the dairy-free trend, which is a key driving factor. In March 2016, for instance, UK-based Middledale Foods launched Yo-Good, a coconut-based alternative to dairy yoghurt made with a blend containing coconut cream, resulting in a product with a 10% total fat content. In May 2016, health food company Tundalaya introduced a coconut-based dairy creamer in the US, made with 85% coconut cream. Promoted as soy-, GMO-, dairy-, trans-fats- and gluten-free, the product keys perfectly into several major health and wellness trends.

Products such as these, intended to be eaten occasionally and/or in small amounts, are not raising much of an eyebrow. Where things get slightly more controversial, though, is in the arena of coconut oil. Here, we have a growing number of advocates who are trying to convince people that they ought to choose coconut oil as their number one cooking oil and even take it as a supplement.

High-profile endorsers include Dr Oz, the US’s most famous heart surgeon, who has consumers flocking to health food stores in their droves following his pronouncements on the popular The Dr Oz Show. “This is the fat that you eat to lose the fat you don’t want,” was his take on coconut oil, whose celebrity following is huge. Angelina Jolie reportedly starts off her day with a spoonful of coconut oil accompanied by a handful of cereal, while supermodel Miranda Kerr puts it in her tea. Kelly Osbourne, Jennifer Aniston, baseball star CJ Wilson and several of the Kardashian tribe have also fallen under its spell.

‘Coconut oil not good for healthy cholesterol’ remains the official line

Public health bodies, by contrast, are not on board with the coconut oil craze. The American Heart Association and the British Heart Foundation, for example, keep listing coconut oil as a source of saturated fat, which people concerned about their heart health ought to be cutting down on.

Heart UK is quite explicit in advising people who want to lower their blood cholesterol level that they should avoid using coconut oil in their cooking and refrain from taking it as a dietary supplement. With regards to creamed and desiccated coconut, the charity states that since these products contain around 60-70% coconut fat, they should only be consumed on an occasional basis and in small amounts.

Furthermore, Heart UK also points out that two tablespoons of coconut oil contain 24g of saturated fat, which is more than the 20g a day recommended for women by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). Our Nutrition data shows that UK per capita daily saturated fat intake from packaged food alone stood at 28.81g in 2014.

The soaring popularity of coconut oil already irked the New Zealand Heart Foundation in 2014, prompting it to release a statement informing the general public that, based on current evidence, unsaturated plant oils were preferable over coconut oil in terms of heart health.

The organisation duly commissioned an expert, Dr Laurence Eyres, to conduct a review on the matter, which was published under the title Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factor in humans in the journal Nutrition Review in April 2016. The salient conclusion was that coconut oil raised total and (“bad”) LDL cholesterol more than unsaturated plant oils did, but to a lesser extent than butter.

The paper pointed out that the dietary and lifestyle patterns in societies where coconut oil constitutes the principal dietary fat, but where heart disease incidence was low, eg across Polynesia (a factor often cited in the marketing of coconut oil), were not comparable to those typical in the West, and that the difference in cardiovascular health status between countries could not be attributed to this one dietary factor.

The changing fortunes of coconut oil

The world of nutrition fads thrives on controversy. The diet gurus of the moment know how to bolster their standing by highlighting gaps in knowledge that led to questionable nutrition advice disseminated in the past.

Coconut oil has a bit of a history in this regard. Many will remember that coconut oil was once a leading choice for cooking in Western Europe owing to its high heat stability and neutral taste. One well-known brand of 100% coconut oil is Palmin (GBO Peter Kölln KGaA), which has been on the German market now for over a century.

In the 1980s, when the war against saturated fat kicked off in earnest, a growing number of health-conscious consumers started to replace coconut oil with other vegetable oils rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, many of which, in order to achieve a solid-at-room-temperature consistency, had been partially hydrogenated.

We know now, of course, that the trans-fatty acids produced by partial hydrogenation are even more damaging to cardiovascular health than saturated fatty acids, since they not only raise “bad” LDL cholesterol (as do many saturated fatty acids) but also lower “good” HDL cholesterol (saturated fats do not do this). So, the sad irony is that consumers would indeed have been better off sticking to coconut oil.

MCTs– the “magic” component?

Nutritional science moves on, and, on a regular basis, new discoveries are made which can indeed lead to official guidelines being revised. In essence, this is a good thing; it shows that the scientific process is working and that policy makers are receptive to embracing advancements in collective scientific knowledge.

Coconut oil is far from being a fully explored entity. We know that it consists of around 90% of saturated fatty acids, two thirds of which are made up by lauric and myristic acid, and that these can cause a rise in total as well as LDL cholesterol.

What makes coconut oil special compared to other plant oils or animal fats is that approximately 60% of it is accounted for by medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), meaning fatty acids that are between 6-12 carbon atoms long. (Lauric acid, incidentally, belongs to that group.) And it is those MCTs which coconut oil proponents ascribe most of its health benefits to, most notably weight loss, increased brain function and, paradoxically, heart health.

Researchers, like the aforementioned Dr Eyres, point out that, thus far, coconut oil research is largely based on animal studies and/or extrapolated from research done on isolated MTCs, rather than on whole coconut oil, and also that the effect of coconut oil consumption on the ratio of total cholesterol to (“good”) HDL cholesterol had barely been investigated so far.

So, what should the industry do?

First of all, it would be unwarranted for the industry to be fearful of the coconut trend as a whole. As a new product development impetus, it is a welcome breath of fresh air. But caution is advised with regards to jumping with both feet on the “healthy” coconut oil bandwagon.

Public health bodies remain firmly opposed to consumers switching to coconut oil, and it is not advisable for any mainstream product to put itself into the firing line and end up branded as a “menace to public health”, no matter how enthusiastically various celebrities happen to be endorsing it.

Even if no explicit health claim is made, substituting the fat in a packaged food product for coconut oil could potentially expose a manufacturer to attack at a time when reducing the population’s saturated fat intake remains very much a prime public health objective in most countries.

There is barely a food or beverage category that has not been invaded by coconut in some shape or form. Overall, this has spurred an impressive burst of innovation, resulting in a rash of novel products and the amplification of consumer choice. But there is a shadier side to this story, which is causing a headache to public health bodies: the meteoric rise of coconut oil, which has been lauded as a body fat burner, a cure for Alzheimer’s, a treatment for arthritis, diabetes, and viral infections, as well as preventing heart disease and boosting the immune system, amongst other alleged benefits. This article is a call for prudence, since, in reality, we still know precious little about coconut oil’s impact on human health.

Celebrities fall for coconut oil

Coconut products are everywhere, and launch activity remains rampant. Besides the roaring success of coconut water, based on the concept of “natural hydration for active people”, it is the free-from trend, and in particular the dairy-free trend, which is a key driving factor. In March 2016, for instance, UK-based Middledale Foods launched Yo-Good, a coconut-based alternative to dairy yoghurt made with a blend containing coconut cream, resulting in a product with a 10% total fat content. In May 2016, health food company Tundalaya introduced a coconut-based dairy creamer in the US, made with 85% coconut cream. Promoted as soy-, GMO-, dairy-, trans-fats- and gluten-free, the product keys perfectly into several major health and wellness trends.

Products such as these, intended to be eaten occasionally and/or in small amounts, are not raising much of an eyebrow. Where things get slightly more controversial, though, is in the arena of coconut oil. Here, we have a growing number of advocates who are trying to convince people that they ought to choose coconut oil as their number one cooking oil and even take it as a supplement.

High-profile endorsers include Dr Oz, the US’s most famous heart surgeon, who has consumers flocking to health food stores in their droves following his pronouncements on the popular The Dr Oz Show. “This is the fat that you eat to lose the fat you don’t want,” was his take on coconut oil, whose celebrity following is huge. Angelina Jolie reportedly starts off her day with a spoonful of coconut oil accompanied by a handful of cereal, while supermodel Miranda Kerr puts it in her tea. Kelly Osbourne, Jennifer Aniston, baseball star CJ Wilson and several of the Kardashian tribe have also fallen under its spell.

‘Coconut oil not good for healthy cholesterol’ remains the official line

Public health bodies, by contrast, are not on board with the coconut oil craze. The American Heart Association and the British Heart Foundation, for example, keep listing coconut oil as a source of saturated fat, which people concerned about their heart health ought to be cutting down on.

Heart UK is quite explicit in advising people who want to lower their blood cholesterol level that they should avoid using coconut oil in their cooking and refrain from taking it as a dietary supplement. With regards to creamed and desiccated coconut, the charity states that since these products contain around 60-70% coconut fat, they should only be consumed on an occasional basis and in small amounts.

Furthermore, Heart UK also points out that two tablespoons of coconut oil contain 24g of saturated fat, which is more than the 20g a day recommended for women by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). Our Nutrition data shows that UK per capita daily saturated fat intake from packaged food alone stood at 28.81g in 2014.

The soaring popularity of coconut oil already irked the New Zealand Heart Foundation in 2014, prompting it to release a statement informing the general public that, based on current evidence, unsaturated plant oils were preferable over coconut oil in terms of heart health.

The organisation duly commissioned an expert, Dr Laurence Eyres, to conduct a review on the matter, which was published under the title Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factor in humans in the journal Nutrition Review in April 2016. The salient conclusion was that coconut oil raised total and (“bad”) LDL cholesterol more than unsaturated plant oils did, but to a lesser extent than butter.

The paper pointed out that the dietary and lifestyle patterns in societies where coconut oil constitutes the principal dietary fat, but where heart disease incidence was low, eg across Polynesia (a factor often cited in the marketing of coconut oil), were not comparable to those typical in the West, and that the difference in cardiovascular health status between countries could not be attributed to this one dietary factor.

The changing fortunes of coconut oil

The world of nutrition fads thrives on controversy. The diet gurus of the moment know how to bolster their standing by highlighting gaps in knowledge that led to questionable nutrition advice disseminated in the past.

Coconut oil has a bit of a history in this regard. Many will remember that coconut oil was once a leading choice for cooking in Western Europe owing to its high heat stability and neutral taste. One well-known brand of 100% coconut oil is Palmin (GBO Peter Kölln KGaA), which has been on the German market now for over a century.

In the 1980s, when the war against saturated fat kicked off in earnest, a growing number of health-conscious consumers started to replace coconut oil with other vegetable oils rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, many of which, in order to achieve a solid-at-room-temperature consistency, had been partially hydrogenated.

We know now, of course, that the trans-fatty acids produced by partial hydrogenation are even more damaging to cardiovascular health than saturated fatty acids, since they not only raise “bad” LDL cholesterol (as do many saturated fatty acids) but also lower “good” HDL cholesterol (saturated fats do not do this). So, the sad irony is that consumers would indeed have been better off sticking to coconut oil.

MCTs– the “magic” component?

Nutritional science moves on, and, on a regular basis, new discoveries are made which can indeed lead to official guidelines being revised. In essence, this is a good thing; it shows that the scientific process is working and that policy makers are receptive to embracing advancements in collective scientific knowledge.

Coconut oil is far from being a fully explored entity. We know that it consists of around 90% of saturated fatty acids, two thirds of which are made up by lauric and myristic acid, and that these can cause a rise in total as well as LDL cholesterol.

What makes coconut oil special compared to other plant oils or animal fats is that approximately 60% of it is accounted for by medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), meaning fatty acids that are between 6-12 carbon atoms long. (Lauric acid, incidentally, belongs to that group.) And it is those MCTs which coconut oil proponents ascribe most of its health benefits to, most notably weight loss, increased brain function and, paradoxically, heart health.

Researchers, like the aforementioned Dr Eyres, point out that, thus far, coconut oil research is largely based on animal studies and/or extrapolated from research done on isolated MTCs, rather than on whole coconut oil, and also that the effect of coconut oil consumption on the ratio of total cholesterol to (“good”) HDL cholesterol had barely been investigated so far.

So, what should the industry do?

First of all, it would be unwarranted for the industry to be fearful of the coconut trend as a whole. As a new product development impetus, it is a welcome breath of fresh air. But caution is advised with regards to jumping with both feet on the “healthy” coconut oil bandwagon.

Public health bodies remain firmly opposed to consumers switching to coconut oil, and it is not advisable for any mainstream product to put itself into the firing line and end up branded as a “menace to public health”, no matter how enthusiastically various celebrities happen to be endorsing it.

Even if no explicit health claim is made, substituting the fat in a packaged food product for coconut oil could potentially expose a manufacturer to attack at a time when reducing the population’s saturated fat intake remains very much a prime public health objective in most countries.

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Simone Baroke

Simone Baroke is a long-standing contributing Analyst at Euromonitor International specialising in the global health and wellness and fresh food markets. She has lived in a number of European countries and has a particular interest in local food cultures and consumer trends. Simone holds a BSc (Hons.) in Health Sciences and Nutrition and an MSc in Food Policy.

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