Health Benefits of Coconut Oil
Updated: Mar 8
In recent years coconut oil became more and more popular, supported by the vegan movement and due to claimed health benefits.
The scientific evidence on coconut oil has been consistent over the past few years but is still limited. Studies around the effects of coconut oil on cholesterol have raised big discussions, and the findings are inconclusive. The following article considers the current scientific and evidence-based findings on the health benefits of coconut oil.
Coconut oil is a solid fat form, made up of various fatty acids (the molecular building blocks of fat). Around 80-90% of which is saturated fat consisting of ~48% lauric acid. A fatty acid rarity, elsewhere found in breast milk, cow's milk, goat's milk as well as palm kernel oil (not to be confused with palm oil).
The effects of coconut oil on cholesterol are to be clarified.
Apart from that coconut oil contains no cholesterol, no fibre, and small amounts of vitamins, minerals and plant sterols.
Some researches suggest that coconut oil has a positive impact on;
skin & hair
Talking about the oral intake of coconut oil, it has to be considered that coconut oil should be treated like saturated fat, and not exceed 10% of the daily calorie intake. Incorporated into a balanced diet, coconut oil will not do bad. It is suitable as butter replacement and for baking and cooking, up to 176 °C.
The quality of coconut oil varies, and the less processed form is always the favourable one.
More on how to find good quality coconut oil below.
Skin & Hair Treatments
Coconut oil shows to be moisturizing, nourishing and protecting the skin and hair.
Research supports the beneficial effects of coconut oil on skin and hair and furthermore indicates that the application of coconut oil on hair can reduce protein loss. Due to its low molecular weight coconut oil has the ability to penetrate hair fibres.
What it is good for;
moisturizing dry skin, including in people with conditions such as eczema.
Reducing inflammation, which may result from UVB rays
Promoting wound healing
Antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties
Research indicates that coconut oil can prevent and treat rashes and could improve the barrier function of the skin as well as reducing inflammation due to UVB rays.
Studies also suggest that coconut oil carries antibacterial properties, and cellular studies indicate possible antifungal and antiviral capabilities.
Scientists hold the belief that coconut oil helps strengthen the skin barriers for infants with a low birth weight, which could protect the little one from health complications.
Research also points in the direction that coconut oil may have beneficial effects on genes which take part in causing inflammation.
The Reasons for the suggested health benefits of coconut oil for skin and hair are very likely down to the polyphenols, fatty acids and antioxidants contained in coconut oil.
How to find good quality coconut oil
"Virgin" or "Extra Virgin" Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is made by pressing fresh or dried coconut meat, latter is also called copra. Virgin coconut oil is made of fresh meat, while refined options usually use the copra technique.
Different to olive oil the terms "virgin" and "extra virgin" are not regulated, therefore it can be considered as a marketing trick, as it does not describe any difference in quality.
Cold- or Expeller pressed
Expeller pressed means the oil is extracted with steam or heat, this is the more invasive method.
Cold-pressed is the less processed option, on a molecular level less destruction takes place, which allows also the nutrients to stay intact (antioxidants and polyphenols).
Dried coconut meat is being machine-pressed, or sometimes chemicals solvents (usually hexane which is classified as a neurotoxin and as a hazardous air pollutant.) are being used to extract oil. The oil is then heated/steamed to deodorize the oil and also "bleached" by filtering through clays. No flavour and odour as well as a higher smoke point (~400-450 F/ 200-230 °C) are the results.
The small amounts of unsaturated fats coconut oil inhibits are hardened or partially hardened to extend shelf life and help maintain its solid texture. This process creates trans fats, which are unhealthy and should be avoided.
How to use
In the kitchen
Coconut oil is due to its consistency and thermological behaviour, a saturated fat form. Liquid oils are unsaturated fats. The research concludes that coconut oil is likely to raise cholesterol, which is not unusual for saturated fats. However, research suggests that the rise of harmful cholesterol is no more than in butter.
Coconut oil has a higher percentage of fat solids than butter or other solid fats. Therefore, when substituting with coconut oil use 1/4 less than the amount of butter/veg spread you would use.
Virgin Coconut oil has a smoke point of about 350 F/ 176 °C.
It can be used to sauté vegetables or add after boiling to enhance flavour.
When baking with coconut oil the only thing to consider is the smoke point (350 F/ 176 °C).
The consumption should not exceed 10% of the daily calorie intake, due to it being considered a saturated fat.
In the bathroom
Coconut oil is a great natural option to moistures and nourishes skin and hair and to do oil pulling (a dental cleansing technique).
To apply coconut oil to skin or hair you can use the original solid coconut oil or if it makes the application easier you can heat the oil a little (note; melting point is around 78F/26 °C) and use in liquid form.
Apply on skin/scalp/hair and leave it for at least 20mins.
Skin: Be thoughtful of the choice of clothes and prepared for a smelly affair. Coconut oil is a fat and will be hard to remove from clothes, therefore choose clothing that's alright to get messed up.
Scalp & Hair: No extra tools needed, your fingers are the best applicator.
Leave the shampoo for a few minutes to allow making the magic.
To remove the oil, plan 2-4 times of shampooing and washing. It is also always nice to brush the hair when they are oily, to spread the oil evenly and enhance the blood flow of the scalp.
Oil Pulling; This is a dental cleansing technique, meant to remove harmful bacteria in the mouth cavity and throat. Take one teaspoon coconut oil, let it melt in your mouth, and then start pulling and moving it around the mouth. At first, it will feel a bit unfamiliar, but you'll soon get used to it. Do this for 20mins +. Afterwards, make sure you flush your mouth properly, brush your teeth, make use of your dental floss and tongue scraper.
Eco-friendly coconut beauty products;
My experience with Coconut oil
I am psoriatic and use coconut oil for about 7 years in the kitchen and bathroom, nowadays, my usage is limited to mainly the bathroom. Reasons for that are 1) the inconclusive scientific evidence, 2) there are several regional options of fats/oils that are great to use in the kitchen.
On a regular basis, I put coconut oil on my skin, scalp, hair and do the oil pulling. Coconut oil has become my bathroom all-rounder. Apart from coconut oil, soap and toothpaste, there's not much more to be found in my bathroom.
Once a week I do the full treatment, body, scalp, hair, mouth - coconut oil everywhere! A few more times a week, particularly in winter I do the oil pulling. Probably my favourite coconut oil treatment, as it protected and treated me from throat infections, which I used to suffer from every winter all my life long. Along with that comes the benefit of the teeth getting whiter, that's been my experience at least.
Growing coconuts doesn't require pesticides or herbicides, and coconuts are harvest by hand. As usual - it depends on the demand. Since coconut products skyrocket the market in recent years, coastal mangroves (which are essential ecosystems) are being cleared for coconut monocrops, which has a negative impact on biodiversity. The hype around coconuts is a promising trade for many countries, as Sri Lanka, here the government even subsidizes chemical fertilizers, which makes it cheaper to farm conventionally and in-organically.
Another factor to be considered are the processes the coconut goes through until it becomes oil. From that standpoint, refined coconut oil is less sustainable, as it requires industrial equipment and/or makes use of (harmful) chemicals.
Bringing the product from on end of the world to another is also to be considered when looking at the environmental impact of the end product.
Research, status quo
There are science-based indications that coconut oil might have a positive effect on the cardiovascular system, immune system, skin & hair, as well as weight management and performance enhancement.
Truth be told, many of the health claims for coconut oil refer to a research which used a special formulation of coconut oil which is not comparable to what we find in most supermarkets.
The claim that coconut oil improves cardiovascular health has been extracted from epidemiological studies around groups of people (e.g. Philippines, India) who's native diet include coconuts (in all forms, not only oil). These groups of people seem to have low rates of cardiovascular disease, which is likely to be down to several characteristics in lifestyle, not particularly coconuts.
However, the evidence also supports the use of coconut oil for prevention and treatment for atopic dermatitis, as well as oil pulling for prevention of dental caries.
So if you're enjoying your bread with a little butter, and your cholesterol levels are fine, integrating coconut oil here and there, or as a substitute for butter will not do bad.
It is important to note that the scientific evidence is limited.
The different studies around this topic are inconclusive and demand more research.
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