The coconut is an extremely rich source of energy and nutrients that has been consumed in tropical regions for millennia.
The oil is obtained from the white meat of mature coconuts through a process of grating, drying and mechanical pressing. Traditionally, this oil has been most commonly used for cooking and baking, but also for skin care and even treating ailments.
Only recently have coconut and coconut-derived foods been recognised in Western societies as versatile foods that are valuable as part of a balanced diet.
The slow progress in reaching an appreciation of coconut may be due to the fact that it is a high-fat food, and the widely held belief that essentially all dietary fats are 'bad' for you.
In particular, saturated fat is considered the real villain, and this type of fat is the major constituent of the coconut's nutrition profile.
Fortunately, the general understanding that not all fats are bad is now well-recognised.
However, many consumers remain confused as to which high-fat foods are healthy and which are not. Coconut is a good example of a high-fat food that falls into the 'healthy' category.
Previously only available in specialised health food stores, coconut oil is becoming more popular and is now available in many large retail stores. So, is the growing popularity of coconut oil justified, and should we believe that something high in saturated fat can be a healthy food?
Coconut oil is made up of approximately 90pc saturated fat, 6pc monounsaturated fat and 3pc polyunsaturated fat. Due to the high saturated fat content, the oil is solid at room temperature – so don't be tripped up if you are looking for an oil and find it looks more like a butter.
Because coconut oil does not oxidise easily, it does not go rancid (stale) quickly, and therefore makes it practical to transport, store and use for culinary practice.
The main saturated fat in coconut oil is known as lauric acid, which is classified as a medium-chain fatty acid or medium-chain triglyceride (MCT). This is a key feature.
Most dietary fats are typically slowly digested, and absorbed through the lymphatic system before being made available for energy metabolism or stored as body fat. However, MCTs bypass the lymphatic system and enter the bloodstream directly, which means they become available as an energy source for the body's cells much more rapidly. Hence, compared to other fat sources, they are more readily burned for fuel and less likely to be stored as fat.
Athletes who have large calorie requirements due to high-volume training commonly use MCTs to increase energy levels and add extra calories to their diet.
Lauric acid has been shown to increase levels of 'good' cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, HDL) and marginally increase 'bad' cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, LDL). So the overall result is often an improved cholesterol HDL/LDL ratio.
Research has shown that people living in regions where coconut oil consumption is high have some of the lowest levels of heart or cardiovascular disease (but it shouldn't be forgotten that these traditional cultures tend to also be highly active).
Finally, coconut oil is suggested to have potential anti-bacterial, anti-microbial and anti-viral properties which could support the immune system and help to fight off infections, but research is preliminary, so the jury is still out.
If you do a quick internet search, you will find hundreds of suggested ways to use coconut oil. For example, fat loss, increasing metabolism, treating disease and skin disorders.
In relation to fat loss, I am not convinced. Like any other high-fat food, coconut oil is extremely energy-dense. Even small amounts contain a lot of calories – one tablespoon of coconut oil contains more than 13g of fat and about 120 calories. Recipes that include a lot of coconut oil, even healthy ones, will have a lot of calories.
COOKING WITH COCONUT
Coconut oil is one of the best oils for cooking. Unrefined (virgin) coconut oil has a high smoke point, so it is relatively stable at high temperatures. This makes it ideal for frying and baking.
I recommend it as an alternative to butter for roasting vegetables as it has a natural but subtle, sweet, nutty flavour. It also adds great flavour to curries.
When choosing coconut oil, look out for the virgin or extra virgin varieties. The label should state it has been cold-pressed.
Virgin coconut oil tends to be expensive, but one jar will last you some time. So try to add some to your diet, but certainly don't start eating it by the spoonful. Even if you don't notice the health benefits, you'll notice the taste.
Daniel Davey BSc MSc, CSCS, NEHS is a performance nutritionist