April 18, 2014

The Coconut Oil Myths: Exposing Some Common Myths Surrounding Coconut Oil

While coconut oil fell out of favor for a while, it has been a staple in tropical countries for thousands of years.

While coconut oil fell out of favor for a while in the U.S., it has been a staple in tropical countries for thousands of years. A common coconut oil tanker seen in the Philippines.

Coconut Oil: The “New” Super-food?

by Brian Shilhavy
Health Impact News

Coconut oil’s popularity continues to increase here in 2014, and as a result it seems like everyone has something to say about it. Since we have been writing and publishing research about coconut oil for over 13 years, it is time to update our article on common myths surrounding coconut oil.

First, coconut oil is NOT new! It has been a staple in the diets of millions of people for thousands of years. So when you read someone stating that coconut oil is some new fad, or that the information regarding its health benefits is all “hype”, you are reading one of the many myths being spread around on the Internet by those who are seemingly too lazy to do some basic research, or type “coconut oil” into the search field at PubMed. While it is decreasing, bias against coconut oil is still prevalent today, and people will write from this bias without even investigating the historical uses of coconut oil, or the vast amount of research conducted on coconut oil, particularly the medium chain fatty acids it contains.

But the myths being spread around the Internet are not simply from those who have a bias against it. Many people trying to jump on the coconut oil popularity bandwagon are also propagating some myths.

So here is a look at some of the most common myths routinely found published on the Internet today:

Coconut Oil Myth #1: Only Virgin Coconut Oil is healthy – Refined Coconut Oil is bad for you

FACT: ALL coconut oil you can buy online or in stores is healthy. This myth persists primarily because of the saturated fat bias (see below). The reasoning is that coconut oil must be bad because saturated fat is bad, therefore the health benefits for coconut oil must only apply to virgin unrefined coconut oils, which somehow escape all the nasty things saturated fats are blamed for.

However, anytime you can purchase coconut oil, you are purchasing the healthiest oil you can cook with since all coconut oils have medium chain fatty acids that are healthy and that do not break down when heated. The other options offered in today’s market for cooking oils are more than likely less healthy than coconut oil, and might even become toxic if used in cooking.

The one exception would be hydrogenated coconut oil, but we are not aware of any hydrogenated coconut oils being sold as edible oils in the U.S. market. If you live in a tropical country, there is a chance that hydrogenated coconut oil might be manufactured and sold in your location. Coconut oil is hydrogenated to keep it solid at higher temperatures. In its natural form, coconut oil is liquid above 76 degrees F. and solid below that. That is why we call it “coconut oil” and not “coconut fat”. In North America and many other places, coconut oil is almost always solid, making it technically a “fat” and not an oil. But in tropical climates it is almost always liquid, making it an oil. So there is a history of hydrogenating the small unsaturated portion of coconut oil in tropical climates to make it a solid. But the dangers of trans-fats are well published now, so I think even in tropical cultures this is rare today.

Speaking of liquid coconut oil, a “new” product did hit the shelves of many health food stores in 2013 called “Liquid Coconut Oil”. It is being marketed as a coconut oil that stays liquid even in your refrigerator. This product is actually “fractionated coconut oil” where most or all of the saturated lauric acid has been removed. It has been marketed in the past as “MCT Oil”, and not as coconut oil. It was more of a dietary supplement in the past. While we do not believe this product is harmful, it is a manufactured product, and actually a clever way of marketing a “left over” by-product, since lauric acid is the star fatty acid chain in coconut oil, known for its powerful antimicrobial activity. It is only found elsewhere in nature abundantly in human breast milk. You can read more about the clever marketing of “liquid coconut oil” here: Is Liquid Coconut Oil that stays Liquid in Your Refrigerator Real Coconut Oil?

As far as refined coconut oils, the most common method used to refine coconut oil in coconut oil producing countries is via the RBD process: Refined, Bleached, and Deodorized. This process renders a neutral flavor and smell due to a steam deodorization process. The “bleaching” part does not involve bleach like you use in your laundry. It is a clay that is used to filter the oil of impurities. Some of the nutrients will more than likely be lost in the refining process, but it does not make the oil unhealthy. If you can find out if the refined coconut oil was refined using solvent extracts or through “physical refining”, choose the physically refined coconut oil. There is some concern that oils using solvent extracts could leave residues in the oil. But even so, those residues are probably very small, if present at all, so even these coconut oils would be healthier than toxic trans fats or polyunsaturated oils for cooking.

As far as “virgin” coconut oils, there is absolutely no difference between “extra virgin” and “virgin” when it comes to coconut oil, like there is with the olive oil industry. They are simply different labels for the exact same coconut oils. Some people want to promote virgin coconut oils as “seeing no heat in the process” as a superior coconut oil, but there are no published standards identifying an “extra virgin” quality, and research actually shows that traditional coconut oils processed with heat have higher amounts of antioxidants. (See: New Research Highlights High Antioxidant Activity of Traditionally Made Coconut Oil)

Coconut Oil Myth #2: I cannot use coconut oil because I am allergic to coconut oil

FACT: Most food allergies are due to the inability to digest proteins, such as gluten (found in wheat), casein (found in dairy), protein found in tree nuts, etc. The coconut is technically a tree nut, but protein is found in the meat of the coconut, not in the oil.

Therefore, if one has problems digesting or eating coconut oil, it is highly unlikely that it is due to an “allergy”. It is more likely due to not being able to digest fats well, or possibly to the detoxification properties of coconut oil which can cause symptoms such as diarrhea, skin eruptions, etc. These are typically NOT allergic reactions, and can be minimized or even eliminated altogether by reducing the amount of coconut oil one eats to very small amounts until the symptoms don’t occur, and then gradually increasing the amount over time.

Coconut Oil Myth #3: Coconut oil is good for certain conditions (like Alzheimer’s and Dementia), but long-term effects are not known and there is a risk for heart disease because coconut oil is a saturated fat

FACT: There are plenty of epidemiological studies on coconut oil in native populations, and saturated fat has never been proven to cause heart disease. Sadly, this myth has been around a long time and still persists today, even though it is not true! This is the basis of the coconut oil bias.

The benefits of a high-fat ketogenic diet in curing epilepsy was first developed at the Mayo Clinic in the 1920s and used extensively at John Hopkins Hospital. This high-fat diet rich in saturated fats has been documented as curing epilepsy in children where drugs failed. But as the lipid theory of heart disease gained popularity after the 1950s and influenced the government to adopt a low-fat dietary guideline in the 1970s, children and parents who benefited from the high-fat ketogenic diet were frightened into believing that if they continued such a diet, it would lead to heart disease.

Today, the ketogneic effects of coconut oil are well-known and coconut oil’s tremendous impact on those suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia are well documented, and can no longer be denied, just as the ketogenic diet has cured epilepsy for many years now. Unfortunately, the myth of saturated fat — and by implication coconut oil — causing heart disease is a myth that continues today, scaring people who receive tremendous benefits from consuming coconut oil into thinking they may have a higher risk of heart disease if they continue such a diet. The lipid theory of heart disease, however, is losing popularity in the light of real evidence-based science.

One of the most exhaustive studies on saturated fat and heart disease was published in 2010 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition titled: “Saturated fat, carbohydrate, and cardiovascular disease”. The study reviewed many other studies over a period of 5 to 23 years covering 347,747 subjects. Their conclusion: “A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD”. The abstract is found here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20071648.

A similar meta-study was conducted and published in May of 2013, analyzing the existing medical literature regarding dietary fats and heart disease in the journal Advances in Nutrition. This study correctly vindicates the negative bias against saturated fats found in coconut oil and dairy products:Several recent analyses indicate that SFAs, particularly in dairy products and coconut oil, can improve health.” (See: Study: Saturated Fat Not Associated with Risk of Coronary Artery Disease, Coconut Oil and Dairy Fat Healthy)

You can read more research on saturated fats here.

As far as coconut oil specifically, Dr. Conrado S. Dayrit in the Philippines published a comprehensive study looking at the evidence of saturated fat from coconut oil and cardiovascular disease in populations consuming large amounts of saturated fat in the countries of the Philippines, Polynesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia and found no link between coconut oil consumption and heart disease. His study was published in 2003 in the Philippine Journal of Cardiologyhttp://www.coconutoil.com/DayritCardiology.pdf

In another study, Dr. Janaki Gooneratne in Sri Lanka conducted what is probably the largest study ever undertaken examining the relationship between coconut oil, cholesterol, and heart disease. Her research studied almost 1,000 people in Sri Lanka and included factors such as socio-demographic data, family history of disease, and lifestyle.

She studied associations between selected heart disease risk factors and coconut oil intake using the Chi-square test, and further examined the data in a multivariate model adjusting for potential confounding variables. The data was analyzed using SPSS statistical software. The results of this extensive research concluded that consumption of coconut oil at levels up to 16.4% of total energy per day had no heart disease risk on the local population. (Note: for a standard 2,000 calorie diet that would equate to about 2.5 tablespoons of coconut oil a day.) Dr. Goonerante believes that this extensive research is one of the first studies of this magnitude on dietary coconut oil ever conducted anywhere in the world. Read more about her research on coconut oil here.

What New Coconut Oil Myths Are we Likely to See in the Future?

As coconut oil continues to gain popularity and continues to have a greater impact on people’s health, often producing better results than expensive pharmaceutical drugs, and without all the side effects, expect these attacks and myths to continue, and probably new ones to pop up. But just remember that coconut oil is a natural food that has nourished billions of people around the world for thousands of years. It cannot be patented, and hence it is unlikely there will ever be clinical studies funded of the same type that pharmaceutical companies spend millions of dollars to complete for patenting and getting their drugs approved by the FDA. Therefore, it is unlikely that the FDA will ever approve any health claims for coconut oil.

However, the health benefits of coconut oil are becoming too well-known to continue ignoring, and we saw signs in 2013 that drug companies are looking for ways to mimic the effects of coconut oil in patentable drugs. This has actually been occurring already for many years now with lauric acid, the star component of coconut oil. Lauric acid is frequently extracted from coconut oil to make into other drugs and products that can be patented. The significance of coconut oil then is trivialized in favor of expensive drugs.

What we saw in 2013, however, was interest by drug companies in the area of the ketonic effects of coconut oil, as research continues to be published on the benefits of a ketogenic diet, including its use as an effective cancer treatment. This same ketogenic effect in coconut oil is seen to be at least partially responsible for stopping or reversing Alzheimer’s Disease. So drug companies are anxious to develop drugs to mimic these effects, and we saw some of that begin in 2013. (See: Study: Coconut Oil Could Prevent Neurodegeneration in Diseases like Alzheimer’s)

So we can expect the mainstream media and Big Pharma to invent new myths condemning coconut oil in favor of their drugs in the future, count on it!

About the authors: Unlike many people who write about coconut oil by simply reading about it, Brian and Marianita Shilhavy actually lived in a coconut producing area of the Philippines for several years. Marianita Jader Shilhavy grew up on a coconut plantation in the Philippines and in a culture that consumed significant amounts of coconut fat in their diet. She later went on to earn her degree in nutrition and worked as a nutritionist in the Philippines. Brian Shilhavy also lived in the Philippines for several years with Marianita and their 3 children observing firsthand the differences between the diet and health of the younger generation and those of Marianita’s parents’ generation still consuming a traditional diet. This led to years of studying Philippine nutrition and dietary patterns first hand while living in a rural farming community in the Philippines. They are authors of the best-selling book: Virgin Coconut Oil: How it has changed people’s lives and how it can change yours!

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When my wife and I shipped the first “virgin coconut oil” from the Philippines into the U.S. back in 2001, there were only two other commercially available coconut oils being sold as edible oils in the U.S. market. Coconut oil was certainly not popular 13 years ago and there were few choices. If you were using coconut oil as dietary oil back then, chances are you were getting your information about fats and oils from Dr. Mary Enig. Many of her writings have been featured in the Weston A. Price Foundation over the years.

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