Unlike, say, broccoli or chocolate, cooking oils don?t generally elicit strong positive or negative feelings. Except for coconut oil. It was once so vilified for its high saturated fat content that it was akin to a crack den in the ?good? section of the oil aisle, where coconut?s supposedly superior neighborsâolive, soybean and canolaâresided.
But in the last year, coconut oil?s reputation has shifted. It?s become the darling of the weight loss market, with books like The Coconut Diet: The Secret Ingredient That Helps You Lose Weight While You Eat Your Favorite Foods (Warner Books, 2005) and The Coconut Oil Miracle (Avery Publishing Group, 2004) hitting the bestseller lists.
?If we?re in a store doing a demo of coconut oil, all we have to do is just breathe ?weight loss,? and we?ve sold a jar of oil,? says Ted Robb, chief executive of Jungle Products, a Graton, Calif.-based importer of organic coconut and palm oils.
Robb says coconut oil is now so popular his company is having trouble keeping it in stock. He predicts the same fate for palm oil, as it increasingly becomes a replacement for highly saturated fats like butter and shortening or trans fat-laden margarine in baked and fried goods. Palm oil and shortening is tasteless, resists high heat, has a long shelf life and produces the same texture and mouth feel as butter and margarine. Whole Foods and Wild Oats bakeries buy Spectrum Organics? 33-pound boxes of organic palm fruit shortening as an alternative to Crisco, and Newman?s Own Organics uses palm oil in some of its cookies and crackers.
And if that isn?t enough, diet books and some researchers claim that coconut and other tropical oils also can help prevent diabetes, improve thyroid function, aid in digestive disorders like Crohn?s and celiac diseases, and lower cholesterol.
Tropical oils are unique among cooking oils because of their medium-chain triglycerides. MCTs are found in tropical oils and butter, and have fewer calories than the long-chain triglycerides in unsaturated fats such as vegetable oils. Also, researchers have found that digesting MCTs boosts metabolism via a heat-creating process known as thermogenesis.
?Because tropical oils are processed like carbohydrates, they?re not stored in adipose tissue, so they get burned faster and can boost metabolism,? Robb says. ?In societies like the Philippines, where tropical oils are dietary staples, they?ve never had obesity, and there?s very little diabetes.?
Dr. Mary Enig, a biochemist who has conducted numerous studies on tropical oils and is considered an authority on the subject, writes in her book Eat Fat, Lose Fat: Lose Weight and Feel Great With the Delicious, Science-Based Coconut Diet (Hudson Street Press, 2004) that two or more tablespoons of coconut oil a day can aid in weight loss. But dietitian Douglas Kalman is a little more cautious. ?There have been some animal studies that show that fats in tropical oils reduce obesity, but the studies are inconclusive for humans,? he says. Kalman, director of applied nutrition and clinical research at Miami Research Associates, also shoots down the theory that lack of obesity among Filipinos proves tropical oils are good for weight loss.
?You can?t just pinpoint the oils in the Filipino diet and say that?s why they?re not obese. They have a different diet in totality than we do in America. They?re not downing Starbucks lattes and supersized hamburgersâand they?re more physically active.?
Kalman notes that like other oils containing conjugated linoleic acid, palm oil is anticarcinogenic. Robb adds that palm oil is rich in carotenoids and is one of the best sources of vitamin E because it contains the full spectrum of tocopherols and tocotrienols.
According to Dr. Conrado S. Dayrit, emeritus professor at the Pharmacology University of the Philippines, many studies have determined that lauric acid, the major fatty acid in coconut oil, has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. In addition, a Philippine study of 15 HIV-infected patients found that eight of the patients had a reduced viral count after taking between 7.2 ml and 50 ml of coconut oil daily for six months.
Coconut oil also has essential fatty acids that are otherwise only available in meat products, making it a good alternative for vegetarians, says Neil Blomquist, president of Petaluma, Calif.-based Spectrum Organics, which imports organic coconut oil and palm shortening.
But some scientists believe that tropical oils? proven disease-fighting properties don?t outweigh their high levels of saturated fats. Saturated fat has been linked to heart disease. Palm oil has 50 percent saturated fat, palm kernel oil has 86 percent and coconut oil has 92 percent, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group.
Tropical oil proponents point out that their products have a lower saturated fat content than butter, don?t have trans fats and are cholesterol-free, unlike the saturated fat found in meat and dairy products. ?Tropical oils are one of the most misunderstood areas in the whole fat scheme,? Blomquist says.
That isn?t good enough for CSPI. ?The fact that palm oil isn?t quite as bad as the absolutely worst fat shouldn?t give food marketers carte blanche to portray it as some kind of health food,? says Executive Director Michael Jacobson in a statement.
?Tropical oils do have a benefit over pure saturated fats and hydrogenated fats, but the cons of saturated fat outweigh any of the positive effects of the MCTs,? Kalman says. To stay on the safe side, he recommends that tropical oils make up no more than 10 percent of a person?s diet, which is the recommended daily amount for all saturated fat consumption.
Going to the source
Tropical oils also have nondietary benefits, such as a positive social or ecological impact. Companies like Spectrum and Jungle Products support fair-trade, organic tropical oil production in West Africa, Samoa, the Philippines and Colombia. This will become increasingly important as tropical oils gain in popularity, Robb and Blomquist believe.
?There?s already deforestation from [thinning other vegetation to make way for] planting of commercial palm plantations in parts of Malaysia and Brazil,? Blomquist says. Robb adds, ?There?s a finite number of coconuts in the worldâthere?s not a continuous supply, and it?s important to raise them organically because a coconut palm will die if you put pesticide on it.?
Vicky Uhland is a Denver-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 7/p. 18, 22