Coconut Oil

Coconut Oil:
Understanding the Facts and Hype Behind the Super Oil


Unless you have been living under a rock for the last decade, you will have heard about the wonders of coconut oil. As far as the general public is concerned, this oil is the cure to everything that ails you. However, do you really know why coconut oil is supposed to be so amazing?

The answer to this question is probably going to be: no. Most people don’t really know the truth about this oil. So, if you’re going to make up your own mind about this “superfood”, you are going to need more information.

So here is the all-inclusive expose on coconut oil.

The History of Coconut Oil

Believe it or not, coconut oil was a popular oil in the Western World several decades ago. During the 19th century, the demand for edible oils grew in Europe and America. Knowing that coconut oil was already a popular option in several tropical Asian countries, Europeans decided to set up their own plantations. 

They grew coconuts in Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, and the Caribbean. This ensured that the Europeans had a steady supply of the oil, bolstering its popularity. Then, World War II began and the Western world was cut off from these plantations. 

Since this resulted in skyrocketing coconut oil prices, soybean oil became the most sought after. With time, European countries and the USA began to rely on oils from other plants and trees. 

RBDCO vs. Virgin Coconut Oil

What most people aren’t aware of is the fact that there are two types of coconut oil – RBDCO and virgin oil. They differ in the way they are processed. Due to the varied processing methods, each of these types of coconut oils has a different nutrient profile.

Refined, Bleached, and Deodorized Copra (RBDCO) is the type that you typically find on supermarket shelves. These are refined to remove various impurities in the oil that can lower the safety and lifespan of the coconut oil. Virgin oil, on the other hand, isn’t refined and is only mildly processed.

RBDCO and virgin coconut oil also differ in their nutrient content. With RBDCO it isn’t just impurities that are removed, certain healthy components are taken away as well. This is why virgin oil has a few advantages over the refined version.

Virgin coconut oil has a higher percentage of the following components:

•Vitamin E
•Sterols
•Polyphenols

Apart from these elements, however, RBDCO and virgin oil have similar energy values and the same level of saturated fats as well.

How is Coconut Oil Made?

The coconut tree – Cocos nucifera – is a tall palm tree that is usually found in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. It is believed that this tree originated in the India-Indonesia region. Now, despite its name, the coconut fruit is considered to be a drupe, not a nut.

The coconut oil is derived from the “meat” of the drupe, which is also known as the kernel. This meat is one of the most useful parts of the plant as it produces coconut milk and desiccated coconut as well. 

Producing RBDCO

Traditionally, RBDC oil is made from the dried out kernel which is known as copra. The kernel can be dehydrated by the sun, hot air, or direct drying. Once the kernels have been dried, it shrinks and can be easily separated from the shell.

The resulting copra is then flaked and baked for a short period. These flakes are then placed in an expeller which is where the oil extraction process takes place. This coconut oil will then undergo either physical or chemical refining to remove any impurities or unpleasant tastes.


Following the refining process, the oil undergoes bleaching and deodorizing. This is done by exposing the oil to high heat.

Producing Virgin Oil

In most instances, virgin oil is made from fresh coconut milk. This is known as a wet extraction and helps the oil to maintain further nutrients. The wet extraction can be conducted with the help of mechanical force, fermentation, or with the help of enzymes.

How is Coconut Oil Made

Breaking Down the Nutrient Profile

To truly understand the pros and cons of coconut oil, you must first know what the oil is made of. Comprehending its nutrient profile will give you a better idea of how this oil should be used.
Now, the top ingredients to know about in coconut oil are as follows:

•Medium-chain triglycerides (MCT)
•Saturated fat


Let’s break this down and determine what kind of role they play in your health. 

MCTs

When people refer to the health benefits of coconut oil, they are actually talking about the impact of MCTs. It is estimated that around 50 percent of coconut oil is made up of MCTs. The problem is, this isn’t necessarily true for the oil that is commercially available on shelves. 

Nonetheless, MCTs have a shorter chemical structure than many of the other edible fats. As a result, your body is able to digest and use up the fat more quickly. This is said to boost prevent the storage of fat while simultaneously boosting energy reserves.

Saturated Fat

Interestingly enough, coconut oil is made up of around 90 percent saturated fat. Much of the coconut oil saturated fat comes from a component known as lauric acid. This component is responsible for raising both your good and bad cholesterol levels simultaneously. The impact of this will be discussed in a later section.

Coconut Oil vs. Other Edible Oils

Of course, one of the main reasons that people have turned to coconut oil is because they believe it to be more nutritious than other edible oils. To verify this fact, here is a table that compares coconut oil vs. butter and other edible fats:

Values Per Tbsp.

Coconut Oil

Butter

Palm Oil

Olive Oil

Calories

116

100

119

119

Total Fat (grams)

13.5

12

13.5

14

Saturated Fat (grams)

11.7

7

6.7

1.9

Monounsaturated Fat (grams)

0.8

3

5

10

Polyunsaturated Fat (grams)

0.2

0.4

1.3

1.4

The Sudden Rise to Popularity

As mentioned, after World War II, the popularity of coconut oil declined. However, over the last few years, excitement regarding this oil has sprung back up again. So, what caused this sudden interest again?

Many experts can trace this trend back to a study conducted by Marie-Pierre St-Onge in 2003. The resulting research showed that people who consumed meals rich in MCTs experienced fat loss. Since MCTs can be found in some coconut oil, the health food industry took these results and ran with them.

In addition to being a health benefit, coconut oil was also introduced into the beauty industry, particularly as a “natural” remedy. This, too, helped the oil gain more exposure with time. 

Addressing the Controversy

Before moving onto how coconut oil is good for you, let’s first address the controversy that has popped up over the last year or so. It all began when the American Heart Association published a report that showed people just how much saturated fat is in the oil.

The agency followed this up by asking people to reduce their consumption of saturated fats. These findings, however, suddenly had everyone asking, “Is coconut oil good for you?” This is actually a rather tricky thing to answer.

While there is no denying that coconut oil has some advantages, it may not be as healthy as people once imagined it to be. This confusion was created due to these three factors:

•Misinterpretation of scientific evidence
•Evidence based on animal studies
•Misunderstanding epidemiological studies

Let’s take a closer look at these:

Misinterpretation of Scientific Evidence

As mentioned, the study carried out by St-Onge in 2003 is what set things in motion. However, in the experiment, participants were given 100 percent MCTs which is what resulted in the fat loss. Coconut oil, however, has far less. Thus, there is no real evidence to prove that it can have the same effect.

Then, there is the fact that there is a positive link between
coconut oil and cholesterol. Coconut oil plays a role in increasing good cholesterol in the body. What many people didn’t take into account, though, is that the oil was responsible for a total increase in blood cholesterol.

Since this can have a negative impact on health, coconut oil may not improve cholesterol as much as people once thought.

coconut flesh

Misunderstanding Epidemiological Studies

There is another reason why experts assumed that coconut oil was so good for you. They noticed that societies that consumed coconut on a regular basis were less likely to deal with lower rates of heart disease.

What they didn’t factor in, though, was that these populations consumed more
coconut flesh, water, and milk than the actual oil. As a result, it is difficult to know if these individuals would enjoy the same health benefits if they consumed high levels of coconut oil.

Evidence Based on Animal Studies

It should also be noted that a number of these studies were carried out on animals. The studies that used human participants have had rather varying results. Due to this, it is difficult to pinpoint just what kind of impact coconut oil can have on your health.

The Final Verdict

So, what does this all mean? Is coconut oil healthy for you? As there is no clear evidence to discern between the good and bad effects of coconut oil, it is best to proceed with caution. While you can certainly add small amounts of coconut oil to your diet, it is important to limit your intake. It is only then that you will be able to enjoy the best of both worlds.

The Real Benefits of Coconut Oil

Now, let’s take a look at coconut oil nutrition and what it is actually good for:

May Help to Destroy Fungus

One of the most common causes of fungal infections in humans is Candida. Now, typically, people are prescribed antimicrobials to treat this issue. However, there is some evidence to suggest that coconut oil may be an excellent substitute. It is able to destroy the microbes associated with this fungal disease. It has also been shown to be more effective than medications that were typically prescribed.

Can Be Used to Reduce Abdominal Fat

Excess fat around the stomach is a particularly concerning issue. This is because it is often linked to higher rates of cardiovascular issues. In a study carried out, though, it was shown that smaller amounts of coconut oil were able to reduce abdominal fat. This is an effect that can’t be readily replicated with other types of edible oils.

Great for Skin and Hair

Xerosis is a skin condition that is characterized by dry, rough, and scaly skin. It is a relatively common problem and is usually due to an issue with the skin barrier. In short, it occurs in individuals whose skin can’t prevent moisture from escaping.

Well, this is where coconut oil comes in. According
to a study, coconut oil improves skin hydration and can help with the skin lipid layer as well. Thus, it works to keep the skin moisturized for a longer period of time. Even better, it is completely safe for most people to use.

Coconut oil works well to reduce the damage to hair. In particular, it helps to protect the hair cuticle and is best used as a pre-wash. It then fortifies the hair strands against breakage and force that is exerted during brushing, hair treatments, and more.

How to Use Coconut Oil

So, how should you use coconut oil if you do want to enjoy the associated benefits? Well, the AHA recommends that only around 5 to 6 percent of your calories should come from saturated fats. This means that if you are consuming a 2000 calorie diet, you can eat about 13 grams of saturated fat a day.

However, keep in mind that this limit includes all saturated fat. Thus, if you do want to consume coconut oil, you should limit your other sources of saturated fat for that day. This will work to balance out the calories and your overall fat intake.

When it comes to your hair and skin, however, there aren’t really any restrictions. You can use as much – or as little – as you need to enjoy the kind of effect that you are looking for. So, it is up to you to decide how much you will need. 

Tips for Selecting Coconut Oil

As mentioned, not all types of coconut oil are the same. To remain healthy (and for your skin and hair to look good), you need to choose your coconut oil carefully. This simply means that you need to read labels closely.

Always stick to virgin coconut oil. Not only is it better for you, but it contains all the essential nutrients of coconut oil. Keep in mind that virgin and refined oils look identical. Thus, you will have to carefully examine the processing information before making a purchase.

Above all, make sure to stay away from hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated coconut oil. These kinds of oils are excellent for maintaining their solid structure at room temperature. At the same time, they contain trans fats. As such, it is important to exclude these oils from your diet completely.

This is the unvarnished truth about coconut oil. With all these facts and details on hand, you can now make up your own mind about this edible oil and how you want to use it. As such, you will be one step closer to being a healthier person. 

Riya Borah

About

Riya Borah 

Nutritionist Educator


Riya Borah is a nutritionist educator and her job involves guiding people towards a healthier lifestyle. Growing up in India, Riya was aware of just how much coconut was used on a daily basis. This encouraged her to research the properties of this versatile drupe. It opened her eyes to both the limitation and possibilities of coconut. Her aim is to now educate as many people as possible about the best ways to utilize coconut in their own lives.


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An Important Disclaimer
The information on this page should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice. Consult a doctor if you wish to consume any form of coconut regularly for the purpose of treating any condition or illness.