Health Or Hype: Is Coconut Oil Really A ‘Superfood’?

It must have been a happy day for advertisers when they realised they could take any old thing – be it a fruit, nut, oil or mud – and repackage it as a “superfood”, the secret powers of which our ancestors knew but, mysteriously, didn’t share. It took science centuries to rediscover these benefits, but now they’re back for all to enjoy! (Plus GST and shipping).

One of the more popular products riding this wave of wellness hype and paleophilia is of course coconut oil. Did you know it can help you lose weight? Lower cholesterol? Prevent cancer? No? Well, maybe you’re not as in touch with nature as some of us.

Or, maybe some of these claims are just a little bit inflated.

Putting oil in the hype-train

I should point out that there has been a lot more scepticism surrounding coconut oil lately, and it’s lost at least a little of the health-food lustre it enjoyed a few years ago.

That said, coconut and its derivatives are still hot commodities. As of 2017, Australian demand for the oil is going nowhere but up, and popular health-food sites like MindBodyGreen still tout it as a virtual cure-all and fat-loss tool (although one of MGB’s articles does recommend you cap consumption at two or three tablespoons per day).

Milly Smith, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, finds it all a bit sketchy.

“There have been many dubious health claims that have arisen with the rise in coconut oil’s popularity,” she says. “Some I have come across include treating Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and gastrointestinal conditions such as IBS.

“Unfortunately, the science is not there to back this up.”

“Coconut oil contains around 92% saturated fatty acids, which can raise our unhealthy LDL Cholesterol levels and increase heart disease risk. For this reason, I would not recommend using coconut oil regularly or in large quantities.”

Out of the frying pan

Okay, so a couple of tablespoons per day might be excessive, but what about using coconut oil for cooking? Use it for the taste if you must, but otherwise, Smith recommends you stick with boring old olive oil.

“Extra virgin olive oil is made up predominantly of mono-unsaturated fatty acids, and backed by a large body of evidence supporting its health benefits.”

“In contrast, there is little evidence to support any health-promoting effects of coconut oil. As well as being far lower in saturated fatty acids, extra virgin olive oil is also packed with antioxidants to protect our cells, which are not found in fats like coconut oil or butter.”

“If you want to do the best for your health I would recommend going for oils made up predominantly of unsaturated fatty acids like extra virgin olive oil.”

Can you eat fat to lose fat?

One of the more attractive claims about coconut oil is that it can help you lose weight. Supposedly, adding a little to your morning coffee would help you burn more calories throughout the day, and suppress your appetite to boot.

But you know the rule. If it sounds too good to be true…

“The idea of coconut oil assisting with fat loss arose from the molecular structure of the oil, which includes a small number of ‘medium chain’ saturated fats,” says Smith. “The body burns this type of structure more easily.”

“However, coconut oil is very energy-dense, holding 505 kilojoules of energy in just one teaspoon… It could in fact negatively impact weight loss, depending on how much we are consuming.”

And while Smith concedes that fats like coconut oil may indeed help us feel ‘full’, their high energy content and lack of nutritional value kind of defeats the purpose. “There are many other foods that will provide satiety whilst providing us with many other nutritional benefits,” she says.

“Foods such as nuts, seeds or oily fish provide us with protein and healthy fats, which help us to feel fuller for longer and also support our heart health.”

There’s no such thing as a silver bullet

The hard truth is, there’s no food yet discovered which covers all health bases by itself. “When it comes to diet and health,” says Smith, “We shouldn’t be focusing on any one food or ‘superfood’ as a magic solution.”

“Eating a balanced diet with a range of wholefoods like vegetables, fruit, legumes, wholegrains, nuts, fish, lean meat and dairy is far more beneficial for long term health and disease prevention.”

Less convenient perhaps than grabbing just one thing off the shelf, but at least you won’t be paying for snake oil.

Joel Svensson is a Canberra-based writer originally from Melbourne. He’s written more latté-fuelled stories about first-world problems than he cares to admit, and can be found coping with misleading hashtags at @le0jay.