By Dr Harold Gunatillake
The March edition of the Choice Consumer Magazine asked the question, "Is coconut oil the good oil?" According to the article the question is whether coconut oil is just another fad.
The article says: While there's nothing new about coconut oil, recently the media has been awash with articles extolling its virtues, not to mention the tsunami of celebrities who suddenly swear by it. Websites are full of converts who are adding it to smoothies, drizzling it over salads and even downing it by the spoonful in a quest for better health. Some of the (many) claims about coconut oil include that it:
The coconut palm (Cocos nucifera), is a member of the family Arecaceae (palm family). It is the only accepted species in the genus Cocos. The term coconut can refer to the entire coconut palm, the seed, or the fruit, which, botanically, is a drupe, not a nut. The spelling coconut is an archaic form of the word. The term is derived from 16th-century Portuguese and Spanish coco, meaning 'head' or 'skull', from the three indentations on the coconut shell that resemble facial features.
Coconuts have been part of the diet of Asians, Thais, and Pacific Islanders for centuries. Tender coconut water is a natural source of energy which people drink to quench their thirst; it has now been commercialised and touted as an energy drink in the West. The mature meat is used in the preparation of curries, and the oil from the dried nut (copra) is used as cooking oil. The desiccated coconut is used in the West in the food industry, including in biscuits; while virgin coconut oil is a product, obtained without heating or processing the fresh coconut.
The oil contains saturated fatty acids, meaning that all the carbon links in the fatty acid chains are attached to H-atoms with no vacancies. Saturated fats are found in meat, dairy products, coconut and palm oils among others.
According to the Choice magazine Asians don't traditionally tuck into cheese, butter, chocolate, big steaks, bacon or fast food just to name a few common sources of saturated fat in the Western diet.
What this means is that Asians in developing countries consume much of the saturated fat from coconuts and Westerners should not consume the oil as they get sufficient from the aforementioned sources. Is this true? Asian countries are full of supermarkets, even in the rural areas, and people go for imported foods containing much saturated fat (trans fats), and shun using coconut oil for cooking as they still believe that it is not good for the heart. In India, ghee is an ingredient used daily in cooking rice and curry. Butter is used with bread and 'sambol' a mixture of scraped coconut, chillie powder, pieces of onion and salt are other sources of coconut.
There are other medicinal properties of the oil, but practically coconut is consumed daily through food and not used for medicinal purposes. In Saudi Arabia, the oil is sold in the supermarkets as a cure for dandruff. In the past, the oil was used as a moisturiser for the scalp.
The article further states quite rightly that despite its popularity experts warn that while using coconut oil may have a few health benefits, none of the claims above have been properly researched or proven yet.
People in the tropics know the value of the coconut tree, leaves, shell, meat, water and flowers which are used during traditional occasions, and of course its by-product oil. It is a 'God-given' functional fruit. Westerners should enjoy the benefits of the fruit but please don't commercialise it and bring in imaginary benefits to increase sales.
Doctors have labelled fats as 'good fats' and 'bad fats' Saturated fats became the bad fats and unsaturated ones became the good fats as far as heart-health and obesity were concerned.
These findings have now been consigned to the dust-bin. New research has found no evidence that saturated fats found in meat, butter and cheese are associated with a greater risk of heart disease. So, what is the position of saturated oil in coconut? It is possible to say that it can be considered 'heart-healthy' from now on.
However still, many Sri Lankan women will maintain that coconut oil has 'cholesterol', and use other imported oils, though coconut meat is used daily for curries.
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