Coconuts: Why we don’t give a damn about their bad reputation

26 Jul

Courtesy of guest writer, Lauren Van Mullem…
From helping with weight loss, to ridding lice, to removing moles, curing yeast infections and acne, to being used as lotion for dry skin and a plaque-busting toothpaste – the claims of health benefits from coconut oil are many, and familiar. They sound a lot like what the old western snake oil salesmen told their clients, just before handing over a mysterious, yet prettily packaged, bottle.

But wait, wasn’t coconut oil bad for us? Didn’t it clog arteries faster than a corndog eating contest at a county fair? What happened to turn coconut oil from villain to hero? And what is the truth behind the coconut oil claims?

Coco’s Story
One version of the story goes that the rival gang of corn, soybean, and canola oils funded a smear campaign against tropical oil producers to get rid of the competition. But that’s a little too conspiracy theory for me (Pollan fans may disagree). What we do know is that coconut oil ran with a bad crowd in the 1980s: Butter, Cheese, Cream, and Palm Oil. They were the wicked Saturated Fats that had every little carbon bursting with hydrogen and every man over 50 running in fear. The oils that were being studied then were hydrogenated coconut oils instead of virgin oils, but when scientists found a correlation between saturated fat and heart disease, coconut oil and our beloved butter fell on hard times.

Nearly thirty years passed, and in that time margarine made its way onto every table, and nutrition labels swelled with all sorts of man-made concoctions. Researchers noticed that residents of a small island off of Papua New Guinea, who ate a lot of coconut calories, had very low levels of heart disease. A more recent study looked at the population in another area of the South Pacific – all devoted Coconut eaters – and found almost no incidents of stroke or heart disease. People eating ungodly amounts of saturated fats weren’t keeling over. Something was up.

Koo-koo for Coconuts
Coconut oil does have saturated fats – the same fatty acids in fact that are found in mother’s milk, which are prized for antibacterial, antimicrobial and antiviral properties. But, lest you think I found all of this on Wikipedia (I didn’t), I asked Dr. Scott Saunders, a family practice medical doctor and graduate of UCLA’s medical school, to help me separate truth from hype. Full disclosure: He really likes coconut oil.

“No butter, no coconut oil. That’s what everybody heard for twenty years. But it’s the man-made Trans-fatty acids that are the real problem. Coconut oil has no trans fat; margarine however, does. Now it’s ‘don’t eat margarine.’ Natural saturated fats are good for you in moderation.”

The medium chain triglycerides (MCT) found in coconut oil stops the growth of bacteria, fungi and viruses. MCT oils actually enhance the immune system, helping to fight off bacteria, viruses, even parasites. However, Dr. Saunders warns that we shouldn’t believe everything we read.

“People extrapolate from the studies much too much. It does help with bacteria, fungi and viruses, but people think that since MCT has this effect, it should do a whole range of other things. I don’t know that studies have been done on all those claims.”

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