Updated: Apr 9
No single food has been as glorified or as vilified as coconuts and all its variations. What to make of whole coconuts, coconut water, coconut milk or coconut oil? Some swear by their mystical healing powers, while others avoid it like the plague. Who to believe? Are coconuts healthy? Let’s examine coconuts through scientific lenses and analyze the nutrients in whole coconuts, coconut milk and coconut oil and I'll try to get to the bottom of this superfood mystery. As a personal disclaimer, I like coconuts. Although I don’t consume them often, I do enjoy them occasionally as a whole food, and I enjoy the occasional coconut milk chickpea curry and have been known to eat coconut based ice cream here and there, although very rarely, but not because I’m scared of them. I have simply found healthier alternatives that make coconuts unnecessary in my routine.
Whole coconut is the edible fruit of the coconut palm tree. Its flesh can be consumed whole or dried. It can also be processed into milk or oil. Its liquid can be used as coconut water to be consumed directly or added to other beverages. Since coconuts have long been used in cosmetics, medicine, religious rituals and as food, many assume they're automatically health promoting, while others recommend avoiding them due to their high saturated fat content.
Fans of coconut oils and milks will often cite studies that have looked at populations that consume the highest amounts of coconuts in order to support their views. At first glance, these populations don't appear particularly unhealthy and some even have reduced rates of certain chronic diseases. Just so happens that these population’s dietary patterns were also mostly plant-based, meaning they ate mostly unprocessed, whole plants with minimal amounts of animal foods. Was it really the coconuts? Keep in mind that for the most part, these populations were consuming whole coconuts, not coconut oil. Coconut milk and oil consumption has been associated with increased cardiovascular risk in those consuming it more than 3 times per week. Let's zoom in on why coconut consumption does have some downsides.
Coconuts can be eaten raw or dried, but this significantly impacts the nutritional values per cup, since drying the coconut meat will significantly concentrate nutrients and calories.
The pros: one of them is their significant amount of fiber and minerals, specifically manganese. Although they do contain other minerals and some B vitamins and polyphenols as well as other phytochemicals, they aren’t a significant source of other vitamins.
The cons: unlike other fruit that are mostly carbohydrates, coconuts are mostly fat, which accounts for about 80% of its calories. The issue isn’t so much the high fat content, since nuts and avocados are also high in fat and are super healthy. The main factor to consider is that its fat comes mainly in the form of saturated fat, which is directly linked to atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries) and to cardiovascular disease. This is true whether or not the saturated fat comes from plants or animals. In fact, 87% of the fat in coconuts is saturated. Many coconut proponents will argue that most of its saturated fat comes in the form of MCTs, or medium chain triglycerides that seem to be metabolized differently than the long chain triglycerides found in animal saturated fat. Check out my recent blog about fat, where I deep dive into the science of saturated versus unsaturated fat, including the benefits and risks associated with their consumption. You can read it here!
At some point, there was one review which found that replacing long chain saturated fats with MCTs in obese patients seemed to increase body fat loss. Maybe that‘s where the confusion originated and when coconut got its hall pass. Studies on MCT oils can not be extrapolated to coconut oils, since they aren’t the same, as I’ll review later in this article.
Coconut Oil And Saturated Fat
What is saturated fat anyways? It’s not a single nutrient, but family including different types of fatty acids that all have different effects on human health. That being said, there is scientific consensus that saturated fat consumption increases LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) and promotes cardiovascular disease through artery narrowing, also called atherosclerosis. For a crash course on saturated fat biochemistry, click here. Studies show that replacing saturated fat in you diet with unsaturated fat lowers your inflammation, cholesterol and risk of heart disease. Not all saturated fats are creating equally though. Some, like stearic acid, seem to have neutral effects on blood cholesterols, whereas others are known to increase bad cholesterol.
Saturated fats can then be further subdivided into long chain, medium chain, or short chain.
Long-chain triglycerides contain more than 12 carbon atoms and include stearic acid (C18), palmitic acid (C16) and myristic acid (C14).
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) contain fatty acids that have a chain length of 6–12 carbon atoms. There is still controversy on whether or not those with 12 carbon atoms behave more like medium or long chain fatty acids. They include caproic acid (C6), caprylic acid (C8), capric acid (C10), and lauric acid (C12). These have gotten much attention from scientists since they get absorbed, metabolized and used for energy very fast and may help assist in weight loss. The downside to this is the rapid appearance of snake oil salesmen trying to lure desperate consumers into purchasing MCT oils in hopes of miraculously shedding pounds effortlessly.
Short-chain fatty acids contain less than 6 carbon atoms and are mainly produced by our gut bugs through fiber fermentation. These compounds have beneficial properties. You can nerd out by reading the « microbiome » section of my website here.
Most of the confusion comes from a few studies showing some benefits of replacing long-chain saturated fats with medium-chain saturated fats in people with obesity. This is by no means proof that coconut oil is healthy. MCT oils contain mostly medium-chain triglycerides in the form of about 50% caprylic acid and 50% capric acid, whereas coconut oil contains 9% and 7% of these oils respectively and is almost 50% lauric acid, which is present in negligible amounts in MCT oils. Comparing MCT oils and coconut oil quickly reveals that they’re not built the same and the benefits of one can not be assumed to be present in the other. Most of the coconut oil‘s saturated fats come from lauric and myristic acid, which are two long-chain saturated fats associated with increases in LDL cholesterol, not MCTs. There’s no scientific reason to think that coconut oil has any of the health promoting properties seen in MCT oil trials and recommending it to patients with heart disease could prove to be fatal. The statement that coconut oil has health promoting properties is not supported by science.
In a nutshell, coconut contains mainly lauric acid, myristic acid and palmitic acid, and all three are known to raise LDL cholesterol and to promote inflammation. But to complicate things even more, coconuts also contain other compounds capable of producing anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. The overall effect of a food will be determined by the balance between its pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory compounds. Whole coconuts can be part of a healthy vegan diet, as can coconut water. Coconut oils are best enjoyed in small amounts and used sparingly. Some will try to muddy the waters by stating that although coconut oil raises bad cholesterol, it also raises HDL, the good cholesterol. Although this is also true, efforts to reduce cardiovascular risk by increasing good cholesterol have proved to be unsuccessful.
Now, people in the keto community and in the « bulletproof diet » community have long reported that coconut oil had mystical and magical health properties and that it should be generously poured into your coffee. While everyone is free to do whatever they want, this doesn’t make it healthy. Many also claim that coconuts have anti-inflammatory properties. Sadly, a recent 2020 meta-analysis that actually looked at inflammatory markers in humans concluded that their results did not support claims of coconut consumption for the benefit of reduced inflammation.
My goal is definitely not to demonize coconut oil, but simply to make people view it as what it is, an oil, which is a highly processed and concentrated source of calories with minimal nutrients when compared to its whole food version. For vegan recipes that require a solid source of fat or an oil with a high smoke point, it can be used, but viewing as a healthy or magical alternative isn’t supported by science. Whole coconuts are much better. They contain fiber that partially blunts the increase in cholesterol caused by the saturated fat and comes packaged with health promoting vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. That being said, even overdoing it on whole coconuts does still come with the risk of overconsuming the types of saturated fats that are known to increase cholesterol, which is a major risk factor for our top killers, heart disease and stroke.
Coconut water has been touted for its electrolyte content and is often cited as being a suitable replacement for sports drinks. One quick fact is that coconut water contains high levels of potassium, and although our highly processed modern diets do lack potassium, too much of a good thing can also be dangerous in patients with impaired kidney function. The condition called hyperkalemia is no laughing matter and can absolutely cause serious and life altering impairments. Rehydration studies comparing water, sports drinks and coconut water in athletes have shown conflicting and non-conclusive results, leaving us with many unanswered questions about the benefits of coconut water in this population, for rehydration purposes alone. In terms of performance enhancement, there are studies that have looked at this, but no significant benefit was found. It is worth mentioning that bloating and stomach upset was seen more commonly in the coconut water groups. Conclusion, drink water and eat high glycemic index fruit for performance enhancement.
You might ask what’s the difference between coconut oil and coconut milk. Coconut oil is made from coconut meat which has been pressed to expel the fat content. Pressing fresh coconut meat will give you « virgin » coconut oil, whereas pressing dried coconut meat will give you refined coconut oil. Coconut milk consists of coconut meat that has been heated in water. Younger coconuts will produce a lower fat milk, while mature coconuts make a higher fat milk. Coconut milk retains much more of the vitamins and minerals contained in whole coconuts, but is still a significant source of saturated fat. Since many varieties of coconut milks are highly processed, they can contain added sugar as well as many other additives and preservatives, so read the labels and ingredients carefully. Coconut milk and oil are basically differentiated by the processing they undergo to get created. One expels the fat content to create oil and the other uses heat to make milk and preserves most of the nutrients inside.
My Coconut Conclusion
Whole coconuts aren’t the devil and can be enjoyed as part of a healthy plant-based diet. They make curries taste great and if this makes you eat more chickpeas, then go for it. But be mindful that they do contain LDL increasing saturated fat and the more you eat them, the more they will elevate bad cholesterol levels. Coconut oil is the fat equivalent that refined sugar is to carbs. It’s a highly concentrated source of a specific macronutrient in which processing has removed most of its beneficial constituents. As for coconut water, if you like the taste then by all means drink it, but do so sparingly if you have kidney issues, and always remember that science recommends that you make water your beverage of choice. Coconut milk, for its part is « better » than oil in terms of nutrient content since many of the minerals it contains are preserved, contrary to coconut oil where processing has removed them. When talking about health, it always comes down to what you’d be eating instead. If you swap your half-pound stick of butter for coconut oil, good for you, your health parameters might not be as bad. But ditch both and cook without oil, and your health parameters are almost guaranteed to improve significantly! So if you enjoy coconut and all its varieties, by all means live it up, but be cognizant that it does contain high levels of saturated fat, it’s not as anti-inflammatory as the claims state and there are a whole bunch of healthier foods you could be consuming instead. If coconut water, milk and oil is what you desire, then I won’t stand in your way. Personally, I choose to consume it rarely, mostly in its whole form. I love chickpea curries, but I’ve found better recipes where I don‘t need the coconut milk. As for coconut oil, I choose to steer clear, for health reasons. I hope this has helped to provide evidence based information on coconuts and their pros and cons. I’ve provided the studies referenced if you want to dive deeper into the science of coconuts and its nutrients. If you’ve enjoyed this article, please let me know by sharing it on social media. I volunteer my time so that this valuable information can make it to as many people as possible!
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