1 Jun 2017

Coconut oil - miracle cure or marketing hype?

From Healthy or Hoax, 8:00 am on 1 June 2017

Kate Pereyra Garcia documents her three weeks eating coconut oil in part one of Health or Hoax, a new podcast series looking at the facts behind current health trends.

coconut oil

Photo: 123RF

By Kate Pereyra Garcia

The proponents of coconut oil make a lot of promises.

So when someone was needed as a human guinea pig for RNZ’s Healthy or Hoax podcast, I volunteered.

Lose weight, lower cholesterol and prevent wrinkles? Simply by eating oil?

If it works: amazing.

The claims around the medical properties of coconut oil have burgeoned in recent times, with bold claims online that it’s “one of the healthiest foods on the planet” with “life-saving” properties. Beyond the more superficial claims about weight loss, building muscles and stopping wrinkles, its supporters suggest it may prevent Alzheimer’s, heart disease and some cancers.

If even half of the claims were true, it would be a miracle cure. So, although some scientists are pretty sceptical, it’s not hard to see why more people are buying it.

New Zealand supermarkets had a 15 percent year-on-year increase in sales.

Countdown spokesperson James Walker said it was part of a trend across the entire supermarket for specialty health foods. For its part, Foodstuffs confirmed New Zealand supermarkets sold more than $7 million worth of coconut oil in the year to March.

So I was in good company when I popped into my local New World to purchase a tub for the experiment.

It was completely non-scientific, of course, but the idea was to consume at least a tablespoon a day for three weeks. I did a blood test to check cholesterol levels before and after.

Consultant Laurence Eyres conducted a major review of studies of coconut oil for the Heart Foundation, which was published last year in the Nutrition Reviews journal. He didn't find one peer-reviewed study showing any benefit of using coconut oil.

"The claims for curing Alzheimer’s or cancer or what have you were based on marketing hype and had no foundation."

So on the serious science, there's no evidence to endorse the claims, though one Otago University study showed coconut oil wasn't quite as bad as butter when it came to raising cholesterol levels.

Auckland University of Technology Professor of Public Health Grant Schofield said coconut oil was not necessarily bad for you, but there was no evidence it would live up to the more extreme claims.

So how did my experiment go?

The first week was fine, I mainly used the coconut oil to fry vegetables each night. By the middle of the second week I was sick of stir-fried dinner and over everything tasting like coconut.

I went hunting for recipes and made a successful batch of fudge and a banana cake, both incorporating coconut oil. But I’m not sure eating more baked goods is really what the health blogs had in mind when extolling the virtues of coconut oil.

By the third week, I was holding out for the experiment to end. I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to being jabbed with a needle so much. But then I got the results, and a bit of a shock. 

Whereas I’d started with a reasonably healthy overall cholesterol level of 4.8 mmol/l, in just three weeks it had ballooned to 5.4.

The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners medical director Richard Medlicott said total cholesterol should ideally be below 4 or 5 mmol/l. So 5.4 wasn’t excessively high. But it wasn’t great. And worse, my HDL cholesterol (that’s the good one) had gone down, while my LDL levels (that’s the bad one) had gone up. 

Basically, on a completely unscientific experiment, my heart health had deteriorated rapidly over the three weeks and I hadn’t consciously changed anything except adding coconut oil to my diet. 

Now Dr Medlicott assured me my risk of heart attack was still very low given my overall health and wellbeing.

"One of the really important things to focus on around cholesterol is it's only one risk factor for heart disease and strokes and other diseases... other risk factors [are] your gender, ethnicity, whether you smoke, whether you've got a bad family history of heart disease, your blood pressure."

And the rise in my cholesterol may have had nothing to do with eating coconut oil.

But it’s food for thought to be sure.

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Healthy or Hoax is a RNZ podcast series looking into the latest exercise, nutrition, and well-being fads to see whether there's any evidence to back up their claims. Hosted by Carol Hirschfeld.