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April 2013

Hype or Hope: Coconut Oil & Coconut Water

One of the most recent  “health foods” being avidly promoted is that of coconut oil and coconut water. Health claims from curing Alzheimer’s disease, losing weight, protecting against cancer to dissolving kidney stones abound.  Thinking about trying this popular tropical fat or water?  Here is what you need to know.        

Coconut Oil
Conventional coconut oil, often referred to as a tropical oil, is derived from dried coconut that is pulverized, cooked and treated with chemicals to yield a “white” refined oil for use in foods. 

This fat is solid at room temperature, containing more saturated fat than any other fat.  Research shows that it raises LDL-cholesterol levels. Coconut oil is widely used in chocolate, and coatings for bars or candies since it does not “melt in your hand, only in your mouth”. 

Cold-pressed virgin coconut oil, widely marketed as a “health food” uses a different procedure for extracting the oil, advocates state is healthier.  There is little evidence to support this claim, in fact this oil contains the same amount of saturated fat.

Health Claims
Coconut oil is unique since it contains medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs.  The body uses MCTs differently which have been associated with the various health claims.

  • Alzheimer’s Disease - Our brains use glucose for energy.  Early on in this disease, the brain starts losing the ability to use glucose, leading to starvation of the brain. The brain can use ketone bodies, a by-product of fat metabolism.
    The premise is that ketone bodies are produced from MCTs in coconut oil, which may be able to restore some mental function.  Researchers caution that coconut oil cannot provide high enough levels of ketone bodies in the brain to do much good. Studies showed some improvement initially, however after 90 days there was no difference. 
  • Weight Loss - The claim is that MCTs are likely to be directly burned off as fuel and slightly raise the metabolic rate.  Evidence behind claims for weight loss are very thin and modest at best.

Coconut Water
Coconut water is the clear liquid from young coconuts and has a sweet nutty taste. It is not the same as coconut milk or oil.  Plain coconut water contains some carbohydrate, is low in sodium and an excellent source of potassium.
  
There are some health benefits to consuming this water.  It is a good way to keep hydrated and add potassium to the diet.  Beyond this, scientific literature falls short, more research is needed to support many of the health claims. 

If you enjoy the taste and your budget allows, it is relatively nutritious.  Be mindful of the calories and the carbohydrates, especially if you’re diabetic.


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