The prize for the most talked/written/facebooked/tweeted about oil in 2013 has got to go to Coconut Oil, and so I think that I too, should take a look at this iconic pomade.
To me, it is the smell of summertime with its beautiful and distinctive aroma. 80s de rigueur at Australian beaches, it was the skin tonic of choice for sunbathers. The slip, slop, slap message meant that the bottle of summer experienced a hiatus. These days, however, coconut oil is promoted for its high sun protection factor, and coconut oil is back in vogue.
Coconut oil is usually found in a solid state and will melt at around 25 degrees. In the solid state it is white, however, once melted, the oil is clear (Price, 1999). It is not commonly used in aromatherapy practice, however, it is a great emollient and is often used in commercial massage creams. It is rich in lauric acid (said to have anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial qualities), is a rich source of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA), and contains more than 85% saturated fat, as well as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (Canapi et al., 2005). It is resistant to oxidation which means that products that contain coconut oil generally have a longer shelf-life.
Before I go on, it is important to you as a consumer to note that the most common coconut oil found on the shelves of your local supermarket may be inferior to those which provide all of the alleged health benefits you read about; there are two methods of extraction of coconut oil – the most commercially viable method, dry extraction, loses most, if not all, of the proteins, carbs and vitamins. Oil which has been extracted using a wet method may be able to retrieve this goodness (Canapi et al., 2005). However, there has been no research in this area, and therefore no conclusive evidence (Schardt, 2012). So, buyer beware – not everything is what it seems. In a crowded market-place it will be difficult to discern, however, looking for words such as “raw” or “virgin” may be beneficial. My best advice would be to go to a reputable health-food shop or essential oil distributor and ask them some questions.
In a very quick, and not overly thorough review of the internet literature (37,600,000 pages dedicated to the oil on google), I have discovered the following to be amongst the most commonest claims. I am going to take a bit of time here to investigate these claims (pros AND cons!), and then you the reader can make up your own mind…
1. Coconut oil is useful for weight-loss (11,000,000 google hits!): Because coconut oil contains medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), it behaves differently from other “fats” – that is, it will be absorbed straight into the cell, where it will be burned up (immediately!) as energy and less likely to be stored as fat.
- The evidence: a masters student in Brazil published the results of his research where he compared weight loss amongst 40 obese women who were all asked to reduce their calorific input by 200 cals/day and exercise 4 days/week. Half of these women were then asked to take 2 tablespoons (240 cals) of coconut oil, while the other half consumed soy bean oil. The women in both groups lost the same amount of weight at the end of three months, which would suggest that the oil is not superior to soy bean oil for weight loss, and it certainly cannot provide any other conclusions (Schardt, 2012). It would be safe to say that the weight loss is probably linked to a reduction in food intake, and increased physical activity. Schardt does suggest, however, that there may be some confusion surrounding testing for weight loss of a product known as MCT, a formulation which includes coconut extract and consists of 100% medium-chain triglyceride. In several recent studies, participants who consumed this product lost more weight than those who consumed liquid vegetable oil. However, these studies are small, and there has been no longitudinal work done to understand the long-term effect.
- Prof. Thomas Brenner, Nutritional Sciences @ Cornell University has come out in defence of what is known as “virgin” coconut oil suggesting that it does not contain as many trans-fats, and that the evidence that saturated fats are bad for us is flimsy (Clark, 2011). That said, it is recommended we consume only 20 grams saturated fats each day.
2. Protects against type 2 diabetes (3,420,000 results): Due to the smaller size of the chains, those MCFA found in coconut oil are able to permeate fat burning cells, where they will be directly converted to energy and “burned off”; improved metabolism = reduced insulin resistance!
- The evidence: Researchers at the Garvan Institute for Medical Research conducted some experiments in mice and found that the relatively small size of the MCFA meant that they could penetrate mitochondria far easier than those long-chained fatty acids found in animal products, making it far easier to convert to energy. On the downside, however, it is important to note that MCFA is linked to fat build up around the liver (fatty liver disease) (Heather, 2009) which is a causative factor in the onset of cirrhosis. However, in this research, the mice who were given coconut oil had reduced fat stored in the muscle and improved insulin action compared to those who were fed lard. The authors of this research suggest that other oils, such as fish oils, may be more beneficial for the health of the liver and that if one was to consider replacing MCFA oils for others in their diet, that they consider this risk.
- Of the 17 citations found on the CoconutResearchCentre website there was only one small (n=40) clinical study (studies in humans) of the effect of medium-chain triglycerides on various measures associated with type 2 diabetes including waist circumference, BMI and body weight. The results were very mixed but warrant further investigation (Han et al., 2007). The other 16 studies were conducted on mice, rats and/or in vitro (in the lab). Much more evidence is required.
- There is currently no advice given by Diabetes Australia that suggests sufferers should include coconut oil in their diets
3. The worlds healthiest populations, Eat a lot of Coconut (Kris Gunnars, 2013) (962,000 hits!):
- It probably goes without saying that these populations using WHOLE coconut in their cooking are also using fresh fruit and vegetables, chicken, fish and perhaps tofu than what is experienced by us in the west
- Professor Mark Wahlqvist at Monash University has studied a West Sumatran diet and suggests that it is the amount of fat (saturated or unsaturated) – meat, eggs, sugar, carbs that will distinguish between healthy and unhealthy. The more of these foods that you eat, the more at risk you become of heart disease.
Some authors make their case for the health benefits of coconut oil, by consulting the literature and adding a list of references for their work (I have done the same thing!). Dr Joseph Mercola is one of those authors who wrote about the apparent plethora of health benefits in an article in the Huffington Post in 2011. Here he talks about improving heart health, thyroid function, metabolism, and improving immunity. It looks impressive enough – but the age of the references is telling. Articles that are more than 20 years old at the time of publication are certain to have been superseded by newer evidence. Why would an author not look at the most recent evidence? Usually because it contradicts what the author is trying to say…. As in all academy, it is good practice to provide a balanced view.
There are, of course, many benefits when applied topically. It is wonderfully emollient and lovely as a soap – look for coconut products (but avoid the palm oil – another blog for another day!) at your health food shop. Traditionally it has been used to treat burns (although that would need to be substantiated to be called “evidence”).
It is useful for treating eczema when it is at the dry, itchy stage and is especially great for children because it is natural AND safe, and it will not harm little ones if they get it in their mouth. It is a promising barrier to environment; it is moisturising and has antibacterial properties. A recent study by Evangelista et al., (2013) is encouraging. When virgin coconut oil was applied to the skin of 50+ paediatric eczema sufferers for 12 weeks compared to the same number of participants using mineral oil, participants in both groups experienced improvement, however the VCO group had much greater improvement in barrier function, reduced inflammation, reduced itching, and there were no side-effects reported. It warrants more investigation, but this is significant, good news.
It is often promoted for hair-care and is said to be a useful treatment for frizz and tangles (I have an 8-year-old daughter and it is very useful!). It may also prove beneficial for treating and preventing head lice. A 2007 paper suggests that a mixture of coconut, citronella and neem oil may be as useful as (without the side-effects and controversy) DEET for preventing transmission of head-lice (Canyon et al., 2007). The authors suggest that this might be due to the “greasiness” but it too warrants a further investigation.
As part of a mixture with Shea butter and sugar or salt, coconut oil is a great exfoliant. It is a wonderful massage oil as it is not immediately absorbed (and it is very relaxing!). Used as part of your evening beauty routine, it is deeply moisturising! But avoid it on your skin during the day it is fairly greasy, and while it is said to have a protective SPF, I think that it may offer more burn.
So, in summary – do your research carefully! Be critical when reading. There is not much evidence to support the claims which are abundant on the net, but there is also a little bit of hope. So, enjoy this beautiful oil, but don’t count on it as a magical cure-all. Good health should be considered very broadly and we should not pin all our hopes on one product.
Canapi, EC, Agustin, YTV, Moro, EA, Pedrosa, E & Bendaño, MLJ 2005, ‘Coconut Oil’, Bailey’s Industrial Oil and Fat Products, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Canyon, DV & Speare, R 2007, ‘A comparison of botanical and synthetic substances commonly used to prevent head lice (Pediculus humanus var. capitis) infestation’, International Journal of Dermatology, vol. 46, no. 4, pp. 422-426
Clark, M 2011 “Once a Villain, Coconut Oil Charms the Health Food World”, New York Times, p D1Heather, A 2009, How coconut oil could help reduce the symptoms of Type 2 diabetes, The Garvan Institute
Evangelista, MTP, Abad-Casintahan, F & Lopez-Villafuerte, L 2014, ‘The effect of topical virgin coconut oil on SCORAD index, transepidermal water loss, and skin capacitance in mild to moderate pediatric atopic dermatitis: a randomized, double-blind, clinical trial’, International Journal of Dermatology, vol. 53, no. 1, pp. 100-108.
Gunners, K 2013, ‘Top 10 Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Coconut Oil’, Authority Nutrition An Evidence-Based Approach, viewed 29 December, 2013 <http://authoritynutrition.com/top-10-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-coconut-oil/>
Han, JR, Deng, B, Sun, J, Chen, CG, Corkey, BE, Kirkland, JL, Ma, J & Guo, W 2007, ‘Effects of dietary medium-chain triglyceride on weight loss and insulin sensitivity in a group of moderately overweight free-living type 2 diabetic Chinese subjects’, Metabolism, vol. 56, no. 7, pp. 985-991.
Price, L 2006, Carrier Oils – For Aromatherapy & Massage, Third, Third Impression edn, Riverhead, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Schardt, D 2012, ‘COCONUT OIL’, Nutrition Action Health Letter, vol. 39, no. 5, pp. 10-11.