A lot of controversy surrounds coconut oil and its benefits and people are constantly asking me at my clinic or on the streets if it is safe to use coconut oil because of the negative things they have heard about it. They have heard that it increases the cholesterol level in the blood and in these days of cholesterol awareness, it is believed that anything that has cholesterol is something to stay away from.
However it is also a well-known fact that “bad” cholesterol comes from animal origin rather than plant and coconut just happens to be a plant. The body also needs a certain amount of cholesterol for its own functions such as cell wall protection and the transport of hormones and vitamins around the body, so cholesterol is not all bad.
In my household and particularly on my mother’s side of the family coconut oil has been in use for decades and coconut milk itself is undoubtedly one of the most flavorful and healthy ingredients that one can ever use in food when cooking. The smell and taste of coconut oil in food is indeed a unique and special one and most of the adverse propaganda that one hears about coconut oil can be disregarded as just myth and not fact.
Different populations for decades have consumed coconut oil and studies done on the natives of these countries indicate that they are indeed healthy and in some cases healthier than their counterparts in the West.
The negative propaganda against coconut oil was also leveled against palm oil as early as 1934 when an act of the US congress imposed a tax of 3 cents per pound on these oils being imported into the US as a means of protecting their own domestic market for corn and soya bean oil produced in the US. A negative propaganda campaign was waged to give the impression that coconut oil was unhealthy and should not be used as a food although they continued to use it in the manufacturing industry to produce soaps, perfumes suntan lotions and other industrial products.
Coconut oil is a saturated fat but it is not a trans fat - a word which is associated with heart disease and unhealthy diet practices. They are used interchangeably to confuse the public. Fats and oils become trans fats as a result of a hydrogenation. This is a process that makes them harder and more stable. However the natural form of the oil is converted to a form that is potentially dangerous to man and is associated with heart disease. Coconut oil is a semi solid and is very stable oil at room temperature and does not need to undergo hydrogenation. In fact it is one of the oils highly recommended for frying as it does not break down with heat, does not undergo polymerization nor oxidation. Therefore equating saturated fats with trans fats is not only misleading, it is downright incorrect and deceptive. Because of this negative propaganda in the 1980’s, food processors abandoned the use of coconut oil based on the misinformation of misguided individuals rather than on scientific evidence.
However, recent research has proven otherwise and coconut oil actually has a lot of properties that are beneficial to man as it has been for thousands of years since people began using coconut oil as a food.
A recent study undertaken by a researcher at Harvard University - Dr Istafan, demonstrated that coconut oil is healthy oil. He concluded, “For the US consumer, the use of coconut oil does not increase the rate of heart disease. Other researchers demonstrated that coconut oil reduces the risk of atherosclerosis, heart disease, cancer and other degenerative conditions. It helps fight bacterial, viral and fungal infections as a result of its antimicrobial component lauric acid, which is found solely in coconut oil and breast milk. Coconut oil is rich in medium chain triglycerides (MCT’s), which provide an immediate source of fuel and energy and enables the human body to metabolize fat efficiently. This feature helps dieters, athletes, individuals who have difficulty digesting fats and those with impaired immune systems. Unlike some saturated fats, coconut oil DOES NOT RAISE CHOLESTEROL.
The irony of all of this is that the US consumer, based on faulty information, has switched to sources which require hydrogenation as in the case of soya oil, making them more agents of heart disease compared to coconut oil which actually fights against it.
Little by little, consumers are making the switch reluctantly because the propaganda war and lobbying in favour of corn and soya oil has been fierce, and without the proper scientific knowledge, people are resistant to change.
However the fact remains that people in the tropics have for thousand of years used coconut oil without reporting any adverse health concerns and it means that we too need to make the change and quickly, because we are losing out on what we have naturally growing in our region and which has enormous health benefits for us. The bottom line is that coconut oil is healthful oil with untold health benefits in fighting many diseases. Just as our ancestors used it and passed it on to us, we too should use it because it has already been tried and proven by countless generations in the past.
As a country, we need to begin planting more coconut trees. Over the years our stock has been depleted through the wanton cutting down of trees to make room for more land for housing and for hotel construction and through diseases that affect the coconut tree. Coconut oil, which used to be readily available on our supermarket shelves in the past no longer is. There was once when we actually produced soap from coconut oil at the old soap factory in Tempe. For those who remember, it was a thriving industry and all of the oil and soap were locally produced. This time we need to get back into coconut oil production not for making soap because it may not be cost effective to do so in today’s economy. However, the production of coconut oil for local consumption especially for cooking and for promoting good nutritional habits is definitely the way to go and farmers should be encouraged to plant more coconut trees wherever it is possible. This should be a concerted effort on the part of Government, the Food and nutrition Council and all those involved in promoting healthy lifestyles and proper nutrition to put coconut oil right back where it belongs - in the kitchen and households of Grenadians. This will definitely be a meaningful investment in the health and well being of present and future generations..........Just Food For Thought!