Tuesday 17th May 12:33 pm
Coconut claims don’t hold water
Tuesday 2nd December 2014 2:07 pm
The world of nutrition is notorious for the incredibly large number of food fads that come and go. A current fad centres on that fruit of the tropics, the coconut. Apparently both coconut oil and coconut water will do everything from beautifying your skin to boosting your immunity.
The coconut was essential in the early days of human exploration as we spread through the tropics.
In one neat little package, it’s a combined source of both nutrition and water. Back then, it was crucial for us to be able to travel and colonise the Pacific Rim, coastal India, Africa and South America.
Today coconut is cultivated on some hundred thousand square kilometres across 86 tropical countries.
Coconut water is the clear liquid inside the immature green coconut. It has been endorsed by celebrities from Lara Bingle to Madonna — and Madonna invested millions. It’s claimed to help you lose weight, and improve both your skin tone and digestion. When coconut water was first introduced in the USA as a Superfood in the early 2000s, it was claimed to have the power to fight kidney disease, osteoporosis and viruses — but these claims were shot down by dietitians.
It is moderately rich in potassium and also contains small amounts of minerals such as magnesium, calcium and phosphorus. However, both the banana and the potato carry roughly the same amounts of potassium — and you don’t see potatoes being endorsed by celebrities and sold as the next crackpot Superfood.
Coconut water sales reached almost half a billion dollars world-wide in 2013. On supermarket shelves, in yoga studios and gyms it’s being heavily pushed as a rehydration liquid for athletes and lovers of natural food.
Sure, when you sweat, you lose water, sodium and lots of minerals. But studies have shown that coconut water is about as good at rehydrating you as generic sports drinks or, wait for it, water out of the tap. The false marketing claim that it is superior as a rehydration liquid to sports drinks was withdrawn in the USA after a 2011 class action lawsuit.
But what about the elite athletes who push themselves for more than an hour every day? In that case, coconut water does not have enough sodium to do a good job. And if you drink large amounts of coconut water to get enough sodium, you’ll soon realise that coconut water does have a laxative effect — which, to put it mildly, is not good for replenishing your bodily fluids. Another problem for the elite athletes is that because coconut water is not formulated in a factory, its ingredients can vary enormously from batch to batch.
But as a refreshing occasional drink, coconut water is fine. Just don’t waste your money filling your pantry with it, thinking that it is health-giving.
So what about coconut oil? It also has celebrity endorsement ranging from Olympic champions to movie stars like Angelina Jolie to Miranda Kerr, who claims she eats a spoonful every day. Its loudly trumpeted health benefits include controlling sugar cravings and your weight, as well as relieving stress and boosting your immunity. There is no compelling evidence for these claims.
One of the odd features of coconut oil is that it is rich in saturated fats — quite different from practically all the other oils that come from plants. It’s about 91 per cent saturated fats and only 6 per cent mono-unsaturated fats — virtually the opposite from olive oil which is 14 per cent saturated fats and 72 per cent mono-unsaturated fats.
From a storage point of view, saturated fats have an advantage. They make coconut oil resistant to oxidation and turning rancid – so you can store it for a few years before it goes off.
But from a health point of view, saturated fats have a big disadvantage. They are very strongly associated with bad blood cholesterol levels and heart disease. This is the overwhelming majority view of bodies such as the United States Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organisation, the American Heart Association, the American Dietetic Association and many other professional medical and dietetic organisations. There is a minority view that saturated fats are good for you, but let me emphasise that this is very much a minority view.
Sure, a small amount of coconut oil occasionally would not be a major problem. But consider this — the Western diet is already high in saturated fats, so why add more? Indeed, Cancer Council Australia recommends reducing or avoiding a diet rich in saturated fats.
Another problem with coconut oil is that it’s expensive. In fact, it’s about twice the cost of olive oil, which does have proven health benefits.
So to really be a health nut, avoid the coconut.
This blog first appeared on Dr Karl's Great Moments in Science
© 2017 Karl S. Kruszelnicki Pty Ltd