Q: "A friend of mine recently went to a seminar from which she returned with a clear message about the health-giving benefits of coconut oil. Is this true? If it is true, why does Healthy Food Guide say coconut oil is not a healthy oil?"(Name not supplied)
A: There's a lot of information out there about coconut oil, and recently we've had quite a few enquiries like this. Coconut oil is sometimes promoted as a health-giving oil with properties bordering on the miraculous. Yet we also know it's a highly saturated oil, and saturated fats are the ones which are bad for our heart health. So it's understandable there is some confusion about this issue.
At HFG, we take credibility and accuracy very seriously. That is why we have an Editorial Advisory Board made up of notable nutrition experts; it's why we publish references for our articles, and why everyone who writes nutrition advice for us is a degree-qualified nutritionist or dietitian. We took the opportunity to talk to the oil experts for the following advice.
"Coconut oil is not recommended as an oil that should be used regularly," says Professor Murray Skeaff, head of Human Nutrition at the University of Otago.
"To reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, the scientific evidence indicates that replacing fats and oils high in saturated fat – including tropical oils such as palm and coconut – with those high in polyunsaturated fat will produce the greatest reduction in risk.
Coconut oil is high in saturated fat. The fact that a high proportion of the saturated fat is medium chain fatty acids does mean it is not as bad as butter."
New Zealand's authority on edible oils is Dr Laurence Eyres, who co-authored the Australasian handbook on the subject which was published last year. Dr Eyres is very familiar with the research into oils, including coconut oil, and he advises there is no peer-reviewed clinical trial literature on the beneficial effects of coconut oil that he is aware of.
Dr Eyres says the medium chain fatty acids with possible beneficial effects are not the same as the ones present in coconut oil. He explains:
"Believers say coconut oil is a healthy fat because it is like medium chain triglycerides. But for a start, coconut oil is 90% saturated and raises serum cholesterol levels, so it is an unhealthy fat.
Secondly, it bears no resemblance to MCTs (medium chain trigylcerides). The latter are made by distilling the esters of C8 and C10 fatty acids, then combining them back into triglycerides. Coconut oil is 47% C12 and yes, it does contain some C8 and C10, but these are not the main components."