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Juliot Vinolia (right), Clinical Dietitian, LD & Head of Dietary Services at Medeor 24x7 Hospital, demystifies the many myths and realities of this fragrant, multipurpose oil.

Is coconut oil a super food?

People have generally accepted coconut oil as a super food due to its health claims — healing and heart-friendly properties.

In 2015, coconut oil raced past virgin olive oil and other oils in both the food and beauty industry. The main reason being its biological composition, favouring cost effectiveness in manufacturing and providing longer shelf life. This sudden rise led researchers to study the health benefits of coconut oil.

Though there are many studies warranting the health benefits of this oil, the American Heart Association believes it is premature to classify coconut oil, which is high in saturated fat, as a super food.

What are its health benefits?

Coconut oil has been found to aid as an antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral agent. A 2007 Nigerian study proved that coconut oil had equal anti-fungal effects as that of a drug fluconazole against candida infection.

An increase in HDL (good cholesterol) levels is a benefit. A 2011 study in Philippines among 1,800 Filipino women showed that the frequency of coconut oil intake was positively associated with HDL levels.

The fatty acids in coconut oil are easily digested, absorbed and burned as energy unlike the fatty acids in other oils. Some studies have shown fewer amounts of LDL (bad cholesterol) levels in blood post meals on consuming coconut oil in comparison to other oils. This way it improves liver function to metabolise fat effectively and not store as body fat.

Coconut oil has been highly recommended for colon cleaning. The medium chain fatty acids in the oil were found to be similar to breast milk’s immune-enhancing fatty acids.

Studies have shown that moderate-temperature cooking of oils rich in medium chain fatty acids like coconut oil released a steady level of blood ketones after digestion, which makes it easy for the liver to break it as energy. These have a direct effect on increasing insulin function and prevent rises in blood triglyceride levels, thus improving diabetic control.

Fatty acid composition of coconut oil:

a) Saturated fat: It contains 10 times more saturated fat than unsaturated.

b) Monounsaturated fat: Contains solely oleic acid also present in nuts and vegetable oils known for its health-benefiting contribution in the Mediterranean diet.

c) Polyunsaturated fat: Linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid and omega 6 fatty acid. Known to enhance immune system and improve cholesterol levels.

d) Phytosterols and Polyphenols (antioxidant) are present in small quantities, not significant enough to improve health.

Many cultures cook food with coconut oil.

One of the advantages of coconut oil is its resistance to oxidation with increased shelf life, which makes it a stable oil for cooking in the food industry. The low smoke point makes it only suitable for single-use shallow frying. Overheating leads to the production of potentially carcinogenic substances. Processing and refining removes most of its good components.

What is the verdict on coconut oil and cholesterol?

Several studies have been conducted on the effect on blood cholesterol levels by virgin coconut oil in comparison to butter, virgin olive oil and other vegetable oils. It is seen that coconut oil increased both good and bad cholesterol. But bad cholesterol not to the extent as by other saturated fats like butter and processed vegetable oils.

Looking only into the medium chain fatty acid composition of coconut oil’s ability to increase HDL (good cholesterol) levels and bypassing its saturated fat content, makes coconut oil totally contradictory in supporting heart health; especially when taken in large quantities, which is more than 1 tablespoon on a daily basis.

Are all cooking oils equal when it comes to fatty properties?

Different cooking oils have their own different fatty acid composition. Olive oil has better ratio of omega 3 and omega 6, which makes it more heart friendly when compared to coconut oil. The predominant fatty acid in coconut oil, lauric acid as well as myristic acid, are medium chain fatty acids that are rapidly absorbed, taken up by the liver and oxidised to increase energy expenditure, which is a possible explanation for why coconut oil may have different effects compared with other saturated fats. It is recommended we use a combination of oils in our daily cooking.

What are the beauty benefits of coconut oil?

The fatty acids in it have a high permeability capacity, which makes it easily absorbable into the skin. It is also known to attract water and retain skin moisture. It supports development of collagen, kills bacteria and microbes and supports skin healing and repair of skin barrier. It’s anti-inflammatory and has depigmentation effects.

Its anti-inflammatory effect relaxes the scalp and retains moisture, nourishes the roots and adds lustre to hair. It also acts as a dermal layer in preventing scalp infection.

The conclusion

■ Dietary fats are broken down into bioactive molecules, which are stored in our body’s cell membrane. These fat molecules help hormones and enzymes in blood to communicate with each cell and complete the function.

■ Consuming fats in a form that is not possible to metabolise can disturb the body’s chemistry, resulting in metabolic diseases like cancer, cardiovascular, neurodegenerative, stroke and diabetes.

■ Studies until date have shown that unprocessed oils like coconut oil and olive oil are easily metabolised and better utilised by the body in their virgin forms.

■ Refined coconut oil is processed and lacks fatty acids in it health-claiming form.

■ For therapeutic reasons, consuming 2 teaspoons (10ml) of virgin coconut oil per day as part of a balanced diet is definitely considered safe within limits — less the 7 per cent of calories from saturated fat as per American Health Association Guidelines. Nevertheless, refined coconut oil can be occasionally used for deep cooking methods while enjoying its distinct flavour.

■ Coconut oil, whether processed or in its virgin form, still proves to be a healing and rejuvenation agent for skin and hair care.’’