Coconut fat is good for you, but …

Lighter, Brighter You Blog: Coconut fat is good for you, but...

Confusing information ...

In the last few years there has been an onslaught of information about coconuts and their fat, and how they can enhance our health, along with - more recently - reports that coconut fat may be damaging to our health. For many decades we had been advised to keep away from them, as researchers thought that all saturated fats were the same. Suddenly their status changed, and we were encouraged to consume their fat and the products made from them. Now, once again, there have been questions as to their health status. Confusing isn’t it? What are the facts?

Coconuts contain saturated fat

Coconuts fall into the category of saturated fats. However, they are different from saturated fats that come from animals or animal products, because the structure of their fat molecules is different. Coconuts contain special plant saturated fats which are called medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), whereas the fats in animal products are called short chain triglycerides (SCTs) and those in animal flesh are called long chain triglycerides (LCTs). One of the great benefits of these coconut MCTs is that they are used by the body very efficiently to produce energy, and aren’t stored as fat.

Tropical or plant forms of saturated fats behave differently in the body when compared with how animal saturated fats behave. When researchers looked at the health of people who have enjoyed coconuts as a major part of their diet for many centuries, they saw that they were not only very healthy, and slim, but they also had low levels of cholesterol and had great immune systems. They realized that not all saturated fats are the same.

Other plant forms of saturated fats

Palm kernel, cocoa and shea nuts also fall into the category of saturated plant fats. Along with coconuts, these products have been used as fresh dietary staples by the people who live in the regions where they grow, from time immemorial. And these products contain protein and fresh "good" fat, as well as fiber, some minerals, and vitamins such as a specific type of vitamin E, and beta-carotene, which is the foundation of vitamin A.

The processing of these good fats

These are all therefore healthy, tropical saturated fats, if they are eaten fresh. However when they are processed, the tropical fats change, leaving them less healthy and maybe even dangerous to your health.

The first problem is that when these fats are exposed to heat, light and oxygen, they will become damaged. Although they are different in structure, and therefore handle these elements much better than do essential fatty acids (EFAs), many of them still change in structure. They also lose a lot of their vitamin E and beta-carotene. Furthermore, oxidation, which occurs due to the exposure of the fat to heat, light and oxygen, leads to free radical production.

When manufacturers of processed coconut fat and flesh produce the end products that consumers want, they may employ refining and deodorization methods, just like the manufacturers of processed vegetable oils do. This results in damaged products, which contain trans fats as well as other damaged and damaging fat molecules.

Hydrogenation of coconut oil

When coconut oil is hydrogenated, which involves the pumping in of hydrogen atoms to keep the oil solid at room temperature, which yields a shelf-stable product (hence no loss of income to the manufacturer), the product ends up containing trans fats. All the benefit of the fresh flesh and oil is lost, as the vitamin E, beta-carotene and other minerals are destroyed. Unfortunately, traces of nickel and aluminum are also added to such products, as these heavy metals are used to turn the oil into hard fat.

Fats and oils are made up of a combination of different types of fat molecules. Over the years, manufacturers have perfected the science of separating various types of specific fats from within different varieties of fats, including coconut oil. Palmitic and myristic acid, both of which are found in coconut oil, when separated, seem to increase cholesterol levels. And some people find that coconut fat may lead to weight gain.

Copra is a product that is made from dried coconut flesh, and further processing leads to a low-grade coconut oil. Obviously heat, light and oxygen exposure will result in a damaged product.

What about Palm kernel oil …

Palm kernel oil has also experienced a surge of interest, and although it is also a healthy, plant form of saturated fat, containing a lot of beta-carotene (which is why it’s orange in color), it’s also responsible for the destruction of the biodiversity of the areas where these trees are being planted. Orangutans are losing family members, as well as their habitat, and the environment where these trees are planted is being changed irreversibly. There is no reason to use this oil, as you can easily obtain enough beta-carotene from other vegetable sources, such as carrots, pumpkin and sweet potatoes.

Read the small print to find the truth

So, once again there is more to the plant saturated fat 'story' than media hype, health-store product promotions and incorrectly reported research. Be sure to eat fresh coconuts, and make sure that any coconut oil you purchase is organic, cold-pressed and unrefined. Otherwise, you’re once again simply consuming a product that contains damaged fat molecules, along with pesticides, both of which accumulate in fat cells and cell membranes, leading to ill-health. And, keep in mind that coconut fat should form part of an overall healthy, wholefood diet!

References

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Boateng, L, et al. Coconut oil and palm oil's role in nutrition, health and national development: A review. Ghana Med J. 2016 Sep;50(3):189-196.

Earle, Liz. Vital Oils. UK: Vermilion, imprint of Ebury Press; 1992. 

Erasmus U. Fats that heal, fats that kill. Burnaby BC, Canada: Alive Books;1993.

Eyres, L, et al. Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans. Nutr Rev. 2016 Apr;74(4):267-80.

Kummerow FA. The negative effects of hydrogenated trans fats and what to do about them. Atherosclerosis 2009 Aug; 205(2): 458-65.

Lawrence, GD. Dietary fats and health: dietary recommendations in the context of scientific evidence. Adv Nutr. 2013 May;493):294-302

Schmidt MA. Smart Fats – how dietary fats and oils affect mental, physical and emotional intelligence. Berkeley, California: Frog Ltd Pub; 1997.