Once upon a time, the only thing that Coconut was used for was Hawaiian Tropic Sun Tan Lotion and Pina Coladas.
(If you don’t get those references, you were not a child of the 80s…)
Now, along with the avocado, the ‘wellness’ world seems to have developed an obsession with these fruits (yes, fruits – not nuts or vegetables). So what is it about the Coconut in particular that creates such a wellbeing frenzy? Or is it more like the American Heart Association (AHA) would have us believe – that Coconut, in particular Coconut oil, is seriously unhealthy?
(If you didn’t read the AHA’s July statement on Coconut Oil and saturated fat – and the subsequent backlash – then a useful summary of the studies chosen for the AHA meta analysis, and the conclusions they, perhaps erroneously, drew from the research is here. – Fair warning – this podcast episode is also a masterclass in how to read science, so it’s dense but worth it if you care at all about the integrity of nutritional (and, to be honest, all scientific) research).
The Hunter-Gatherer Diet Debate
Modern Coconut oil is derived in the same way that a lot of modern fats are derived – strange combinations of heating and refining. As a ‘whole food’, eating Coconut flesh would qualify… but purify it and refine it to obtain the oil from the flesh of the coconut and you essentially have what is a processed food.
As such, hunter-gatherers may have eaten Coconut flesh and water (assuming they lived in the appropriate regions and with the necessary climates). But without heat sources and/or the desire to do so it is highly unlikely that they were consuming Coconut oil.
And so Coconuts qualify as “Paleo”. You would think that the oil wouldn’t… which is why the ideology of the hardcore anthropological Paleo people sort-of falls down at times.
The Oil Obsession
The article from the AHA alluded to above revolved around the processed, refined, highly saturated fat that results when you produce Coconut oil from Coconuts.
The backlash to that article revolved around the evidence that saturated fat is not now, and nor was it ever, at the root of heart disease or ill health. Consumption of saturated fat certainly does not cause heart disease.
At Paleo in the UK we will, at some point, produce our overview of the ‘fats, heart health, overall health, low-fat is unhealthy, cholesterol’ debates within our Deeper Science section – but that is not what we are going to discuss here on the Coconut Page.
Instead, we want to outline why this saturated, expensive, rather pungent-tasting fat has become such a universally-used oil – for cooking, for spreading, for melting on everything and even for adding into coffee. Beyond the fat quality, quantity or saturation – what is it about the Coconut that sends the wellness community crazy?
And moreover, is Coconut and Coconut oil now worthy of the ire that is being directed towards it – not just by the AHA but also by the “dieticians” who claim it is “heavily processed” and “full of saturated fat” … as if these characteristics alone make it a ‘bad’ food. Whilst both statements are true – neither have been proven to have negative health consequences, so quite why Coconut oil is falling out of favour is worth considering.
But to start, we will analyse why we became so addicted to it in the first place.
Chewing The Fat
When fat fell out of favour in the 70s and 80s we don’t think anyone would have predicted its resurgence into the limelight. And yet, as with everything in nutrition, we seem to love penalising a macronutrient (a few decades lambasting fats followed by a few decades hating on carbohydrates – then rinse and repeat etc. etc.)
It used to be butter – the last time fat was fashionable and prized as the privilege of those who had enough money to justify the expense, butter was the fat of choice. Until, that is, fat got lumped in with heart disease and cholesterol and weight gain and practical every illness of modern man (again – the history lesson for this is way to complex, but covered eloquently and in detail by Nina Teicholz in Big Fat Surprise).
Fat came back – approximately in the 2010s – as the myths linking dietary fat and cholesterol to the fat and cholesterol in human being was thoroughly debunked. But possibly because dairy has become a topic of doubt or possibly just because of a few prominent social media markers, Coconut oil led the charge of the fats we were all now not just allowed to eat, but positively encouraged to consume.
A few careful hashtags and some clever branding later and Coconut oil was almost as popular as its health food cousin, the avocado. No matter that both of these require tropical climates, we started to ship them worldwide and eat them like they were going out of fashion.
It helped that the stability and saturation of fat was also discussed as we were starting to bring more fat into our diets. The same experts who were saying that consuming fats was fine would also suggest that certain fats should only be heated to a certain temperature because of their stability and their oxidisation potential. Without truly knowing what any of this means, we were told to use olive oil for salads – never to cook with it – and to use more stable, saturated fats for cooking/heating/frying etc.
And so a star was born. Like similarly saturated animal fats, Coconut oil melts at roughly 24 degrees C. This means that it is solid at room temperature (unlike the bottle of olive oil in your cupboard which is liquid already) and therefore the temperatures at which this fat slowly changes state are all much higher than liquid oils. This high melting (and therefore high smoking – i.e. ‘oxidising’ or ‘spoiling’ point) is partly due to the fact that Coconut oil is almost entirely saturated. But it is also partly down to the fact that Coconut oil is mostly made up of Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs).
This last part is why many people skip over the fact that Coconut oil is almost entirely saturated fat and declare it as a health food. Citing the fact that MCTs are not processed by the gastrointestinal system and are, instead, sent for processing immediately by the liver, Coconut oil has been linked with better energy levels, brain function, insulin regulation and even – wait for it … weight loss…
The Question of Chain Length
All fats are made up of chains of triglycerides. Short- (up to 6), Medium- (6-12) and Long- (12+) are processed differently by the body. Basically long chain triglycerides are normal dietary fats, our bacteria in our gut actually produce short-chain fatty acids which are great for health, and MCTs are mostly passed directly to the liver from the gut for immediate use.
Once there, MCTs are absorbed rapidly, becoming ready fuel. It is also suggested that this is what allows them to convert quickly into ketone bodies for energy and thus create a really interesting state within the body where cells have not just glucose as a fuel source, but also ketones… which is supposed to be metabolically advantageous.
There is A LOT more to say about MCTs than this – and much more to the science and usage of ketone bodies for fuel. But to discuss it any further here would actually be pointless.
All the science about MCTs is fascinating and is, thus far, holding up to vigorous research surrounding ketones, ketogenic dieting, exogenous ketones and many health conditions…
But coconut oil isn’t a particularly rich source of said MCTs. It may be all saturated but it is in no way a solid block of Medium Chain Triglycerides. On top of this, it is high calorie and relatively nutrient-poor. There are simply no vitamins and/or minerals in Coconut oil – and it is a highly refined product which has been intensively processed before it arrives in its expensive-looking jars. Looked at as a simple fat source, Coconut oil simply pales in comparison to other, more nutrient-dense and quite frankly more healthy, foods.
But that does not mean in any way that Coconut oil should be dismissed… it may not be nutrient-dense in a conventional sense. This does not mean, however, that Coconut oil isn’t an incredibly useful dietary staple.
Anti-Microbial and Anti-Fungal
Coconut itself – consumed however you want, whether as the flesh, as ‘butter’ or ‘manna’ or ‘oil’ – has some intriguing properties. It is naturally anti-fungal and anti-microbial, meaning that it is often used in concentrated form as a natural way to treat dysbiosis of the gut – or topically to treat fungal infections or any form of irritation on the skin. It can be taken both internally and used externally as a natural way to calm inflammation by reducing the bacterial burden in many areas.
Moreover, it is actually the concentration through the very act of ‘processing’ that actually creates more potent and beneficial anti-fungal/anti-microbial products. For once, the refinement and processing improves the quality of the end result.
Beyond the impact of Coconut on the bacterial and fungal balances of the body, Coconut has also been shown to bring closer the tight junctions between the epithelial cells in the gut wall which may have been damaged due to consumption of lectins. (For more information on Intestinal Permeability, see our “All About Gluten” page.) This is interesting, and supports the fact that Coconut consumption can actually be healthy for us, independent of its nutritional values and/or processing.
And yet, the benefits of Coconut oil go further than just the internal uses.
Makeup Removal, Shave Balm, Beauty Products
If you’ve read our “Chemicals, Toxins, Pollution, Mould” Page then you will know that modern skincare and personal products carry a lot of potential downsides because they add many unnatural and potentially disruptive compounds into and onto the human body. Reducing use of these products can, however, be tricky – especially in the UK where the more ‘natural’ skincare ranges have yet to catch up with the pioneering brands in the US.
Coconut oil can actually work wonders here because it is a really great alternative for most forms of either skincare and/or cleansing ritual that you could think of. It isn’t just a benign alternative – it is actually beneficial for your skin. Moreover, and most importantly, it’s effective. It can remove even stubborn makeup, it can moisturise skin and work as a moisturising pre- and post- shaving product to minimise inflammation and irritation.
When it comes to skincare, the anti-fungal and antibacterial properties of Coconut oil can help to both alleviate symptoms AND address the root causes in some cases of eczema, dermatitis, acne and irritation. And because Coconut oil is naturally water-repellent it can help moisturise hands by preventing them being dried out by the constant presence of soaps and detergents which affect the permeability of the skin barrier.
The problem with anything that proves beneficial – in any way – is that this is often taken as a license to overindulge. Moreover, we always seem to have the impression that because a little is good, and a larger amount is even healthy – then huge amounts must maximise the benefit. This is no more true of Coconut oil (or any fat) than it is of Exercise, Meditation or Sleep.
Some people are literally drinking Coconut oil. You may even have heard the instruction (mostly from the high fat community) to “use vegetables as a vehicle for fat”, or “the only function of food is basically to get oil into me”. Whilst we appreciate the sentiment behind these two statements – and the need to move away from the 80s impression that fat was going to kill you – the pendulum has, we believe, swung a little too far in the opposite direction.
If you are liberally eating grass-fed butter, cultured ghee, olive oil, MCT oil (bought as a standalone derivative from Coconut oil) along with liberal amounts of sardines, fatty meats etc. etc. and then spooning tablespoonfuls of Coconut oil on your vegetables (and in your coffee) then you are literally drowning in fats. This is OK if you are undertaking a ketogenic approach that has been carefully calculated – because no matter your macronutrient preference they must be consumed in a balanced way. But this is not OK if you’re just trying to eat more fat because some health guru told you to and you kind of like the taste. You will simply gain weight and damage your health. Too much – even of a good thing – really is too much.
Coconut oil, when consumed in excess, can also cause loose stools and and a very acidic digestive environment. It can cause reactions in those with dysbiosis because it can be a little bit of an aggravator to those sensitive to FODMAPs or those with SIBO. It is also high in salicylates which, for the immunologically challenged, can prove problematic.
That said, Coconut is versatile – it comes as Coconut milk, Coconut cream, Coconut water (though make sure if you’re eating it like this that it’s unsweetened and without fillers, binders, emulsifiers and artificial additives!). You can add Coconut to smoothies, curries, stews, soups, into dressings and onto toast… but you don’t HAVE to. It is NOT a superfood. It is NOT without side effects in too high doses and it is by no means a panacea for everything.
Coconut oil is absolutely Paleo. It is even actually quite good for you as ONE of your fat sources. But there are other, better, healthier, more nutritive fats that are also perfectly Paleo. And the perfect thing in nutrition is ALWAYS going to be VARIETY.
So mix it up – and don’t hold onto the Coconut like it’s going out of fashion, or like it makes you IN fashion. If you hadn’t noticed, Coconut oil makes everything TASTE of Coconut – and when you’re investing in good quality foods, masking their flavour in Coconut does nothing for them. As it’s also not drastically improving the nutritional profile so we’d advise that you eat the fats you like to eat, not just the ones you think are good for you. Never be afraid of fats – but don’t see them as the route to wellness, either. And look out on our Deeper Science section where we will put our “Fat Fuelled” article up in due course…