Coco-nuts? The Rise and Fall of a Superfood

Hello everyone, I’m Craig, the newest member of the AFTP family. It’s only been a few weeks since I was kidnapped by scientists enthusiastically joined the University of Reading, and it was with some trepidation that I was asked to take a look at the backlash against the newest ‘superfood’ – coconut oil. Now, I first learned about this when my partner pointed me to critical articles in The Guardian and the BBC, as vindication for her lifelong dislike of all things coconut. As much as I love coconuts (and am loathe to lose that argument), those headlines are pretty alarming, especially to a neophyte in food science like me!

These stories came about as a reaction to an article by the American Heart Association, which listed coconut oil among a number of other products that carry significant cardiovascular risks to consumers. The thrust of the narrative runs something like this: rather than being a product packed with nutrients and other healthy things, coconut oil is in fact incredibly high in saturated fat. So high, in fact, that it makes lard and butter look positively slimming. Saturated fats have long been associated with high cholesterol, which in turn raises the risk of heart attacks and strokes, so coconut oil looks on the surface pretty far from a ‘healthy’ food. Thankfully, I don’t need to rely on my own scientific (in)expertise to dig a little deeper into this story. I’m lucky enough to work with a team of renowned scientists, and I got a chance to catch up with Reading’s own Kate Currie, a nutritionist with expertise in body composition and the nutritional needs of specific populations.  

Kate pointed out that there have been long-running debates from the scientific community towards the interpretation of fats and their relationship to health, particularly the tendency of some studies to lump all saturated fats together in their analysis. One example is the Framingham Study – one of the most celebrated long-term studies into cardiovascular health, and a key source in discussions about the effects of fat on human health. Why does this matter? Because saturated fat is not a monolithic group, but can be divided up into short-, medium- and long-chain groups, whose chemical interaction with the human body are rather different.

Since long-chain saturated fats “are associated, frankly, with premature death and disease” (to quote Kate), the less dangerous medium-chain fats got tarnished with the same brush, despite their different chemical profile. When they’re considered separately, medium-chain saturated fats do not have quite the same terrifying outcomes, and do offer some health benefits, especially to individuals with malnutrition or malabsorption.

So, vindication for the noble coconut? Not entirely. As Kate pointed out to me, ‘does not kill you so much’ is not quite the same thing as ‘wonder food,’ and the belief that “coconut oil gave everyone a wagging tail and shiny coat” was a somewhat simplistic reading of the evidence. Though coming with their own benefits, medium-chain products like coconut oil and many dairy products do still carry risks, especially if one’s diet is already rich in other saturated fats. 

As is so often the case, this argument sees the problem of translating complex areas of scientific study into practical advice for consumers. Between theory and practice lies a large and highly-visible body of journalists, bloggers, and other non-expert commentators (I say, fully aware of the irony) communicating ideas about healthy eating to the general public. And sadly, ‘food X has been shown to have a modest statistical benefit to certain individuals in certain areas under controlled environments with certain other variables not considered due to the size/scope/funding of the study’ does not make for an eye-catching headline. Well, it would be eye-catching in the sense it would cover the entire page, but not quite sensational enough in terms of content to draw in readers!

So, where does that leave us with coconut oil? Well, there are certainly some pluses. It wasn’t entirely unhealthy since, to quote Kate again, “it chemically has a high smoke point so is useful in terms of cooking to get things crispy or have a short texture on baking whereas mono-saturates and polyunsaturated don't so much.” But the plethora of other health benefits were a rather liberal reading of the data, and would need more long-term studies to really assess. In short, the aggrandised claims for coconut oil as a superfood were rather overstated, but similarly, stories of its dangerousness may also need to be more nuanced.

As with almost everything relating to human health, there are very few ‘silver bullets’ that can individually give you as much as a varied, sensible diet that includes nutrition from a range of different foodstuffs. Enjoy your coconut oil in the knowledge that you’re unlikely to drop down dead the next day – but be wary about overindulging on it or any of the other messianic foods that get elevated to fame overnight. If you fancied cutting through the journalistic fog and getting straight to the science, Kate is running several modules for the AFTP: What is Lifelong Nutrition?, Nutrition for a Changing Body and Nutrition for Specific Populations. I’ll certainly be popping along, having learned just how little I know about what I’m putting in my body!

 

Craig Farrell, July 2017

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