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Why you shouldn’t be swayed by the hype over coconut oil

SINGAPORE – Coconut oil has increased in popularity among the health conscious in recent years, fueled by claims that it can support weight loss, improve insulin resistance and even boost brain health.

Like other fatty foods and edible oils, coconut oil is made up predominantly of saturated fat.

Like other fatty foods and edible oils, coconut oil is made up predominantly of saturated fat.

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SINGAPORE – Coconut oil has increased in popularity among the health conscious in recent years, fueled by claims that it can support weight loss, improve insulin resistance and even boost brain health.

Used in shampoos, lotions and hair oils, the sweet-smelling tropical oil is also now commonly found in smoothies, baked goods and even with coffee.

But is it really a superfood?

Like other fatty foods and edible oils, coconut oil is a mixture of fats, namely saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. However, it is predominantly saturated fat (about 80 to 90 per cent).

While unsaturated fats can help lower blood cholesterol, health organisations worldwide have repeatedly warned that a high intake of saturated fat – also  found in butter, lard and palm oil – can raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad, cholesterol levels that increase the risk of heart disease.

Last year, the American Heart Association released an advisory on the consumption of coconut oil after it reviewed more than 100 published studies that reaffirmed saturated fat raised LDL cholesterol levels. Coconut oil was found to raise levels of the bad cholesterol in seven controlled trials.

Experts say much of the hype surrounding coconut oil could be due to a type of fatty acid with purported health benefits that it contains, called medium-chain triglycerides (MCT).

Coconut oil contains several types of saturated fat called triglycerides. Each of them works differently in the body, said endocrinologist Ben Ng of Arden Endocrinology Specialist Clinic.

MCTs consist of shorter carbon atom chains than the majority of dietary fat, known as long-chain triglycerides (LCTs), said Ms Jennifer Shim, a dietitian at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

The length of these fats influences their digestion and absorption within the gut, she said.

“Essentially, the longer its chemical chain, the harder it is for the body to metabolise and use for fuel, and the more likely it is stored as body fat. The MCT (in coconut oil) is the link to potential health benefits. They do not behave like typical saturated fats; they are more easily metabolised,” said Dr Ng.

Coconut oil have only about 15 per cent effective medium-chain fatty acids, and the LCTs it contains may have the opposite effect, he added.

Besides coconut oil, MCTs also occur naturally in palm kernel oil, full-fat dairy products and human breast milk, said Dr Ng.

MCTs are currently used to treat food absorption disorders and serve as a fat source for people who are unable to digest or absorb other types of fats, such as those with digestion problems due to post-surgical complications or short gut syndrome, said Ms Shim.

A growing number of studies have indicated potential health benefits such as improving mental health performance and acuity, promoting weight loss and combating insulin resistance, Dr Ng said.

A paper published in the Metabolism journal in 2007 on moderately overweight Type 2 diabetics found that participants given MCTs over 90 days lost weight, had a smaller waist circumference and lower insulin resistance and cholesterol levels compared to the group given LCTs.

On the other hand, a study published last year in the European Journal of Nutrition found that coconut oil, on its own, did not increase metabolism or improve cardiometabolic risk markers among overweight women.

To reap benefits of MCTs, Dr Ng suggested consuming it in its pure form – an oil or powder – and as part of a healthy diet and exercise regimen. Products are available in health stores and some pharmacies.

Moderation is key. The optimal amount of MCTs to consume has not been ascertained, said Dr Ng, who recommends taking about a tablespoon of pure MCTs per day.

Ms Shim cautioned against replacing other dietary fat with MCT oils in one’s diet as they increase the risk of deficiency in essential fatty-acids and fat-soluble vitamins.

“All fats have important roles in the body,” she said, adding that more evidence is needed to determine the effectiveness of MCTs in improving one’s health.

Consumers should also be aware that oil is part of overall fat and calorie intake, which differs with every person depending on factors like age, gender, body weight and activity level, said the nutrition experts.

In general, total fat intake should be limited to 30 per cent of one’s total calorie intake, of which less than 10 per cent should be saturated fat, said Ms Shim.


Not all cooking oils are equal. Different oils have varying amount of fat in different forms such as saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated.

When purchasing cooking oil, compare the amounts of total saturated fat and unsaturated fats, and use the Healthier Choice symbol as a guide, said Ms Louisa Zhang, a nutrition consultant in private practice.

Dr Loh Yet Hua, head of Dietetics at SGH, said the unsaturated fats are considered “good” because they seem to lower LDL (or bad) cholesterol levels.

“However, as part of healthy eating, one must still watch the total amount of fat that one consumes. Too much fat, even the good ones, will still provide excess calories,” said Dr Loh.

Another point to note when using cooking oil is its smoking point, which is the temperature at which it smokes or burns, said Ms Zhang. In general, food should not be cooked at very high temperatures, she said.

“When oil is heated, its structure is changed. Studies have shown that consuming or inhaling the by-products are linked to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer. While it may affect the ‘wok hei’ flavor, compromises must be made,” she said.

No single nutrient should be taken out of context, and one’s overall diet matters when it comes to good health, she said.

“Oil is added to improve texture of food and must be done so in moderation only. There are no health benefits if intake of fatty foods is high, even if your choice of oil carries a healthier choice symbol,” she said.

Here are some tips on consuming various cooking oils.

Seed oils

Sunflower, sesame and canola oil fall into this category. They are generally lower in artery-clogging saturated fat, higher in unsaturated fat and have a higher smoking point than oils such as olive oil and butter. This makes them suitable for stir-frying and baking.

Rice bran oil

One of the newer entrants in the cooking oil category, rice bran oil is made from the outer layer (bran) of the grain of rice. According to Ms Zhang, it does not stick to food and has a high smoking point which makes it suitable for stir-frying and sautéing.

Olive oil

Dubbed a heart-healthy food, this oil confers benefit only if it is part of a Mediterranean diet that is typically high in fruit and vegetables, Omega-3 fatty fish and whole grains, said Ms Zhang. Olive oil has a lower smoking point than seed and rice bran oils, so it is best used at low heat or added after the heat source is turned off.

Consumers should note that extra light olive oil does not mean it is “light” in calories but that it is processed to give it a neutral taste and a higher smoking point, said Ms Zhang.

Extra virgin olive oil

Unlike olive oil, this is mechanically pressed and no heat is applied to processing. This makes it unsuitable for high temperature cooking. Best drizzled over salads and other cold foods.

Vegetable oil with a blend of palm oil

This is the oil to use when deep-frying food, a cooking method that should only be used rarely, said Ms Zhang. Although palm oil is high in saturated fat, it is more stable in high heat. But be sure to discard leftover oil after frying as the by-products can be harmful to health, she said.

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coconut oil cooking olive oil palm oil

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