Coconut oil can be divided into two types: unrefined and refined.
Unrefined coconut oil tastes and smells like coconut. It doesn't' have contaminants removed. The smoke point (burning point) of unrefined coconut oil is 350°F (177°C or). When we want a recipe to give off a strong coconut flavour, this is the coconut oil we'd want to use. Another benefit of unrefined coconut oil is the high polyphenol content, which means it provides more antioxidants than refined oil.
Refined coconut oil is slightly different than unrefined. The first difference is the absence of taste and scent of refined coconut oil. The smoke point is relatively higher, at around 400 - 450°F (204 - 232°C). Unlike unrefined coconut oil, contaminants are removed from refined coconut oil. This type of oil is best used when we don't want a strong coconut flavour. Since this type is tasteless and has a higher burning point, it's more versatile in cooking.
Unrefined vs. refined
We're often told to choose unrefined products as often as possible. We agree with this most of the time, but when it comes to coconut oil, there's little added benefit shown in choosing unrefined in place of refined. The main nutrient benefit of coconut oil is beneficial fatty acids. These fatty acids aren't altered by the refining process, which acts only to remove impurities in the oil. In general, both offer the same amount of beneficial fatty acids, so deciding which one to use comes down to the taste and smoke point.
Here at PUL, we often have both types on hand and use each for its own purpose. With that being said, given the versatility of refined coconut oil, we do tend to use this oil more often.
The appraisals of coconut oil
When it comes to nutrition, coconut oil has seen some controversy. The verdict seems to be split on its effects on the body. Let's filter through some of these claims to see what holds up.
Several studies support the claim that coconut oil improves antioxidant status. Many other foods are even higher in antioxidants, such as berries, grapes, and bell peppers though. It's easy to throw the term 'antioxidant' around for added effect, but in reality, we're able to get enough from eating a varied diet rich in fruits and veggies. Compared to coconut oil, brightly coloured fruits and vegetables are also much lower in overall fat, higher in fibre and include other nourishing vitamins and minerals. So if it's between the two, aim to get antioxidants from whole fruits and vegetables.
Antimicrobial and anti-fungal
Coconut oil has been shown, to an extent, to have antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties towards specific bacterial and fungal strains. This may mean that if you have a cut or a small wound, you may consider using it topically to help. Some of these studies hone in one specific compound derived from coconut oil as opposed to studying the whole oil itself. In addition, some studies are conducted in vitro, meaning in a petri dish, and not on animals or humans. So while promising, it's best to use it in addition to, rather than instead of, conventional medications for diagnosed infections.
Fat absorption disorders
For some background information, fats can be considered to have different chain lengths. Long-chain fats differ from medium-chain fats in that they take longer to digest and result in a slow release of energy. On the other hand, medium-chain fats are rapidly absorbed and are basically immediately used for energy (similar to carbohydrates). Due to this difference in absorption, a subcategory of medium-chain fats (called medium-chain triglycerides, MCTs) is commonly given to those with fat absorption disorders such as cystic fibrosis, inflammatory bowel disease and malabsorption in newborns. For reference, coconut oil is around 60% of these medium-chain fats. This benefit, however, is strictly for those with these medical disorders and doesn't apply to the general population.
It may seem counterintuitive to claim that coconut oil, a fat, will help with weight loss. This concept arises from the medium-chain fats we discussed above. The fact that it's digested differently than long-chain fats and used for energy means that it's less likely to be stored in the adipose tissue, also known as our body fat. It's also been claimed that coconut oil contributes to greater feelings of fullness and decreased waist circumference. It's important to note that many of these studies use pure medium-chain fats as opposed to whole coconut oil, which is typically about 50% medium-chain fats. It's possible that there may be a difference in outcome between the use of pure coconut oil and whole coconut oil, which has been noted. As we mentioned above, this doesn't necessarily mean the more the merrier. Moderation is still recommended, as with any oil or food.
There's a notion that coconut oil can be used as a treatment, and even possibly a cure, for people living with Alzheimer's Disease. For an individual living with Alzheimer's Disease, the brain cell's ability to use a sugar called glucose, the primary energy source, may be compromised. The theory is that feeding the patient high levels of fat, such as with coconut oil, will push the body into what's called "ketosis". In ketosis, ketones become the alternative fuel source instead of the sugar glucose. This may make sense in theory, but, there's currently very little robust evidence to support or refute this since there's very little evidence on the topic as a whole. One study had reported that patients with memory impairment showed significant improvement with medium-chain triglyceride supplements, though this observation was only seen in a certain subset of patients with a specific gene. This area of research is one we'll be following closely since it's too soon and scarce to make any firm claims. Learn more in an interesting TED talk by Dr. Mary T. Newport. Overall, it's super fascinating stuff, but more of a potential medical application than a benefit for the general public.
The criticism of coconut oil
Saturated fat is a type of fat mainly found in animal products, but also in coconut oil. The evidence of adverse effects for saturated fat intake isn't as conclusive as we may think. There's considerable controversy over whether or not saturated fat alone impacts heart health. Some say it does, while others say it doesn't.
Coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat and so naturally, many nutrition professionals are advocating against it. As we mentioned in our fats and oils article, although excessive consumption of saturated fat has been linked to cardiovascular issues, there's little evidence of adverse effects for moderate to low intake. By choosing plant-based foods, we're already excluding several foods high in saturated fats by default. This means that it's perfectly okay to enjoy coconut oil in moderation.
Lack of research
Many claims related to coconut oil are based on one or two individual studies, not conducted on humans, and used isolated compounds derived from coconut oil instead of the oil itself. This means the results may not be the same when applied in real life, to a real person. For this reason, be cautious about what's online. We can do our own research when possible. There's still much to be studied with coconut oil and we look forward to the outcomes, but for now, we will maintain our somewhat conservative outlook on coconut oil as well as other oils, and recommend its intake in moderation.
Other uses of coconut oil
If we do a quick web search, we'll discover another world of potential uses for coconut oil. Here are a couple of common uses aside from consumption.
Coconut oil can be used as a body moisturizer not only for adults but also for children and babies. Some use it as a facial moisturizer, a makeup remover, or as an ingredient in homemade body or facial scrubs. Since it's oil-based, it's difficult to predict how each of us will react to it. Due to this, it's best to test it out for a few weeks, and if we find it's not moisturizing enough or it's leading to breakouts, discontinue usage.
Coconut oil has been used to prevent damage to hair and reduce the amount of protein loss from hair. This can be done weekly or monthly. Just a little bit of coconut oil can go a long way, as it can leave hair quite greasy if used in excess.
Other coconut-based products
Raw coconut meat: the meat of young coconuts tends to be soft and can be easily scooped out with a spoon. Young coconuts also tend to contain more water. The meat of mature coconuts is firmer and contains less water.
Coconut milk: this is made by grating the meat from the mature coconut and blending it with water. It's thicker, milkier and has a higher fat content than coconut water. We can find full-fat or light coconut milk at the store.
Shredded/dried coconut: these are commonly used for desserts and other baked goods. They add a wonderful coconut flavour and chewy texture. Here at PUL, we aim to use unsweetened shredded coconut for baking and desserts.
Coconut flour: this is an alternative for those who have allergies or are otherwise searching for gluten-free flours. It doesn't have the same composition as traditional flour, so the resulting texture may not be quite the same. Coconut flour tends to be more expensive than regular flour as well. It's not advised to substitute coconut flour for all-purpose flour at 1:1, so it's best to find a recipe designed to use coconut flour!
Coconut sugar: this is derived from the coconut palm tree. Coconut sugar contains a type of fibre called inulin which has been shown to slow the absorption of glucose, preventing a spike in blood sugar levels. Due to this, coconut sugar has been praised for impacting our blood sugar less than regular sugar. Here at PUL we recommend enjoying it in moderation.
- It's perfectly okay to enjoy coconut oil in moderation. We outlined many potential benefits of coconut oil. When choosing fats in general, consider enjoying whole food fat sources over oils first.
- Coconut oil has uses other than for consumption. It's commonly used as a skin moisturizer or for hair treatment.
- More research is needed to confirm some claims about coconut oil. Due to its popularity, there's growing research on coconut's health effects. Let's keep an eye out for emerging research!