The Coconut Craze


The coconuts are coming: coconut milk, coconut water, coconut oil.  It's good for you,  it's bad for you.  Love it, hate it.  What's the real story behind the nutrition in coconuts? Hazel wants to know...

Coconuts are the fruit of the coconut palm which grows in climates closer to the equator.  Once cracked open, the flesh is grated into the shredded coconut that so many of us love in sweet, delicious treats.  Coconut milk is made by adding hot water, then pressing the liquid out of the grated flesh from mature coconuts. Coconut water is the fluid from a green, young fruit.

Coconut water is being touted as a wonderful fluid and electrolyte replacement for athletes.  With 46 calories each cup, it's low in fat and is a good source of magnesium, potassium and vitamin C.  Great! However, it can contain over 250 mg if sodium per cup, which is considerably higher than found in sports drinks such as Gatorade, which has 10 mg.  Experts warn that drinking beverages with that much sodium may not be in the best interest of most people.  Drinking addition glasses of plain water is a perfect way for most people to rehydrate.  When workouts last longer than an hour and/or are in hotter or more humid environments, adding a little salt on food in addition to the water is a good idea.  Sports drinks also offer an easy way to replace both water electrolytes lost in those longer, tougher workouts.  Coconut water can also be used, though it is much more expensive and does not contain magical properties that many are hoping for. Drinking one cup of coconut water and use plain water to finish rehydrating would be fine.

Coconut milk comes in at whopping 550 calories per cup, with 57 grams of fat and 51 of those saturated.  Low fat versions are also available, some with only 50 calories.  Coconut milk is much lower in protein that milk from cows, goats or soy milk.  Though naturally low in calcium, you can find some coconut milk enriched with calcium.

Coconut oil and palm oil are solid at room temperature and are high in saturated fats.  For this reason, dietitians and health professionals have long recommended minimizing their use.  There is now a wave of advocates for the use of coconut oil, saying it should be used to promote health.  What's the deal?

The type of fats found in coconut oil are comprised medium chain fatty acids (MCFA.)  These differ from the long chain variety (LCFA) found in animal products.  Some evidence has come up in research to indicate that consuming coconut oil may increase HDL's (happy/good low density lipoprotein.)  And higher HDL's is a good thing (you can also increase HDL's with exercise.) While much more research is necessary to present an answer, it is still clear that since coconut and palm are saturated fat, levels of total cholesterol and LDL's (lousy!) do rise, as does the risk for heart disease. 

Some people claim coconut oil increases metabolic rate.  A small study was done in Italy and Switzerland in the 1990's.  They found that when 30g of MCFA's were consumed instead of LCFA's at a single meal,  metabolic rate rose 5% right when tested after the meal. In 1999, a study with 12 women was done comparing the use of MCFA in coconut or butter with the LCFA in beef.  After 14 days, the MCFA women seemed to burn 0.14 calories per minute.  It was not clear if this would effect weight loss.  In 2003, a study found that people eating MCFA-fortified meals burned slightly more calories, but this did not result in any weight loss.  At this point, the MCFA coconut oil may provide a slightly higher metabolic rate, though this connection has not been proven.  Much more research is needed to find out if MCFA provide long term metabolic rates or weight loss.

Studies that have been done so far have not proven that coconut oil is good for your heart---it's just like any other type of saturated fat.  In fact, a study done in 2004 found a 11% rise in total cholesterol and an increase in LDL with a consumption of MCFA.  Every study has linked higher saturated fat use with an increase in heart disease.

Dr. Mark Wahlqvist, director of the Asian Pacific Health and Nutrition Centre, has been researching the nutrition of the West Sumatra people for 25 years--an area ripe with coconut oil use.  His studies conclude that it is not the type of fat that was consumed, but how the amount of meat, eggs, sugar, and cholesterol eaten that mattered.  The traditional Sumatra diet, rich in fruits, veggies, rice and soy in addition to the ample use of coconut milk and oils, resulted in fewer risks of heart disease. When people converted to the more Western diet with a higher intake of sugar, refined carbohydrates meat, eggs, and lower in soy, rice, fruits, veggies, and cereals, the risks of heart disease rose significantly.  In fact, his study suggested the use of coconut oil was a neutral factor.  Interestingly, Singapore, with it's higher consumption of coconut and palm oils, has a 3 times higher rate of death than Hong Kong, who use little.

So, is it true: coconut oil will help you lose weight, prevent wrinkles, cure illness and prevent heart disease?  We wish... Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it is!

Until much more research is done, what should you do? If you need a solid fat, using a small amount of coconut oil instead of another highly saturated solid or trans fat would be fine. No miracles have been found in coconut oil. But, there is no question that the use of more unsaturated fats lowers cholesterol, LDL's,  and some even increase HDL.  So, reach for salmon, grab a few nuts, olives or use a few avocado slices for your salad tonight!