If we were to tell you that your curry leaf smoked fried fish and the finger-licking Kerala curry is “pure poison”, would you really believe it? Well, if anything, it’s the subtle flavour of coconut that gives these dishes a unique lingering taste that other oils can never give. What more, a healthy dose of fresh coconut sprinkled on Indian snacks or blended in our chutneys or soups or even added to cookies and cakes instead of butter only gives a pleasantly mellow and flavourful touch to the foods.
From making a beeline for the super trendy cold-pressed or virgin coconut oil as part of your nourishing hair and beauty ritual to the go-to in your health loss regime (it is the most weight loss friendly fat!) to boosting many immune and health issues—coconut oil is an elixir that has been at the heart of Indian cooking system and has spread its superfood status to other countries in the West—including Hollywood. Well, at least, until a viral video claimed the humble coconut oil to be “pure poison”.
We spoke to several experts to dig deeper into this health scare and find out the real truth behind this debacle.
This well-rounded image of coconut oil, however, came under flak at Harvard University. It all started in August 2018 when Dr Karin Michels, Associate Professor, Epidemiology, Harvard TH Chan School Of Public Health spoke at the University of Freiburg in Germany. Her video lecture on ‘Coconut Oil and other Nutritional Errors’ went viral and raised a hue and cry on the health benefits or the lack thereof.
According to Dr Michels, “Coconut oil is one of the worst things you can eat,” further adding that it is “pure poison.” She based her conclusions on the following:
- Coconut oil contains artery-clogging saturated fats, the same as butter, red meat and lard.
- Coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, also known as ‘bad’ cholesterol, known to increase heart disease risks.
- Rapeseed, flaxseed, sunflower, soya bean and canola oils are healthier alternatives.
Dr Michel’s lecture was preceded by a 2017 advisory by American Heart Association, which states that coconut oil is 82 per cent saturated fat, and studies show that it raises LDL cholesterol as much as butter, beef fat or palm oil.
The Indian take
Cut to Indian kitchens, a majority of the country uses coconut oil as the primary cooking medium. Not just the kitchen, uses of coconut oil are ingrained within Indian lifestyles. Bengaluru-based food coach and nutritionist Anupama Menon says, “There’s a thing about claiming truths on health facts. Especially when it comes from noted professors and health professionals. It comes with a moral obligation to bring the truth out to the audience with a balanced view of the associations of products, and their impact on health. The video could be misleading and it’s important that we understand the truth behind this statement.”
While Menon agrees that coconut oil contains a high percentage of saturated fatty acids, she adds that most of these are medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). “This means that the number of carbon atoms in the fatty acid chains varies between 6 and 12 in number. The smaller, the number of carbon atoms, the better and more quickly it is absorbed and metabolised by the body. This offers fewer chances for storage as excess fat. Hence, it is beneficial for the body.”
Citing some more reasons that make the case for coconut oil, it has four kinds of fatty acids: lauric, capric, caprylic and caproic. While coconut oil is great for consumption, low heat and regular cooking; specific MCT oils (containing fatty acids that have 6 and 8 carbon atoms) are superior. But when compared to ghee, coconut oil’s MCT profile is better. What more, lauric acid also has antimicrobial properties that rid the gut of unwanted bacteria and gives beneficial bacteria an opportunity to flourish. This makes coconut oil anti-inflammatory as well.
Coconut oil also has a thermogenic benefit that boosts body metabolism, increases HDL—the good cholesterol—and prompts the release of two hormones that promote wellness (peptide YY and leptin).
Cooking with coconut oil
Taking on Dr Michel’s claim that coconut oil is worse than actual lard, Chef Suresh Babu, executive chef at Clarks Exotica, Bengaluru explains, “The high heating temperature makes the oil suitable for shallow frying and not for deep frying. It is a much healthier option in comparison to other edible oils and is easier for digestion. The cold press coconut oil is edible and harmless.”
In comparison to coconut oil, rapeseed, flaxseed, sunflower, soybean and canola oils go through an extreme refining process, involving toxic solvents and heavy industrial chemicals, leaving the oils highly reactive in the body. “These oils contain polyunsaturated oils which causes a damaging oxidative chain reaction, responsible for arterial blocks,” says Menon.
Industrially processed soybean and canola oils have even been proven to have 0.56-4.2% trans fats, adds Menon. It has been banned by the American Health Organization and pushed by WHO to be implemented globally. Trans fats were something that Dr Michel steered clear of, she observes.
Chef Rupesh Khandekar, sous chef at Hotel Sahara Star Mumbai believes, “In a country like India, where fried food is a daily ingredient in our meals, it is very important to understand the benefits of using coconut oil. The benefits of coconut oil remain quite controversial in recent times, but there is no evidence that states that a moderate amount is harmful. The sweetish aroma of frying in coconut oil brings back memories of the festive season. Coconut oil is making a comeback into the kitchens after years of being trashed in the flavour of other oils.”
While such theories do tarnish the goodness of coconut oil on a more global platform, the crux of the coconut oil debacle is that no research can be looked upon in isolation and every food source has to be consumed in moderation.