As you maybe aware, not all fats are bad. In fact we need a range of fats which are known as essential fatty acids and these include the well known omega 3 fats which are generally deficient in the western diet and are present in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel. This article is however about coconut oil, which is something I included in my Easter recipe and touched upon how beneficial it is thought to be.
Coconut oil, like most sources of fat, is made up of different fats and a standard nutritional panel will indicate that it contains mainly saturated fats. Saturated fatty acids are the ones that have all their carbon atoms filled with the full complement of hydrogen atoms and are thus saturated. These are associated with hard fats such as butter and lard, which for so long been thought to contribute to heart disease. Coconut oil however is made up of 64% medium chain fatty acids (MCFA). These contain between 6 and 12 carbons in the chain and it is the chain length that determines the melting point and thus coconut oil melts around body temperature. The chain length is also key in how this fat is absorbed and utilised. MCFA are unique to coconut and palm oils, most vegetable and animal fats have long chains fatty acids.
MCFA are digested quicker and are used as an immediate source of fuel and not packed away for storage. Because of this immediate use they have been shown to increase energy expenditure stimulating the metabolism and therefore increasing the body’s use of calories. It is for these reasons it is being seen as an aid to weight loss. There are at the moment only a handful of human trials the majority of which demonstrate this theory; some however have only looked at changes over short term use. More and more trials are being done as these initial trials have obviously shown huge potential.
Another recently highlighted area of interest is its connection with Alzheimer’s, with many people reporting a marked improvement when taking as little as two teaspoons of the oil per day. It is believed that in dementia the brain becomes insulin resistant and it can not readily use glucose as an energy supply which is needed for laying down memories and thinking clearly (new Scientist last September). The MCFA in coconut oil provide “brain food” in the form of ketone bodies. Dr Mary Newport a paediatrician in Florida had her own success with her husband and went on to collate the results of 60 other carers of which 90% saw an improvement. This evidence is supported by a trial using a dietary supplement with the beneficial ketones from coconut oil showing significant improvement in cognitive scores against placebo. It seems in the US there are people willing to set up trials on coconut oil itself, whilst in the UK there is more scepticism. So whilst there is not enough evidence for a doctor to recommend it, many people continue to try it. The advice seems to be to gradually increase your intake up to five tablespoons a day (74ml). It can be easily added to hot drinks or make your own spread by combining with butter and or olive oil. Or add to mashed vegetables or use in other cooking or baking, it is extremely stable therefore suitable for higher temperature cooking.
There are many other areas of health that it could benefit and have been researched including cancer, diabetes cardiovascular disease, epilepsy, intestinal, liver, kidney health. If you read up on the research, its likely to be limited, since being a natural substance there is no patent to be obtained. Finally the predominant fatty acid is Lauric Acid, which is 49% of the total fat and it is this fatty acid which has been shown to have antimicrobial activity. This has led to a wide range of studies on tooth decay, acne and diarrhoea to name a few. With a wide range of applications it does seem to be worth getting a pot. I’ve used it in my recipe this month to get you started.
St-Onge, M.P., and Jones, P.J.H., 2002. Physiological effects of medium-chain triglycerides: potential agents in the prevention of obesity. Journal of Nutrition.
Newport, M.T. (2010) Caregiver Reports Following Dietary Intervention with Medium Chain Fatty Acids in 60 Persons with Dementia, International symposium of dietary interventions for epilepsy and Other Neurological diseases, Edingburgh, Scotland
Henderson, S.T. et al. (2009) Study of the ketogenic agent AC-1202 in mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multicenter trial, Nutrition and Metabolism