Fads in focus: Coconut oil – panacea or artery clogger?

By Simone Baroke

- Last updated on GMT

'Coconut oil has a bit of a history in [knowledge gaps]...' ©iStock
'Coconut oil has a bit of a history in [knowledge gaps]...' ©iStock

Related tags: Nutrition

There is barely a food or beverage category that has not been invaded by coconut in some shape or form, says Euromonitor International contributing analyst, Simone Baroke. But is the world justified in going loco for coco?

Coconut oil 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. Quite remarkable since we still know precious little about coconut oil’s impact on human health.

Celebrity 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.

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 as has Jessica Alba.

oz
Actress Jessica Alba applies coconut to the face of Dr Oz on his popular US TV show. ©xposure

‘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 24 g of saturated fat, which is more than the 20 g 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 28.81 g in 2014.

Coconut Oil
©iStock

Coconut oil & controversy

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.

Coconut
©iStock

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.

What's an industry to 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.

Simone Baroke is an analyst at Euromonitor International.

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