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When you think of coconuts you likely think of palm trees and tropical beaches, Pina Coladas and vacation drinks with tiny umbrellas, you probably don’t think of fat and heart disease. BUT the American Heart Association (AHA) does, and they continue to recommend limiting consumption of coconut oil as part of its recommendations to limit saturated fat in order to reduce the risk of heart disease. While the advice to limit saturated fat to reduce heart disease risk isn’t totally unfounded, lumping coconut derived fats in with the rest of the saturated fats ignores the evidence that there are different types of saturated fats that have different effects on health. The AHA themselves states that different types of polyunsaturated fats, omega 6 and omega 3, as well as different types of saturated fats may have different effects on cholesterol, but they still don’t clarify that coconut fat is not the same as the saturated fat from other sources like those derived from animal sources (1). Furthermore, the statement omits research related to the potential benefits of the other nutrients provided by coconut as well as discussion of the unique properties of lauric acid, the type of saturated fat provided by coconut (2). Specifically, evidence from large observational studies suggests that different saturated fats with different physical, chemical, and metabolic structures have different metabolic and health effects, particularly related to blood lipids, glucose-insulin homeostasis, insulin resistance, and diabetes (3,4). To speak only of the fat content of coconut is leaving out so many of the benefits of this nutrient rich fruit. So, what exactly is a “coconut”, besides a tropical drink that conjures up dreams of white sandy beaches and blue waters?

The coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) is an important crop providing food, timber, fuel, medicine and more for many communities globally, particularly the many islands of the Pacific (5). The health benefits provided by coconut vary depending on which part of the plant or fruit and what form is being consumed (oil, milk, flesh). Production methods for extracting the product can vary as well. For example, the wet processing method used to extract virgin coconut oil (VCO) is thought to be superior and VCO thought to have superior health benefits to other types of coconut oil because of its greater antioxidant properties, even though the fatty acid profile is not changed by processing (6-8). In addition, antioxidant activity has been identified in the endocarp and coconut water while the fiber was shown to have antibacterial, antiparasitic and anti-inflammatory effects (9). The recent increased popularity of coconut products has emerged from the awareness of its’ many health benefits as well as its sustainability. It has been said that “coconut is a crop that is most suited for sustainable agriculture supporting the three pillars of society, economy and the environment” (10).  In addition to its high antioxidant, nutrient rich content coconut, particularly coconut oil, is high in saturated fats. However, in contrast to beef and many other sources of saturated fat which contain long chain saturated fats such as palmitic and oleic acid, coconut provides mostly medium chain saturated fats (MCT) and most of the MCT comes from a type called lauric acid (11). These shorter chain fats are absorbed and metabolized differently and therefore have a different impact on the body, particularly on blood lipids, than the longer chains do. In several studies coconut oil intake has been shown to increase HDL-C (12-15). Of course, when assessing the impact of diet on health it is always important to consider diet as whole rather than one nutrient or one food. However, classifying coconut with other saturated fats and therefore making it “guilty by association” in terms of heart disease is remiss. The health impact of coconut and all its parts should be clearly represented in health recommendations.

This article was contributed by Susan J Hewlings, Ph.D., R.D., Director of Scientific Affairs Nutrasource/GRAS Associates

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