Monday, October 17, 2011

Coconut Oil: Friend or Foe?

Mounds of Experts

With the ever-increasing prevalence of Paleo-pushing Crossfitters, Net nutritionists, and POOPAs (People Opposed to Ordinary Physician's Advice) there is a plethora of hot button nutrition topics to tackle.  This post will be dedicated to coconut oil.  It's one of those things that I've been meaning to address for quite a while but it always seems to get pushed to the back burner.  As always, I will present the evidence, mixed with one part sarcasm and two parts common sense.

What is Coconut Oil?

Quite literally, coconut oil is the edible oil that has been extracted from the flesh or kernal of a coconut.  It is processed in either a wet or dry method. I am not a food scientist and the extraction methods are largely new to me. I'm basically paraphrasing wikipedia in the explanations that follow but this isn't an entry on coconut processing so bear with me.  I just want to bring everybody up to speed before we dig into the nutrition portion.

So...in the dry method you remove the coconut flesh and dry it out using fire/smoke/kilns or sunlight (if you have a lot of time). This dried flesh is actually called copra. Remember that, you'll need later in the article. "All-wet process involves raw coconut rather than dried copra, using the protein in the coconut to create an emulsion of the oil and water. The more problematic step is breaking up the emulsion to recover the oil. This used to be done through lengthy boiling, but this produces a discolored oil and is not economical; modern techniques use centrifuges and various pre-treatments including cold, heat, acids, salts, enzymes, electrolysis, shock waves, or some combination of them. Despite numerous variations and technologies, wet processing is less viable than dry processing due to a 10-15% lower yield, even compared to the losses due to spoilage and pests with dry processing. Wet processes also require an expensive investment of equipment and energy, incurring high capital and operating costs"(1)

So why am I laying out the methods?  Here's why because how it's processed makes a difference.  According to (2) and (3) virgin coconut oil from the wet method (and it's my understanding that is the only method you can obtain virgin coconut oil from ) compared to copra oil "reduced total cholesterol, triglycerides, phospholipids, LDL, and VLDL cholesterol levels and increased HDL cholesterol in serum and tissues. The PF (polyphenol fraction) of virgin coconut oil was also found to be capable of preventing in vitro LDL oxidation with reduced carbonyl formation."  I could write an entire post or even a series of posts on LDL oxidation and why that's relevant but Chris Masterjohn has an excellent piece on it here and Dr. Guyenet has some wonderful information on it on his blog as well .  I believe Dr. Guyenet addresses the issues with the copper method of measuring LDL oxidation somewhere in the comments but those Boolean search blackbelts could probably find it easier than me.

Would You Rather Be Run Over By a Truck or a Bus?

The most obvious concern with the studies listed is they are in vitro and not the gold standard in vivo.  I'm willing to overlook that though and really dig into the meat er...copra of the case.  We are comparing the health benefits of coconut oil to coconut oil; processing methods be damned.  To clarify, let's see what happens when we compare virgin coconut oil to olive oil. Will it still improve the lipid panel compared to our beloved olive oil?  My guess is no and maybe someone with better Google-Fu than me can find a peer-reviewed medical journal with a published study of this? This is the  closest I could find but it's essentially comparing MCT to olive oil, not coconut to olive oil. To clarify, coconut oil gets about 2/3 of its sat fat from MCT so the article is relevant but it's not the same as a head-to-head comparison.

Ravnskov...Ornish! Take it outside!

Because I'm getting old and soft, let's make a Michael Jordanesque jump and assume it is equal to olive oil on the lipid panel battleground.  For those of you ready to call the CDR police: here's the thing, people will still be arguing about the Lipid Hypothesis long after there is peace in the Middle East. The fact that the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a meta-analysis saying that saturated fat intake is not linked to mortality didn't exactly make the mainstream position more cogent. There are entire websites dedicated to the ideas that saturated fat and dietary cholesterol are not associated with an increase in heart disease and/or mortality and then you've got institutions that have been preaching they are (eg American Heart Association, NCEP, etc..). Those that are anti-coconut are against it because of the saturated fat and those that are for it, either don't believe sat fat is harmful or attribute the faux high smoke point to it not degrading and being healthier (we'll address this), or think that it's mostly medium chain triglycerides (we'll also address this) or rave about the baking properties (we'll cover that too) or all of the above. To summarize: addressing whether or not saturated fat increases LDL and is linked to heart disease is beyond the scope of this entry. If you would like an introduction to the underground, yet ever-growing viewpoint that the lipid hypothesis is flawed/wrong, I'd suggest this as an introduction.  The issues I want to address are the purported benefits of coconut oil, namley: the baking properties, the smoke point, and the MCT angle. 

Tell Me Again Why I Need to Buy a Specialty Product?

Starting with my favorite topic...MONEY!  Here is a 51oz bottle of extra virgin olive oil for $31.60 or ~62 cents/oz vs. 29oz of VCO for $19.50 or ~67 cents/oz. I'd be curious to see if grocery store prices are comparable to Amazon.  So what do you get for your more expensive VCO? The main advantage VCO has over olive oil is it is more suitable to use as a shortening in baked goods. For the nonbakers, let The Peoples' Dietitian clarify: one of the reasons we use butter or lard in cookies or other delicious baked products is because it binds to the gluten strands and shortens them, giving us a wonderfully soft and flaky product vs. a cookie that looks like it was baked by Al Bundy. Olive oil or oils in general, other than coconut oil of course, are no more capable of this shortening than a square peg is of entering a round hole; it can be done but it ain't pretty.  So the next question for anybody with an IQ north of 99 is "why don't we just use butter then?".  Great question, afterall, we're talking about baked goods, which regardless of the fat source, are generally loaded with added sugar. So why spend extra for premium when the vessel is an 82' Ford Escort with a bajillion miles on it? Well, The People's Dietitian wouldn't but for you Naughty by Nature Fans...

You Down With MCT? Yeah, You Know Me!

Those on the coconut bandwagon/tree are of the opinion that the sat fat in coconut oil is ok because "it's different than the kind from animals", "it's the same as in breast milk", or (and probably the closest) "it's a shorter chain".  Coconut oil gets  ~66% of its sat fat from medium chain triglyercides vs. butter which gets ~61% of its sat fat from long chain triglycerides. Why do we care?  It has to do with how the body metabolizes them and then you'll start to get into the whole lipid war again. Some key questions are "Will mct oils raise LDL and TC compared to olive oil/MUFA?" and "Will mcts raise LDL and TC compared to LCT?" You can do a Pubmed search and find studies to support whichever position you choose to defend.  Should you choose to traverse the lipid soap operas of Pubmed, you'll need to understand what I'd call a fly in Ancel Key's ointment.  That fly is the question: Does SFA raise LDL or does PUFA lower it?  Let that sink in and really think about it and then try to find a study where they looked at SFA without increasing the PUFAs.  For example, a study where they increase SFA in one group but leave the PUFA the same for both groups.  Report back what you find!  If PUFAs lower LDL though, why are we even fooling with MCTs?  Lowering LDL is a good thing right? Good question!  Again, the lipid heretics believe that PUFAs increase oxidized LDL; so they lower total LDL but create a more dangerous, sinister LDL, and all jokes aside, oxidized LDL is a very sensitive marker for cardiac events. And this my friends is why they're after the coconut oil because it's not one of those evil PUFAs! Confused?  You should be.  Win, lose, or draw, coconut oil only gets about 66% of it's SFA from MCT so this whole idea that it's a healthy SFA is slightly more than a half truth; in other words, almost all of the rest aka ~33% is LCT and if you're mainstream, then you agree that those are bad news.

Did a Ninja Just Drop a Smoke Bomb In My Kitchen?

Why are my eyes burning all of sudden and where did all this smoke come from? Is that the acrolein from my deep fried twinkies that I justified by deep frying in VCO?  Acrolein is what you get when oil reaches its smoke point and the glycerol and fatty acids start to separate. It will mist you up faster than the final 50 pages of Where the Red Fern Grows  and it smells like the ash tray from your favorite college nightclub.  Comedy aside, VCO is often thought to have a higher smoke point that EVO (myself included prior to this) but that is not the case, at least not from what I can find.  If you're a Chef and think this is BS, PLEASE, email something more reputable.  By the numbers: VCO: 350 F, EVO: 375 to 405 F (see table), and the likely culprit behind the myth, Palm Oil: 455 F. Much like Fructosophobes try to extrapolate Fructose's load on the liver into a BOHICA experience for HFCS, I'm sure the CocoNUTS will try and try and claim Palm Oil's high smoke point for their beloved product.  Well Crossfitters, I've got bad news; no it's not another rhabdo episode but unfortunately Palm oil is an entirely different product than VCO and one can wiki it here.  So let me be clear: VCO has a LOWER smoke point than olive oil.

Summary

-Copra and VCO do not have the same benefits.  There's probably a joke in here somewhere but the Virgin is what you want.

-Assuming you are mainstream and believe that saturated fat is a bad thing. Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, 66% of which comes from MCT, so it's probably not as detrimental to your ticker as butter but to think it's harmless because it's "short chain" is ignoring 1/3 of the truth.

-Coconut oil would be superior to olive oil and most if not all oils for baking.  However, even assuming it's better than butter from a cardiovascular standpoint, what about all the sugar and other goodies you're putting in your holiday treats?

-Contrary to popular belief, VCO does NOT have a higher smoke point than olive oil. Why do you need a high smoke point?  Deep frying..and why are you buying speciality health products if you're deep frying???? Frankly, it doesn't have a high smoke point at all.  Palm oil DOES have a high smoke point but Palm oil is not the same thing as VCO, the biggest difference being almost every bit of Palm's SFA comes from LCT.  To clarify: if you want the high smoke point of Palm, kiss your MCT profile goodbye.  This would make sense, since, one of the characteristics of MCT is a low smoke point.

Thanks for reading!

Josh

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