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3 claims about coconut oil debunked

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The humble coconut oil – an ingredient used in much of our local cuisine – has recently enjoyed a worldwide cult status as a sort of ‘superfood’ that’s lauded for its ability to do anything from helping you lose weight to reducing the risk of heart disease. But are these claims scientifically proven? Here are some of the supposed benefits of coconut oil:

1. It helps you lose weight

Hundreds of sites claim that it can get rid of body fat, based on the idea that coconut oil is synonymous with a semi-synthetic laboratory product known as MCT oil, which may help with weight loss, although the dose required and its side effects – at least initially – can include nausea, stomach cramps and diarrhoea.

Unlike regular edible oils, MCT oil is water soluble and originally designed for tube feeding or for malnourished people who lacked normal enzymes that split fat. Most fats are absorbed into the bloodstream, but MCT oil is absorbed directly into the liver, so it becomes fuel faster than other fats.

Even so, the two products are not the same thing: MCT is made up of two fatty acids – caprylic and capric acids. Coconut oil has small amounts of these acids, but its dominant fatty acid is lauric acid, which isn’t absorbed in the liver but is digested and metabolised in the body like other fatty edible oils.

No study has found coconut oil helps weight loss, but munching coconut flesh does give you a reasonable source of dietary fibre.

2. It reduces heart disease risk

Studies show that coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol (which increases the risk of heart disease) greater than corn, safflower or a mixture of soybean and sesame oils. It is, however, slightly better than butter.

Plenty of evidence from studies of people living traditional lifestyles (like active Pacific Islanders) with coconut (as flesh or the creamy liquid squeezed from the flesh) as their major source of fat show low levels of heart disease.

As one recent review of 21 research papers and a further review have shown, coconut oil cannot be relied on to reduce blood cholesterol or protect against heart disease.

3. It kills bacteria and viruses

There have been claims that coconut oil can kill viruses, fungi and bacteria since it contains monolaurin, a compound derived from lauric acid.

While studies in mice show monolaurin can provide some protection against the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (responsible for some staph infections), researchers found no effect with either refined or virgin coconut oil.

Manufactured monolaurin (glycerol monolaurate) is found in coconut oil, which is used for its emulsifying and moisturising properties in cosmetics, detergents and soaps, so coconut oil could benefits as a surface moisturiser or make-up remover.

Similar to killing bacteria in your mouth, there’s an Ayurvedic practice involving swishing coconut oil in the mouth (“oil pulling”) for 10-30 minutes before spitting, supposedly to draw out toxins. However, there’s no scientific evidence to support this practice.

via The Conversation | Rosemary Stanton, Nutritionist & Visiting Fellow, UNSW

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