Coconuts: Paradise Lost
Hey, have you heard about coconuts? They’re delicious! Now they’re nutritious, too, right? Today I will share my journey from a tropical coconut-laden paradise to the thick undergrowth of a dangerous jungle filled with misinformation.
I was aware of the fact that coconut was the new fad du jour; a few family members have gotten into coconut oil and coconut water, but I wasn’t really interested in it until I tried a little treat that one of my friends made. It was a little delight called Coconut-Lemon Truffles. The recipe was pretty basic: coconut butter, lemon juice, lemon zest, and Splenda. It melts in your mouth, tastes delicious, and supposedly it’s healthy. White sandy beaches, here I come!
I got the recipe and headed over to our local natural food store to pick-up the coconut butter. While there I grabbed some coconut milk and flax milk. Rob and I recently discovered the low-calorie benefit of almond milk over skim milk, and I thought these might be other tasty alternatives.
By far, the flax milk tasted the best, its sweet flavor somewhat reminiscent of cookie dough. The unsweetened vanilla almond milk came in second place with extra points for creaminess. The coconut milk was dead last. It had a watery, bland, earthy flavor.
We turned our attention to the saturated fat content in the coconut milk. The back of the carton claimed that the saturated fat in coconut milk was actually good for you. A jar of coconut oil I had purchased for a previous recipe a while back said the same thing; that not all saturated fats are bad. These “medium chain” fats were special, they said.
This did not sit well with Rob. We have a pretty healthy diet and all of this “saturated fat is healthy” talk left a bad taste in his mouth, so we began searching for information. Usually an EBSCO search on Rob’s college library website produces a wealth of info, but not this time, so we had to resort to the wild, wild web. There were piles of sites promoting the miracles of the coconut, but the voice of opposition was scarce. I was encouraged to keep digging when I read on Wikipedia that “Many health organizations advise against the consumption of high amounts of coconut oil due to its high levels of saturated fat, including the United States Food and Drug Administration, World Health Organization, International College of Nutrition, the United States Department of Health and Human Services, American Dietetic Association, American Heart Association, British National Health Service, and Dietitians of Canada.”
Dr. Oz and Dr. Joseph Mercola seem to be the loudest proponents of the coconut, and since Mercola actually sells coconut oil by the gallon via his website, I thought I’d list some of the claims he makes:
- Coconut water reduces swelling in hands and feet, prevents abnormal blood clotting, supports good immune function, improves wound healing, enhances eye-health (cataracts, glaucoma), anti-aging, anti-cancer, helps prevent osteoporosis, helps prevent heart attacks, lowers blood pressure.
- Coconut butter promotes heart health, thyroid gland health, and immune system health. Supports a healthy metabolism, promotes weight loss, provides you with an immediate energy source, and keeps your skin healthy and youthful looking. The lauric acid found in coconuts is converted into monolaurin when processed by your body, which is a monoglyceride which can actually destroy lipid coated viruses such as HIV, herpes, measles, influenza virus, and various pathogenic bacteria.
Holy cow, it cures HIV?! If this doesn’t set off the flashing lights and sirens of your skeptic alarm then I hereby revoke your skeptic card. Trying to find responses to all these claims was not as easy as it should have been, and wading through all the mumbo-jumbo touting the coconut was exhausting.
Finally I found a page critical of the coconut on eHow, but it was pretty meager. Then I found a more substantial article from the Center for Science in the Public Interest that lists most of the major claims and dissects them bit by bit.
Who knew coconuts would be such a tough nut to crack? I had no idea I’d be going down this coconut rabbit hole when I bought the coconut butter and milk, but I’m glad I did. Some folks guzzle pure coconut oil by the spoonful (http://www.coconutdiet.com/weight_loss.htm), and this just seems downright dangerous. As for me, until these “good saturated fats” are proven and the FDA allows for a separate entry on the Nutrition Facts label like they do for monosaturated fat, I’m going to completely avoid coconut oil and butter. I’ll treat the saturated fat in coconut the same as I do all other saturated fat: limit intake as much as possible. More studies obviously need to be done.
I did find a good use for the coconut butter I bought for the Coconut-Lemon Truffles: I made deodorant! One of the coconut-crazed sites had a recipe for it, so I figured it was worth a shot since I wasn’t going to eat the stuff. I even did a little science experiment: coconut on one armpit, Dove on the other. The night I tested these two against each other, I had accidentally left my heating mattress pad on high, so I really ran these deodorants through the ringer!
And the winner was: Coconut Butter! I’m going to keep on using it. There are also techniques, available through a simple Google search, on how to make it into a “stick” deodorant for easy application. I don’t mind using my fingers to apply it though; no biggie. At least coconut oil is good for something!
Gigi, I’m so glad you wrote this post! I’ve been up to my neck trying to sort out fact from fiction about saturated fats for the past week!
Awesome! Glad I could be of service!
The substance known as “butter” at movie theaters for your popcorn is (or at least can be) butter flavored coconut oil. That’s major points against coconut oil ascetically for me, anyway.
Advocates of the coconut say that the version of coconut oil they use is “virgin” and isn’t hydrogenated or processed like the kind of oil movie theaters use. They dismiss the saturated fat in the virgin oil because it’s supposedly the *good* kind of saturated fat.
So this is a week late, and I’m hesitant to dive into any food conversation cos of bad history with a lot of conversations-gone-wrong… but let’s try anyways!
Now I definitely don’t think coconut oil is magical or special. Those sites are obviously filled with misinformation and on the coconut train! One interesting use I’ve heard of for it though, which seems to have some at least historical basis is the use of coconut oil as sunscreen, which I’ve heard corroborated but haven’t actually investigated the veracity of and thus haven’t tried myself.
Now, to the actual reason I want to argue with you, is that while there isn’t anything “special” about coconut oil’s saturated fat… can you actually tell me what’s bad about saturated fat? Because from a skeptical point of view, at least from MY skeptical point of view, I have not actually found a SCIENCE based reason for that blanket demarcation.
Saturated fat increases both HDL and LDL cholesterol, while polyunsaturated (as in vegetable oils) decreases both, and monounsaturated (as you note above) increases HDL and decreases LDL. Now we talk about HDL being good and LDL being bad, which is all fine and well, so obviously monounsaturated is lovely. But why is saturated fat bad? The theory is that increasing your total cholesterol is dangerous to your health, therefore saturated fat = bad, right? But more and more papers are suggesting that total cholesterol is a TERRIBLE measure of heart health! A vastly superior number suggests that your HDL/Triglycerides is much more strongly associated with risk of heart attack, stroke, or other conditions of the sort, right? Even places/diets/doctors that advocate low total cholesterol will still talk to you about HDL/Triglycerides as a measure. So then, LDL “bad” cholesterol isn’t a particularly relevant factor. So by avoiding saturated fats, you’ve avoiding increasing an important positive marker to avoid an unimportant negative marker, while taking lots of polyunsaturated fats and thus decreasing an important positive factor in order to also decrease an unimportant negative factor.
There’s more related stuff, and I’m really sorry for the lack of references but I threw this out before getting off to work. If you’re interested I can dig some out of my bookmarks somewhere. In my looking, I’ve found a fair amount of historical and biochemical stuff that seems to support certain claims (thought DEFINITELY NOT OTHERS) of the various and sundry “low-carb” and “paleo”-family diets… but there’s always, always, always buckets of misinformation and sensationalism and all around weirdness when it comes to nutrition science.
I’d be happy to hear your response and mayhaps continue a conversation.
Thanks, hinhavi, I appreciate your comment and the opportunity to continue the conversation.
Mainstream scientific consensus, shared by multiple reputable public health organizations, is that saturated fats are not good for you. I am not a cardiologist and I have no medical background, so I feel that it is prudent to follow the advice of these sources. Like you say, there’s all sorts of weird info always flying around about nutrition science, so I take the high road.
Some of the agencies I deem as trustworthy and links to their opinions on saturated fats:
Mayo Clinic – http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/fat/NU00262
Harvard Medical School – http://www.health.harvard.edu/fhg/updates/Truth-about-fats.shtml
American Heart Association – http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/FatsAndOils/MeettheFats/Meet-the-Fats_UCM_304495_Article.jsp
FDA – http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/Basics/ucm194310.htm
Until these guys change their tune, I have to believe what they say and trust that they have ample scientific knowledge on the subject. Why would I believe Mercola and others like him over these organizations?
Like I said in my post, there needs to be more research done on the coconut, and thus, possible good/bad saturated fats as well. The great thing about science is it’s always changing and updating, so we look forward to hearing about updates to long-standing beliefs. We don’t want to feel like we’re missing out on something good (and delicious!) just because it’s misunderstood. It’s hard to know what’s right and what’s wrong, but we try our best.