Crazy for coconuts: Do the health claims survive scrutiny?

03/04/2014 2:06 PM

03/04/2014 3:49 PM

Have we gone crazy for coconut? Just take a look around the supermarket these days: Coconut oil, coconut milk, coconut water.

It’s hard to think of a dietary villain that’s had a faster turnaround. For years, we were told to check ingredient labels for the dreaded words “partially hydrogenated coconut oil.”

Now we’ve got more coconut in our diets than a Mounds bar, with health claims ranging from weight loss to the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

We recently spent a few days cooking, tasting and studying coconut products, from oil to water. We made coconut milk curry and coconut oil pie crust, whipped up coconut oil mayonnaise and quenched our thirst with coconut water.

While the results were tasty – and often, not all that coconutty – another message came through on the health claims: Not so fast. Many claims aren’t proven, and the products can have hidden nutrition costs.

“You have to really check the calories and saturated fat,” says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Don’t assume because it’s coconut, it’s good for you.”

Drinking coconut

For vegans and vegetarians, coconut oil and coconut milk can replace butter and cow’s milk in cooking. For athletes, coconut water quenches thirst fast, and has electrolytes and potassium.

Along with all that, though, there are things to be cautious about. Let’s start with coconut water. This is actually the clear liquid you hear sloshing around when you shake a coconut, and it has a light coconut flavor.

These days, it’s being packaged and marketed as a sports drink. But like most sports drinks, unless you’re a high-intensity athlete, you don’t need it, says Leibman.

“You’re better off drinking water,” she says. “The only time you need those electrolytes is when you’ve really been working out and sweating.”

While coconut water is low in fat, it’s not calorie-free. Unsweetened, unflavored versions have 60 calories in 11 ounces. Flavored versions can have more calories, often from sugar.

Next up is coconut milk. Made by soaking ground coconut meat in hot water and straining the result, it’s rich and creamy. The distinct flavor is popular in many Asian dishes. However, it can be high in fat, unless you make a point of getting the light versions or discard the creamy layer that rises to the top of the can.

Products that replace dairy with coconut milk also may be high in fat, Liebman warns. Coconut-milk yogurts aren’t very high in protein, and coconut-milk frozen desserts aren’t as virtuous as they sound.

“You might as well have Haagen-Dazs,” she says. “The word ‘milk’ fools people into thinking the nutrients are the same in almond milk and coconut milk as they are in dairy products.”

Cooking with coconut

That brings us to coconut oil. It’s very popular with several specialty diets, including Paleo and gluten-free, as a plant-based source of fat.

It’s creamy and solid at room temperature, so you can beat it or spread it like butter. Melted, it becomes a clear, neutral oil that’s easy to use in frying, roasting or in a vinaigrette.

The versions available in jars at supermarkets are mostly free of transfats and don’t taste or smell like coconut. They’re more like a waxy version of vegetable shortening.

Still, while coconut oil is nonhydrogenated, it’s 92 percent saturated fat, higher than beef fat and even butter. It is different from many other fats because it has medium-chain fatty acids that are metabolized differently by the body. Some fans of the products say that’s less harmful, but many nutritionists are still concerned.

Coconut oil has the unusual effect of raising both HDL, the so-called “good” cholesterol, and LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, says David Schardt, a senior nutritionist with CSPI. And while increasing good cholesterol is good, he questions whether it’s good enough to offset the increase in bad cholesterol.

And whether that level of saturated fat is dangerous could depend on your overall diet, he says.

“Vegans can use it as a substitute for butter,” Schardt says. Because they’re already consuming very little saturated fat, adding some to their diets isn’t a big deal.

But for others, particularly people on Paleo diets that are high in pasture-raised beef and eggs, coconut oil might be a bigger risk.

“That’s a diet that’s already high in saturated fat,” Schardt says. “Adding a product that adds even more may be a problem.” Schardt says most studies have shown the early weight-loss claims are overstated.

“It turns out, it just doesn’t have that big an impact,” he says. “There’s a slight advantage to using it, but it’s not going to make a big difference. It’s certainly not the miracle weight loss.”

The Alzheimer’s claims, he says, also haven’t panned out. The medium-chain fatty acids have an effect on the brain that is so small, it doesn’t appear to help, he says.

So should you switch to cooking with coconut? Using coconut oil to remove something else from your diet, like whole milk or butter, may be a good idea. But adding it to a diet that’s already got a lot of saturated fat may not turn out to be wise.

In a report released in 2011, Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health suggested using coconut oil sparingly. “We don’t really know how coconut oil affects heart disease,” he said. “And I don’t think coconut oil is as healthful as vegetable oils like olive oil and soybean oil.”

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