Is coconut a superfood?Update: 1/21/2013
A GROWING band of supporters including some scientists - are singing the healing and restorative praises of coconut.
They cite research and evidence to back their arguments and claim this humble, hairy fruit contains properties that can prevent, or even cure, a wide range of ailments from heart disease to Alzheimer's.
They haven't convinced everyone: the Heart Foundation strongly disputes their claims and says coconut oil in particular is an unhealthy saturated fat and should be avoided. But retired CSIRO scientist and honorary research fellow at the University of Queensland, Mike Foale, says the Heart Foundation has got it wrong. Foale has been studying the coconut palm for more than four decades and believes coconut is a superfood.
"There is both scientific and abundant anecdotal evidence of great health benefits, including increased energy, weight loss, natural antibiotic activity, cholesterol reduction and insulin stabilisation," Foale says.
While the popularity of bottled coconut water could be described as a fad, Foale is a devotee of the oil. "Coconut oil is a staple for millions of tropical coastal people worldwide and those people do not suffer from heart disease while on their traditional diet," he says.
The case for coconut
"Coconut oil is the healthiest oil on earth," says Dr Bruce Fife, who runs the Coconut Research Centre in the US. While he doesn't dispute that the oil, extracted from the meat of mature coconuts, is mostly made up of saturated fat, Fife says scientific evidence shows it is a healthier version.
"Coconut oil is unique because it is composed predominately of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs)," he says. "The size of the fatty acid is extremely important because physiological effects of medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil are distinctly different from the long-chain fatty acids more commonly found in our diet.
"It's the MCTs in coconut oil that make it different from all other fats and, for the most part, gives it its unique character and healing properties. Few foods nowadays contain MCT. By adding coconut oil to your diet you can literally eat your way to better health."
He cites a long list of ways coconut oil has been found to benefit human bodies. He says it:
•Protects against heart disease by increasing good cholesterol and lowering the ratio of bad and good cholesterol.
•Helps treat malnutrition because it is easy to digest and absorb.
•Kills disease-causing bacteria, fungi, yeasts and viruses because of the antimicrobial effects of its fatty acids.
•Helps diabetics by slowing sugar release into the bloodstream.
•Prevents strokes and brain disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
•Boosts metabolism and increases energy because it is more likely to be burned as fuel than stored as body fat.
However, these claims are hotly contested by major organisations such as the Heart Foundation and the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA). Fife dismisses such bodies' lack of support for coconut oil as "prejudiced and outdated".
"Saturated fats do not cause or even promote heart disease," he says, citing a 2010 research survey that looked at 21 different studies. "There was no evidence saturated fats were harmful."
The case against
While protection against heart disease is one of the claimed benefits of coconut oil, the Heart Foundation ironically strongly recommends avoiding it.
"Coconut oil, milk and cream are all high in unhealthy saturated fat, which raises bad cholesterol levels, clogs the arteries and increases the risk of heart disease," says Barbara Eden, the Heart Foundation's senior manager of food supply.
"Our recommendations are based on good-quality scientific evidence and don't recommend eating foods high in saturated fat. There are many healthier oils that don't raise cholesterol levels or increase the risk of heart disease."
DAA spokeswoman Tania Ferraretto agrees and says the evidence of any health benefits from coconut oil is inconclusive.
She believes it is a dietary fad and consumers should beware of any product that makes broad-sweeping health claims.
"It has a high saturated fat content – 85 to 90 per cent – which should be avoided," Ferraretto says. "A product like coconut oil is not ever going to provide a miracle cure. If you want to be healthy, eat a healthy diet and exercise."
Perhaps the last word should go to the findings of a 2010 research conference that concluded the effect of a particular food on heart disease should not be judged solely by how much saturated fat it contains, because different saturated fatty acids may have different cardiovascular effects.
More research is needed, but in the meantime, there's one thing we can all agree on: coconut products taste great.
Coconut oil prevents tooth decay
Coconut oil fights bacteria responsible for tooth decay and could be a healthy, non-chemical additive in toothpaste and mouthwash, Irish research suggests. Scientists found that when the oil was treated with digestive enzymes it became a powerful killer of mouth bugs that can lead to dental caries.
How much coconut oil?
The Coconut Research Centre's Dr Bruce Fife recommends one to three tablespoons of coconut oil a day for health maintenance. It can be used for frying and baking or it can be added to foods such as popcorn instead of butter.
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