Going Nuts About Coconut

Feature Story

The controversy rages on whether or not coconut oil and other products are beneficial or harmful to our health

Text and Photos By Henrylito D. Tacio

“The coconut scare is foolishness… to get the word to commercial interests terrorizing the public about nothing is another matter,” said former United States surgeon general Dr. C. Everett Koop during congressional hearings in 1988.

“Coconut oil is very healthy,” United Kingdom’s Holland and Barrett claimed, adding: “Coconut oil is the little black dress of wellbeing – everyone should have some!”

Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Kourtney Kardashian even endorsed it.

But several years after hailing coconut as one of the healthiest foods, the American Heart Association (AHA) has come up with a different tune: it has issued an advisory against the consumption of coconut oil.

In its Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular advisory, AHA claimed coconut oil is 82 percent saturated fat. Some studies show coconut oil raises LDL (low-density lipoprotein) or the “bad” cholesterol as much as butter, beef fat or palm oil.

The AHA website even carried a news report urging readers to replacing saturated fat with healthier fat as it “could lower cardiovascular risks.” Dr. Frank Sacks, lead author of the report, said he has no idea why people think coconut oil is healthy. “It’s almost 100 percent fat,” he pointed out.

“Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD (cardiovascular disease), and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil,” the advisory said.


But there are some medical scientists who contradicted the findings as “AHA researchers cherry-picked data from decades-old studies” aside from “branding all LDL as harmful.”

“Total LDL numbers are very poor prognosticator of heart disease,” explains Dr. Jack Wolfson, an American doctor of osteopathy and board-certified cardiologist. “What’s more relevant is LDL particle size and numbers. Small, dense particles are bad for the heart, but studies show that largely fluffy particles, like those promoted by coconut oil, cause no harm.”

Coco Sugar
Coco Sugar

A few weeks after the AHA advisory gone viral, the United Coconut Association of the Philippines, Inc. (UCAP) finally issued a statement asking readers and users of coconut oil “to be discerning of the advisory and news articles drawing conclusion that coconut oil is unhealthy.”

You get coconut oil by pressing the fat from the white “meat” inside the giant nut. As stated earlier, 82 percent of its calories come from saturated fat. In comparison, 14 percent of olive oil’s calories are from saturated fat and 63 percent of butter’s are.

“This explains why, like butter and lard, coconut oil is solid at room temperature with a long shelf life and the ability to with stand high cooking temperatures,” explains Lisa Young, a registered dietitian. And this is the reason for the brouhaha.

Medium-chain triglycerides

But there’s still a saving grace. “Coconut oil’s saturated fat is made up mostly of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs),” wrote Matthew Kadey in WebMd.com. “Some people say your body handles them differently than the longer-chain fats in liquid vegetable oils, dairy, and fatty meats.”

Buko juice
Buko juice

In an article published in Business Mirror, Ateneo de Manila University’s Dr. Fabian M. Dayrit said AHA failed to differentiate between medium-chain fatty acid and long-chain fatty acid “despite the numerous advances in this certain field of science.”

Coconut oil, studies have shown, contains lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid. Pure coconut oil contains about 50 percent lauric acid. As such, coconut oil contains a healthy type of fat.

“Detailed comparison of the fatty-acid composition shows coconut oil is very different from animal fat,” the article said adding that studies assuming they are similar are consequently in error, according to Dr. Dayrit.

Some studies have shown that MCT-saturated fat in coconut can boost your HDL (high-density lipoprotein) “good” cholesterol. This makes it less bad for your heart than the saturated fat that comes from animals like cheese and streak or those products containing trans fats.

Dr. Bruce Fife, an American certified nutritionist and doctor of naturopathy medicine, disclosed, “Eating coconut oil (and other saturated fats) increases both LDL and the ‘good’ HDL, thus lowering the risk of heart disease. This is one of the reasons populations that eat a lot of coconut oil have the lowest heart-disease rates in the world.”

But wait, coconut oil, as stated by Dr. Fife, also raises LDL cholesterol. “But just because coconut oil can raise HDL cholesterol doesn’t mean that it’s great for your heart,” Young points out. “It’s not known if the rise in beneficial cholesterol outweighs any rise in harmful cholesterol.”

Dehusking coconuts
Dehusking coconuts

David Derbyshire, writing for The Guardian, also noted: “There is nothing unusual about coconut oil in this respect – all saturated fats raise both good HDL and bad LDL cholesterol levels. What seems to matter is the ratio of these types of cholesterol in our blood. So while lauric acid may raise good cholesterol, the increase could be offset by a rise in the bad stuff.”

Virgin coconut oil

But there’s more to coconut than just coconut oil. Unknowingly, coconut oil is most potent when it’s virgin – that is, extracted through pressing without the use of heat. Thanks to the pioneering work of the late Dr. Julian Banzon and his protégé, Dr. Teresita Espino, the chemistry of virgin coconut oil (VCO) has been known and its beneficial effects on the human body have been confirmed.

The late Dr. Conrado Dayrit was touted to be the Father of VCO. Thanks to his untiring and courageous effort in research on coconut oil (he wrote The Truth About Coconut Oil), it was found that VCO is sort of a drug “that regulates the body’s functions and defense mechanism. It restores the normal balance of tissues or cells that have become dysfunctional.”

However, much research still has to be done on the benefits of VCO but preliminary findings and anecdotal reports are very promising. It reportedly removes toxins, manages diabetes, controls allergy, strengthens digestive system, and enhances immune system and body metabolism.

In the United States, VCO has increasingly becoming popular in natural food circles and with vegans. It was described in a New York Times article as having a “haunting, nutty, vanilla flavor” that also has a touch of sweetness that works well with baked goods, pastries, and sautés.

Other coconut products

Aside from VCO, another coconut product that is making waves in the United States is coconut water. “The coconut water has lots of health nutrients and uses,” the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Aquatic Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD) says. “It is among the purest of all waters. It has no cholesterol but contains more electrolytes than any fruit or vegetable juice or sports drink currently available in the market. It contains trace amounts of copper, phosphorus, and sulfur which help correct electrolyte imbalances.”

Foods made from coconut
Foods made from coconut

Not only that. “Coconut water contains enough vitamin C to meet the daily requirements of the body. Further, it keeps the body cool thus, helps maintains the human body’s natural fluid levels while carrying vital nutrients and oxygen to cells. It improves calcium and magnesium absorption which supports the development of strong bones and teeth. It also improves insulin secretion and utilization of blood glucose,” the PCAARRD states.

In his book, How to Live Longer, Dr. Willie T. Ong writes: “Coconut water is good for kidney stones and cleansing the digestive tract. It’s low in carbohydrates, low in sugar and serves as an isotonic beverage, which means it’s good for replenishing your body.”

American nutritionist Jonny Bowden, author of The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, considers coconut water to be a “perfectly good option” for people who want to stay hydrated. “It’s high in heart-healthy potassium, with most brands providing about 700 milligrams in an 11-ounce serving – that’s lots more than you get in a banana,” he wrote. “It also has only about 60 calories per 11-ounce serving.”

Still another product from coconut that is making waves abroad is coconut sugar, which is derived from coconut sap or toddy. It contains 12-18 percent sugar in its natural form with important vitamins and amino acids.

Harvesting coconut
Harvesting coconut

Coconut sugar is popular among diabetics. Hypoglycemia occurs when blood sugar drops too low, sometimes, because of anti-diabetic medications. Because keeping their blood sugar at normal levels requires quite a balancing act, diabetics are particularly prone to hypoglycemia.

Compared with refined cane sugar, coconut sugar has a glycemic index (GI) at 35. This is much lower than the 54 GI, the level which nutritionists consider as safe for people who have to watch out their glucose level. GI is a measure of the rate at which carbohydrates as glucose enter the blood stream. “The amazing thing about the coconut palm is that it provides almost all the necessities of life: food, drink, oil, medicine, fiber, timber, thatch, mats, fuel, and domestic utensils, as well as serving important environmental services such as soil erosion control in coastal regions, wind protection and shade for other crops,” wrote Craig Elevitch, author of various books on tropical agriculture.

“Virgin coconut oil (VCO) helps regulate the body’s functions and defense mechanism; it restores the normal balance of tissues or cells that have become dysfunctional”

August 2017 Health and Lifestyle

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