SINGAPORE: Shawn Dass first heard about the miracle claims of coconut oil from a friend two years ago. He had been suffering from a sinus infection and was looking for a way to ease the pain.
“It’s called oil pulling, an ancient Ayurvedic method in which you swish it around in your mouth in the mornings,” Mr Dass said. “I found it to be very effective in clearing my sinuses.”
After doing some researching online, Mr Dass found websites and articles extolling the benefits of consuming coconut oil. For example, he had read that coconut oil could reduce one’s cholesterol levels.
“We replaced everything with organic extra-virgin cold-pressed coconut oil,” the 34-year-old said. “We replaced our olive oil, we replaced sesame oil.
"For breakfast, we’d use it in our eggs and for lunch, if we are home, we’d use it to cook pan-fried chicken breast, for example. At night, we’d use it in whatever we cooked.”
A check online brings up many articles about the benefits of coconut oil - everything from reducing hunger, boosting one’s metabolism, improving brain function in patients with Alzheimer's and more.
It also figures prominently in the clean-eating movement, seen through healthy and beautifully presented meals on Instagram.
Indeed a check with supermarkets and organic stores revealed that the demand for coconut oil shows no signs of abating anytime soon. NTUC FairPrice told Channel NewsAsia that it started stocking coconut oil about five years ago to “meet popular demand”.
“We have seen sales for coconut oil almost double in the first half of this year compared to the same period two years ago,” a spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Cold Storage said its “year-to-date sales for coconut oil is on an upward double digit trend, and have been stable in recent months”.
But for some consumers like Mr Dass, the love affair with coconut oil had a bittersweet ending, when he read about a report released by the American Heart Association (AHA) in June. The report said replacing saturated fat with healthier fat in one’s diet lowers cardiovascular or heart disease risk as much as statin drugs, which are prescribed to lower cholesterol levels.
What stood out in the report was that it discouraged people against consuming coconut oil, which it said has 82 per cent saturated fat - higher than butter, palm oil and even lard.
COCONUT OIL RAISES GOOD FATS, BUT ALSO BAD FATS: EXPERTS
Saturated fat is known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease because it raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as bad cholesterol levels. As a saturated fat, coconut oil is known to increase LDL.
But what researchers found when looking at coconut oil, was that consuming it also increases high-density lipoproteins (HDL), or the good cholesterol in one’s body.
Manager at Mount Alvernia's Nutrition and Dietitic Department, Sarah Shamila said proponents of coconut oil picked up on this point to say that because it increases good cholesterol levels, coconut oil may actually improve heart health.
“But because it raises both the good and bad cholesterol ... the benefits (of coconut oil) are counter-effective,” Ms Shamila said.
COCONUT OIL’S SUPERFOOD STATUS RESTS ON MCT LINK
Advocates for coconut oil also point to research on the molecular properties of coconut oil, and that it not only burns fat faster in the body, but keeps people full for a longer period.
This is something that piqued Ms Aqilah Norazman’s interest in coconut oil some four years ago, while she was researching its benefits.
The 28-year-old health coach, who currently has about 150 clients, creates nutritious 12-week meal programmes for her clients, many of whom are overweight or obese, and have neither the time nor the knowledge to create a healthy meal plan for themselves.
“In a balanced diet, if my clients are trying to lose weight, they need to get their carbohydrate levels down and have more vegetables,” Ms Aqilah said.
“But when you reduce carbohydrates, your body would need fats to compensate the lack of it, so they also need to consume a higher good fat content - not like fried food - but good fats. They need to get their fat content higher in order to metabolise their fat in their body so that their body can burn the stored body fat.”
Ms Aqilah said she still recommends avocados, nuts and olive oil, all of which are low in saturated fats but still boost good cholesterol levels. But she said she has added coconut oil to the mix because of the benefits of consuming medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs.
“While coconut oil has a higher level of saturated fat, because the fat is MCT, coconut oil metabolises differently in our bodies. “
Indeed a study in 2003 did find that MCTs increase metabolism and weight loss. The researcher, Marie-Pierre St-Onge also noted that coconut oil has a higher proportion of MCTs than “most other fats or oils”.
But she also highlighted that the oil used in her study was a 100 per cent MCT coconut oil. Most coconut oils in the market only have about 15 per cent of MCTs.
Weighing in on the benefits of MCTs, the Health Promotion Board told Channel NewsAsia the findings of the study cannot be applied to coconut oil.
“Coconut oil contains a large proportion of long-chained fatty acids as compared to the 'designer' oil used for the trials which contained no long-chained fatty acids. Long-chained fatty acids have consistently been found to increase LDL (bad cholesterol).”
SUPERFOODS: BLURRING THE LINE BETWEEN SCIENCE AND MARKETING
In the report, the AHA highlighted a survey in which 72 per cent of Americans saw coconut oil as a “health food”, compared to 37 per cent of nutritionists.
For consumers like Mr Dass, the various sources of information have been a cause for much confusion. Having read about coconut oil’s anti-inflammatory properties, for example, he had encouraged a family member to add even more coconut oil to her food.
That's because she has an early onset of a type of arthritis that affects the spine.
“So you can imagine now, being affected by her medical condition, suddenly I’m asking myself: ‘Am I increasing her cholesterol while trying to reduce her inflammation?' I just don’t know what to believe in anymore.”
Mr Dass said he not only questions the benefits of coconut oil, but that of other popular ‘superfoods’ like acai, often taken in powder form, chia seeds and quinoa.
Dietitian at Changi General Hospital’s Dietetic and Food Services, Adeline Lau, said ‘superfoods’ is a marketing term used to describe nutrient-rich foods, those considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being.
“However, most research on superfoods tests chemicals and extracts in concentrations not found in the food in its natural state,” Ms Lau said. “Thus, to achieve the proposed health benefits, one would have to consume large amounts of that superfood, which is often impractical and unrealistic.”
“For example, people don’t realise that chia seeds are actually quite high in carbohydrates,” Ms Shamila added. “So if you continue to put them in your water and drink a lot of them, you might realise that you are slowly gaining weight.”
Ms Shamila said the answer lies in moderation. “A better idea may be to include these foods as part of your meal plan. I’d encourage you to have a variety of foods.”
Ms Aqilah agreed, saying said she encourages her clients to look at healthy eating the same way as building a foundation.
“The basic things have to be taken care of. You can’t build your foundation just by getting superfoods in but basic stuff like fresh food is not there. There’s no point having chia seeds in your diet if you’re having laksa every day,” she said.
As for whether she will continue to recommend coconut oil in the face of latest research, Ms Aqilah said she knew of the controversy surrounding coconut oil, and makes it a point to inform clients when she recommends it in their meal programme.
In fact, she said it was a client who alerted her to AHA’s latest report.
“A lot of my clients question what I tell them and that is good. Making informed decisions is a more sustainable way of making sure they are healthy for the rest of their lives. It’s not a short term thing. Health is many years in progress.”
Hospital dietitians like Ms Shamila however, aim to err on the side of caution. She said she would generally not recommend coconut oil to anyone, especially for those with a family history of heart disease, as well as other diseases like diabetes.
For others, she urged consumers to get a blood test to test their cholesterol levels.
“Doctors will look at your total cholesterol, your good and bad cholesterol levels as well as triglycerides, which is the fats stored in your liver. So go and do the check and then once you start on your diet (of coconut oil), in three to six months, do a recheck to see where your health lies,” she said.
And if all else fails, stick to prescribed guidelines, said principal dietitian at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, Chow Pek Yee.
“If people want to take coconut oil, we would recommend that they limit their intake to the recommended daily amount of saturated fat.
"According to HPB … 1 tablespoon (12g) of coconut oil provides approximately 10g saturated fat,” Ms Chow said.
In a balanced diet, Ms Chow said up to 30 per cent of one’s total calorie intake should come from fat, with not more than 10 per cent from saturated fat like coconut oil.